Anthony Braxton: Quartet (Standards) 2020 review – astonishing chronicle from a one-off

·2 min read

Reeds-virtuoso and composer Anthony Braxton has spent half a century bridging contemporary music from bebop and improv to opera, and composing hundreds of original works – but the 67 tracks on this mammoth set rework the iconic jazz themes and classic pop songs that generally shelter under the collective title of “standards”. Braxton brought a handpicked songbook spanning from Thelonious Monk to Simon and Garfunkel to Europe for his 75th birthday celebrations in January 2020, recording them on tour with attuned UK partners Alexander Hawkins (piano), Neil Charles (bass), and Stephen Davis (drums). An invitingly open window on the world of a frequently implacable iconoclast, the collection nonetheless never swaps nostalgia for Braxton’s lifetime focus on the vividly malleable present and imagined future.

Latin jazz, freebop, raw sound and traditional swing rub shoulders here. Monk’s Evidence is a limping free-improv distillation to sax blurts and arco-bass swipes, while Sonny Rollins’ famous Alfie theme opens in abstract bass-bowings and piano-string pluckings before Braxton’s plaintive alto melody arrives. The gracefully convoluted tune of Charles Mingus’s Peggy’s Blue Skylight becomes Braxton’s muttering, melodically capricious double-time sax improvisation, but it’s a less celebrated Mingus theme – Sue’s Changes, dedicated by Mingus to his wife – that epitomises Braxton’s audacity with ballad forms, simmering its central section down to exhalations of breath through the sax into the piano’s soundbox, and awed, tiptoeing free-improvisation. Nothing has been studio-polished, what you hear is what you get – but give or take a little tonal querulousness and bumpy timing, this is an astonishing chronicle from the living definition of a one-off.

Also out this month

Former Ornette Coleman trumpeter Don Cherry’s exhilarating The Summer House Sessions (Blank Forms Editions) – long-lost Swedish workshop recordings from 1968 joining European and Turkish participants – segue vividly between dancing folk tunes and horn-chasing, percussion-churning Ornetteish free-jazz. On Skylla (Vula Viel Records), former Melt Yourself Down bass guitarist Ruth Goller shares a bass-centred original project inspired by Greek mythology with singers Lauren Kinsella and Alice Grant. It’s eerily compelling, fearlessly personal music, lying somewhere between O Superman-era Laurie Anderson and a crunching, boldly-retuned Derek Bailey-esque reinvention of the bass guitar. Sometime Charles Lloyd sideman Julian Lage’s Squint (Blue Note), and young Brit Tom Ollendorff’s A Song for You (Fresh Sound New Talent) offer two traditional but very classy angles on the jazz guitarist’s art in a bass and drums trio – cool, bluesy and grooving in Lage’s version, chamber-musical and song-devoted in Ollendorff’s.

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