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Thursday, August 19, 2021

Anthony Braxton - Quartet (Standards) 2020 (New Braxton House, 2021) *****

By Lee Rice Epstein

Just the notion of Anthony Braxton playing quote-unquote standards gets writers and listeners riled up, to say nothing of what happens when they listen. This seems equally true of Braxtonites, Braxtonistes, and Braxtonostics alike, as if there’s simply no context, or not enough of one, to parse what he’s doing playing “The Song Is You” anyway. Yet, Braxton’s been recording dedicated standards albums for 35 years—although the first two, from 1985, aren’t quite in the same lineage as the others, they contain the blueprint for what has become one of Braxton’s major projects. 

“Standard” is such a mischievously loaded term, especially as it applies to the latest recorded set, Quartet (Standards) 2020, featuring Alexander Hawkins on piano, Neil Charles on bass, and Stephen Davis on drums. Standards, now more than ever, comprise a broad swath of the Great American Songbook, pulling in chapters from Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building, film scores, and the dance bands of the 20th Century. There’s no Bird proper, but the set has Bing, Brubeck, Duke, Hill, Miles, Mingus, Monk, Rodgers (no Hart or Hammerstein), and plenty of Trane. Also, at least a dozen composers better known by two names, including Paul Desmond, John Lewis, Ruth Lowe, Cole Porter, and Paul Simon. If the latter surprises you, that’s great: the set is full of constant surprises and delights, like the spiky, collage-inspired performance of “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’,” the Oscar-winning theme from the opening credits of High Noon. Composed by a Russian emigre who worked with Frank Capra in the 1930s and sung by a Texan turned cowboy actor, the song’s path sounds downright postmodern. And with this quartet’s take, the angst of Gary Cooper’s character complicates the otherwise hummable melody. Braxton turns dissonance into a vessel for the dangerous entanglements of the hero’s journey (or else, he’s turning the film inside out and grappling with some of the themes of heroic posturing and blacklisting that John Wayne found distasteful). Hawkins’s restatements of the main theme ring like echoes of the way the same theme recurs throughout the film’s score, now it haunts, now it chimes. Charles and Davis perform, not for the first time, a tricky bit of rhythmic compression that folds sax and piano over each other, somewhat origamically. “Do Not Forsake Me” is the closing track on disc four, about halfway through the entire box set, and yet like many of the performances, it’s also a microcosm that proves absolutely captivating.

It’s not merely the set’s size (13 discs) that invite a bit of shuffling around, the recordings, taken from a 10-day tour through London, Warsaw, and Wels in January 2020, are themselves shuffled about. Quartet (Standards) 2020 is not a straight-through recording of all the nights in order. Only discs 12 and 13 present unbroken sets, from January 23rd and 25th, respectively. And, that’s fine. This isn’t about recreating the in-person experience (several songs appear to be omitted). It’s this journey through the Great American Songbook that’s the key, it’s about melodies as invitations rather than instructions. 

For example, the quartet plays an epic 20+ minute “I Get a Kick Out of You” that could be released as a stand-alone EP. It’s full of so many gorgeously delicious moments. Now, listen to Bird or Paul Desmond play the same composition. Each one makes it theirs, not just stylistically but artistically. Each player’s take is twice as long as the previous, Bird has Walter Bishop, Jr., and Jerome Darr where Desmond has Jim Hall and Braxton has Hawkins. Who’s to say which is standard? Why even settle for only one? When Braxton, Hawkins, Charles, and Davis play, I want the whole of them, not a summary in 4/4 swing time. 

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Dom Minasi said...

one thing about Anthony is that he can play anything and it will always be musical and great

Nick Metzger said...

Great review Lee

Paul said...

Quick question: is there one Anthony Braxton Standards box set you would strongly recommend over the others? I am just listening to the 4cd Standards 2003 set on Leo Records, and enjoying it quite a bit....

- JG

Lee said...

JG - this is a great question, and I have listened to all the sets where AB plays saxophone for this review (I skipped the piano quartet sets). Of course I'm going to say, there's no way to recommend only one. However, I definitely recommend looking up Six Standards (Quintet) 1996 and Seven Standards 1995, with Mario Pavone and Dave Douglas. They're still early in AB's standards and have a kind of wild energy that's a real joy to listen to.

And, thanks, Nick!

Ken Blanchard said...

Braxton has a long history of recording jazz standards. His Six Monk's Compositions (1987) and Charlie Parker Project (1993) are magnificent documents. I am still digesting this one.