By Tom Burris
Disc 2 ****Standout Tracks: Scrapple From The Apple, Bebop, Klactoveedsedstene
So right outta the gate, here appears to be a track never recorded by Charlie Parker – at least to my knowledge. But this sort of works as a description of what's going on with this set. You already know – especially since this is Braxton – that these are definitely not going to be standard covers of Bird material. You're not getting Parker covers. You're getting the heads – but that's it. The rest of the tracks are made of improvisations which contain the forward movement and spirit of a vintage Charlie Parker date. In the case of “Darn That Dream,” you're getting a standard that Bird probably covered at some point – with pianist Misha Mengelberg and Braxton floating like butterflies and stinging like bees all over the place. It's not a great starting place to be honest, but it sets you up for things to come.
It's a slow build up to the first dazzling moment, which occurs when Mengelberg becomes the first member of the band to successfully modernize a dance with Bird's hologram on “Hot House.” Then it's onto a beautiful small group version of Bird's string-section strangled “Laura,” where Braxton proves (again) that he isn't overly intellectual about music at all – he's just brilliant, OK? - and that he has as much intuitive musical passion as anyone who ever picked up an alto. Drummer Pheeroan akLaff and bassist Joe Fonda lock in with Misha for a spatial trio spot, featuring very hard piano key pokes that eventually run to the end of the track. Mesmerizing and highly successful.
Originally a harmonic riff on the chords to Fats Waller's “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Scrapple from the Apple” became a bebop standard in Parker's hands. Subbing out the piano intro, bassist Fonda & Braxton (on contrabass clarinet) go for a warm rumbling attack. Braxton has documented this concept many times before, of course: take a standard and stretch the melody out on this ridiculously oversized horn that is the definition of lower-register. But it works well and is definitely pliable, so why not? When Misha enters, making it a trio, the juxtaposition between his chords and the melody are so jarring that the idea of “starting with Parker's music as a vehicle to fly into new worlds” immediately becomes fully realized.
Dizzy Gillespie's “Bebop” opens with a very faithful take on the head. Fonda plays the melody at breakneck speed on his bass while Misha and akLaff jab accents all over the map, propelling the music upward. Ari Brown's deep and soulful tenor is not only beautiful, but dynamic and inventive as well. He plays “inside” the music, but with a thinking man's “outside” approach to it. (Think vintage Sonny Rollins...) Paul Smoker plays super-fast runs on his trumpet, but that's where the comparisons to Dizzy end. Smoker is very much his own man and his playing can either be melodious or a smear of blurry color – often in close succession, but sometimes simultaneously. Misha is a genius as usual, pounding out exactly the right colors, clusters, and notes nobody else would've considered. Then enter Braxton on alto, wrapping the music with lines that surprise and amaze before the band jumps in to repeat the head with even more fervor than before. 17 minutes of bliss!
“Charlie's Wig” is kind of a generic bebop composition (written out of the chord changes for “When I Grow Too Old To Dream”), and the group scratch and plod their way through the first few minutes of it as though they aren't too excited about it either. The melody jumps out of the muck about halfway through, collapsing into a collage of different parts of the song played over one another. A not entirely successful experiment, but one that is certainly interesting & not without merit. The second of several takes of “Klactoveedsedstene” in this box closes out Disc 2, opening with a blast of the theme, then careening into a drum solo by akLaff. Smoker and Braxton wind around each other in downward tumbles toward the end; but the highlight for me is when Mengelberg bangs out clusters that wildly interpret the song's head. God, I miss this guy.
Disc 3 ****Standout Tracks: Ari/Misha Duo, Klactoveedsedstene
The disc opens with a duet interpretation of “Autumn in New York,” with Fonda on bass and Braxton on piano. Braxton's playing fluctuates between lovely arpeggios and tone clusters with lots of accidentals, except for when Fonda takes the lead. Then Braxton plays softer and more conventionally. “Parker Melodies” follows as a 35-minute long workout based on the song's title and is, at least for me, more of an outtake than a central piece. A fascinating listen, but probably not one that you'll play repeatedly.
The percussion-less group takes “Yardbird Suite” at a slightly slower clip than the original version, again featuring Braxton on piano. Fonda holds the group together admirably without akLaff, while Ari takes a beautifully soulful shot at the melody. Braxton does his best to approximate Misha's approach, and while he doesn't exactly hit the mark (who could?), Braxton's rhythmic jabs upstage Smoker during his own trumpet solo. This is followed by a duo between Ari and Misha, on which Ari does an absolutely fantastic set of Parker-ish runs as Misha interjects perfect commentary throughout. Smoker appears as if by magic at the tail end with some punctuation, over which Misha can't help but throw in one last punch line.
Disc three's take of “Charlie's Wig” is almost identical to the one on the previous disc. No better, no worse. “Klactoveedsedstene” also takes the same approach as the previous version, but actually improves over the already great take on Disc 2. This is largely due to the bit following the drum break, where the band leans into storm, throwing out snippets of the theme that break through the chaos. This take pushes every aspect of the music – and akLaff is a total maniac! Brilliant.
Disc 4 ****1/2Standout Tracks: An Oscar For Treadwell, Blues For Alice
Y'know that saxophone riff that plays in the background of “A Night in Tunisia”? The one that plays under Dizzy's melody? Well, what happens when you push that to the foreground? Annoyance, that's what! Turn that shit down! Who mixed this? OK, it's not that bad, but Brown and Braxton sure do pound this thing home bloody and limping. Braxton's solo also approaches something grating, so I'm guessing this is at least partially intentional.
“Another Hair-Do” follows, once again taken at a slower clip than Bird's original. Smoker blasts a very sweet solo on flugelhorn (and plunger) while akLaff throws in perfect accents underneath. Fonda and Misha each threaten to take the next solo, but Fonda relents to the elder gentleman. Braxton gets in some maniacal lightning runs before things wind down. “Sippin' at Bells” was originally recorded by the Miles Davis All-Stars, of which Parker was a member. Here Braxton plays the melody on contrabass in unison with Smoker at a snail's pace – so slow that I would never even have guessed the song without knowing what it was beforehand. Again, an interesting experiment – and one that works on its own terms.
A faithful opening on “An Oscar for Treadwell” brings a joyful earful with every band member soloing at peak form. Misha tears up some playful cluster jabs with angular weirdness. Braxton flips out into the stratosphere. Ali plays the soulful inside solo. Fonda, melodically and rhythmically brilliant, shines here. And akLaff's accents again propel everything forward in ways that define perfection. “Blues for Alice” is the other perfect track on this disc, again opening with a very by-the-book (but never stodgy) reading of the theme that is followed by collective and individual intuitive genius. Smoker's solo is a standout featuring melodic winding with occasional outbursts of blurry sound figures. Extra credit to Misha as his accompaniment is exceptional in every way to each soloist.
“Bongo Bop” opens with a very free duet between Brown and Braxton, playing the theme slowly and tentatively, while Misha pecks wildly at the piano keys. It takes almost four minutes before the tune is recognizable – but it is playful and enjoyable in its own right. I think Bird himself would've gotten a kick out of this one.
Disc 5 *****Standout Tracks: Repetition, Quasimodo, Cardboard, Dewey Square, An Oscar For Treadwell
Braxton's soprano sax on “Dewey Square” is light and warm as akLaff's accents goad Braxton into some intense flights. Smoker's runs during his solo are sweet and melodic, but become ultra brassy and blurry as he moves along. Fonda's break is tasteful and precise; and he and akLaff are rock solid throughout. “Mohawk” follows without akLaff, prompting the band to take a much slower tempo than would be expected. Everyone plays up to his normal expectations and nothing gets broken.
“Repetition” comes from that awful Verve album Bird did with strings and is much improved by the small combo setting in which Braxton lovingly places it. Braxton floats beautifully above the band in an odd – but PERFECT – combination of Parker's style and his own playing during the 1974-75 Arista period. Nothing less than charming – and absolutely stunning in spots. After this track is another take of “An Oscar for Treadwell,” of which there are nothing but stellar versions from this group. “A Night in Tunisia” fares a bit better this time than it did before, building to an incredible intensity before the theme plays out.
“Quasimodo” actually runs a little bit faster than Bird's version. Misha, as always, is an absolute joy to listen to during his solo; and Braxton has a thing about meandering for a few seconds, realizing it, and quickly pulling himself back into line that really works for me. Listening to his thought process is half the fun! Then Braxton brings out the flute for “Cardboard,” a bop tune played as a salsa in this configuration. And it really works – especially for Misha.
The first time I ever heard a Charlie Parker track that stopped me cold was when I heard “Koko” on the Savoy Sessions Master Takes album. It's still my go-to track whenever I want to introduce someone to Parker's music. Needless to say, this was the one I was waiting for. For Braxton's version, he's in a pretty rambunctious mood – which is faithful to Bird's spirit. Smoker does admirably in the Dizzy role here as well, pulling all the stops. As a bonus, akLaff's workout near the end is probably the most affecting drum break on this set! Overall, nobody could ever hope to top the original version; but these guys have managed to make a spirited attack of it that works incredibly well.
Disc 6 ****Standout Tracks: Hot House, Repetition, Klactoveedsedstene
The original version of “Milestones” (Miles Davis All-Stars) features Parker on tenor. Ari Brown steps into this role for the Braxton version, while Braxton himself is seated at the piano. Brown's playing here is reminiscent of Dexter Gordon's version of the song – bluesy, soulful, tuneful. Big and round. Smoker does a purely “blur” solo here, which doesn't fit the setting – but kudos for giving it something different, I guess.
Arista Braxton is at it again on “Hot House,” busy-but-tuneful post-bop free playing that makes you feel good to be alive. Misha drops some incredible chords under Braxton, who occasionally summons Pharaoh Sanders in moments of ecstasy. Smoker brings clean bright tones to his solo, completely making up for “Milestones,” while the interplay between the rhythm section remains endlessly fascinating. Misha plays another brilliant solo here, of course. “Klactoveedsedstene” begins as it has before, but after the drums drop out at the1.5 minute mark it becomes a somber exploratory exercise in experimentation. The music remains tentative and largely spatial before the sharp segue around the five minute mark brings it back alive and kicking.
Again, they take “Yardbird Suite” at a slower clip and nobody plays the melody until the second time through the chord sequence. Braxton is at the piano and Ari Brown is the star player here, along with Paul Smoker, whose touch is much lighter than normal here – and very fitting. “Passport” is a trio recording of Braxton, Fonda and Mengelberg. It's a respectable take, as Fonda holds things down like a boss while Braxton and Misha do their brilliant flighty thing.
Following this is another hyper-tight version of “Repetition,” which may or may not be the superior take. It's too close to call. Both versions are indispensable. Closing out the disc is another take of “A Night in Tunisia,” which finally doesn't send me running for the volume knob to turn down those two saxophones. They finally figured out where to put those reed instruments in the mix! Add to this an insanely free middle section and we have reached success! Well done.