Dusted Reviews

Anthony Braxton - 20 Standards (Quartet) 2003

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Anthony Braxton

Album: 20 Standards (Quartet) 2003

Label: Leo

Review date: Jul. 28, 2005

When faced with Anthony Braxton’s latest four-disc set of jazz standards, the first question one might ask is: does the world need yet another version of the overworked “All the Things You Are”? It’s a fair question, especially as the set comes on the heels of Braxton’s four-disc set from last year, 23 Standards (Quartet). After listening to Braxton, guitarist Kevin O’Neil, bassist Andy Eulau and percussionist Kevin Norton blaze their way through over four hours worth of fresh, vigorous interpretations of some of the jazz canon’s most revered material, the answer is unequivocally yes.

Releasing such a set requires courage, but courage has never been lacking in Braxton’s career. From his mammoth books of compositions, to writing a gigantic opera, to trying his hand at virtually every sort of instrumental composition and mastering the entire family of reed instruments, Braxton has never backed down from a creative challenge.

In 1920s and ’30s, the creative challenge for such improvisers as Louis Armstrong and Art Tatum was elevating the banal fare foisted upon them by record companies and music publishers. But when Coleman Hawkins reworked “Body and Soul” in 1938, the rest of the jazz world recognized the improvising gold to be mined from Tin Pan Alley fare. For Braxton and his quartet, the challenge is to see what valuable metals they can dig out of the same pieces that have been strip-mined for over half a century.

No Tin Pan Alley tune has received as much attention as a jazz standard than Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are.” Its bold key changes create numerous jumping off points for soloists, but in the hands of Braxton’s quartet it is something else entirely, a twisting, turning labyrinth of tempo changes, dynamic fluctuations and heated dialogue – every moment of the piece is interrogated and called into question. All of this without ever losing the urgent rush forward, the hurtling momentum key to jazz ensemble playing.

“All the Things You Are" is the first piece on the first disc, and it contains the blueprint for how the quartet interacts with their material. Braxton, limiting himself to the alto, soprano and sopranino saxophones, gives a heartfelt reading of the melody, followed by a heated high-wire solo, then the rest of the quartet takes over, led by O’Neil’s stunning, endlessly resourceful playing and supported by the turbulent flow of Eulau and Norton, all of it cliché free. The quartet works similar magic on such warhorses as Bronislau Kaper’s “On Green Dolphin Street,” “The Song is You” (another Kern favorite), the ballad “Alone Together” and a second entry from Kaper, “Invitation.”

The composers from the so-called cool school have long been championed by Braxton and for this collection he chooses compositions from four of them. Gerry Mulligan’s “Line for Lyons” and Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debbie” get their intricacies worked through, while elsewhere the happy jaunt of Dave Brubeck’s “The Duke” receives rougher treatment. But just when you think O’Neil’s spiky picking has dispatched the piece for good, Eulau rushes in with a shining, respectful solo that ushers in Braxton’s sweet, fireside recapitulation of the theme.

Out of the whole set, the quartet most radically reworks Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” The original version, probably one of the most identifiable hooks in jazz history, has always felt like a jazz fugue. The stubborn 5/4 bass ostinato, even in the vamping solo section, seems impossible to shake, an irreducible part of the composition. Braxton and company, after a quick run through the theme, simply let go of it. Like deciding to do away with gravity, O’Neil, Norton and Eulau float free for five minutes of abstract counterpoint. When the familiar form of the piece returns halfway through on the back of O’Neil’s slippery chording and Eulau’s chopped up bass figure, Braxton sounds renewed, as he attacks the time-worn melody with frenzy, whorling it into impassioned howls and bluesy honks.

When the group states the theme one final time, it’s the listener who feels liberated and renewed. It is the same liberation and renewal one feels over the entire set. Jazz needs more fearless playing like this.

By Matthew Wuethrich

Other Reviews of Anthony Braxton

Two Compositions (Trio) 1998

Solo (Milano) 1979

Live at Gasthof Heidelberg

Read More

View all articles by Matthew Wuethrich

Find out more about Leo

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.