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Anthony Braxton : 20 More Standards

Having recently moved into his 60th year on the planet, iconoclast Anthony Braxton shows no signs of slowing down. In 2005 alone, his recorded output continues at a fervent pace, surely to reach the double digits by year’s end thanks to his unwavering zeal. Even though he continues to be involved with a host of projects to add to his hefty discography that one might conclude betrays his roots, in actuality, his jazz foundation is always lurking.

Braxton’s chief means of keeping track of these traditions is via his forays into standards projects that make up a small, but impressive portion of his oeuvre. After several standards-related discs in the 1990s, Braxton formed his most lasting and consistent standards project with guitarist Kevin O’Neil, bassist Andy Eulau, and percussionist Kevin Norton. With two discs on CIMP that mostly focused on the work of Andrew Hill, the quartet also played several live gigs, captured on 8 Standards (Wesleyan) 2001 (Barking Hoop). That record eventually became the impetus for the group’s 2003 tour and the resulting documents, last year’s 23 Standards (Quartet) 2003 and this follow-up, 20 Standards (Quartet) 2003.

Now, for the skeptics, one has to wonder—we just had four discs of Braxton doing standards. Isn’t one four-disc set enough? Shouldn’t that set have been edited down? Isn’t there some of this material that is far from essential or inconsistent? Well, it is likely that folks will be on both sides of the aisles on such issues (or perhaps don’t care at all) and there is no way that the dialogue could be resolved here. In any event, those that can’t get enough of Braxton doing standards, particularly from this band, will find themselves overjoyed with the aural results.

So, why is this so great for fans of this group or material? First, Braxton and his group have reached a level of communication so acute that the results flow effortlessly. Second, the material is executed remarkably, whether nailing down the melodic components or allowing for personal improvisation in either a subtle or radical fashion. Though the renditions are somewhat straightforward in design, their subtlety often proves arresting. Finally, this material is delivered with an utmost sense of enthusiasm and even love. That’s not meant to be coy or sardonic, by the way. On top of that, Jon Rosenberg’s sound is crisp and clear, as he obtains the most out of varying rooms across the European continent.

Depending on your leanings, this volume may be preferable to the previous chapter based on the fact that Braxton’s (and Leo Feigin’s) sequencing favors his affections for the “cooler” side of the realm—artists such as Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, and Paul Desmond and the material associated with their stylistic tendencies take a central role here. Also worth noting is that Braxton appears to have sequenced each disc as if it were meant to be a set that one might hear on any given night (note that only one track is less than ten minutes with the longest clocking in at over 20 minutes (!)).

As stated above, many of the performances offer relatively clear-cut renditions of these familiar melodies, performed in a manner that respects the host of previous journeys, yet the songs never unfold with a tinge of cliché or parrotry. For the most inside moments, tracks like “All The Things You Are”, “Alone Together”, and “The Duke” flourish due to a penchant for the melody, with that core source material forming the basis for each solo improvisation. Braxton’s light approach works well on the aforementioned numbers, as well as cuts like Bird’s “Blues For Alice”. Rest assured, Braxton hasn’t gone soft, as he is always up for a spirited joust, as tracks like “The Song Is You”, “Take Five”, and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” allow his see-sawing, spitfire wide-vibrato to flicker over the frothy rhythmic moxie. How’s that?

Braxton also displays his deeply emotive side on many of the ballad performances, such as the lazy daydream of “April in Paris”, “For Heaven’s Sake”, or “Moonlight in Vermont”. Frankly, if one ever doubts Braxton’s commitment to the song form, “April in Paris” should be required listening. While Braxton mostly sticks to alto on these renderings, he does utilize both his sopranino and soprano saxophones on several occasions. His slithery sopranino coils over both the fast rhythmic propulsion of “ Green Dolphin Street” and the judicious “I Love You”. His soprano also comes out of the stockpile on tracks like the lovely “Waltz for Debbie” and two pleasant outings on the fourth disc, “Remember” and Joe Henderson’s lesser-known “Serenity”, where Braxton yields to his bandmates’ bountiful credentials.

Though the majority of the performances are easily categorized as head-solo-head, the quartet manages to throw up a healthy amount of collective dust, sometimes in the most unexpected places. For instance, after the opening theme and brief passages through “Line for Lyons”, the players draw on their abstract qualifications, particularly during O’Neil’s solo amidst Norton’s bright glockenspiel musings. In a similarly unconventional vein, “Freedom Jazz Dance” shows Braxton and Co. at their funkiest, though the ensemble looks at its wild side, with O’Neil and Norton’s interplay proving the central focus of the piece, also a key element of the hauntingly beautiful yet complex “Lonnie’s Lament”.

As has been noted elsewhere (particularly in Stuart Broomer’s notes to the previous edition), Kevin O’Neil is simply a marvel and a perfect foil for this conception. Whether chunking out rhythmic chords or sonic backdrops, O’Neil proves both boldly lyrical and at times, frighteningly riveting (during the Sharrock-like caterwauling). Worth special mention is O’Neil’s strongest spot on “Tune Up”, where he demonstrates his shaping of structure and space, playing bursts of clusters against roiling arpeggios. Eulau and Norton are also MVPs of course, the latter for his consistent instigations, whether shuffling in time or coaxing left-of-center angles (like his eccentric glockenspiel colors), while Eulau provides the ensemble’s foothold and when up front, excavates with exceedingly good taste (check out “Invitation”).

While listening to all four discs (or eight (!)) is an exhausting listening experience, the end result is the detailed portrait of a remarkable group that is clearly enjoying every second that they have together. Braxton proves his stamina, his dedication, and love of the art, with his group at his heels. Though this is probably best consumed in one-disc portions, it will prove revelatory to fans and newbies alike. Pick this one up while it is still around, because it won’t be for long.