Old Friends

David Grundy on the Anthony Braxton Standard Quartet

Anthony Braxton at Cafe OTO, London, January 2020. Photo: Dawid Laskowski.

ANTHONY BRAXTON HAS TACKLED JAZZ STANDARDS throughout his career: from an unexpected mid-’70s appearance alongside his hero Lee Konitz on an obscure Dave Brubeck record, to outstanding recordings with Hank Jones and Mal Waldron, to a hefty eleven disc box set of sixty-eight Charlie Parker pieces. “I did the music because I love that music, I love that period, that is my lineage,” he told Graham Lock in 1985. Standards, for Braxton, are not some sort of side project or way of proving himself as a “legitimate” jazz musician. Instead, they are tools for responding to the history of the diverse musics grouped under the name jazz in ways that take it forward—and that even rewrite that history. Most standards began as pieces imposed on musicians by record executives seeking a hit. While they quickly became vehicles for some of the genre’s greatest innovations, their commercial appeal has often come at the expense of musicians’ original contributions, particularly those that employ avant-garde devices and more open structures. As Braxton wryly noted to Lock in that same interview: “One would not have to be a philosopher to understand that if a record company can get you playing ‘How High the Moon’ rather than ‘Composition 116,’ they’ll ask for ‘How High the Moon.’” He has, on another front, long castigated the macho—and often racialized—fetishization of “the reality of the sweating brow”: the valuation of a hard and fast style of playing jazz that prioritizes the display of excited instrumental virtuosity and the performance of black labor as indices of authenticity. Braxton’s “transformational strategies”—from switching speeds and improvising off the melody (rather than the chord changes), to briefly dispensing with the tune’s framework altogether—thus seek to rescue these standards from ideas about jazz that are imbricated with outdated notions of race and gender and that further stymie musical development and experimentation.

For his latest standards project, Braxton has assembled a songbook of one hundred and fifty tunes ranging from Tin Pan Alley and Paul Simon to more obscure pieces by jazz modernists like Andrew Hill and Wayne Shorter, all performed by a group of British jazz musicians equally capable of playing in the tradition and outside of it. Pianist Alexander Hawkins can imbue a single solo with the entire history of jazz, displaying the expansiveness of a Jaki Byard or a Don Pullen; bassist Neil Charles can play equally well in any number of genres from jazz to contemporary classical; and Stephen Davis, a mainstay of Hawkins’s own groups, is a ferociously good drummer, highly melodic and always attentive to the music’s total area. Last month, in the midst of a European tour, the band played a three-night residency at London’s Cafe OTO. At six sets and thirty songs, it was exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure.

Anthony Braxton Standard Quartet at Cafe OTO, London, January 2020. Photo: Dawid Laskowski.

From the very first piece, a twenty-minute rendition of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” it was clear that the band wasn’t simply going to run through the changes. Playing mainly on the alto, with occasional excursions on soprano and sopranino saxophones, Braxton’s tone was at once sweet and sharp, like a laser in a cloud. His characteristically jagged mode of phrase-structuring, meanwhile, exploited a tension felt within modern jazz since at least Charlie Parker and that exists when phrase-lengths run over the rhythmic and harmonic contours of a tune’s standard chord progression. Tempos accelerated and decelerated. Time was elastic as the group split into different sets of duos, trios, and solos often cued by hand signals. These combinations seemed partly to have been worked out in advance and partly in the moment, a contingent spontaneity emblematized by the ebullient fall of a snare drum during Davis’s rip-roaring solo on a version of Hilton Ruiz’s “New Arrival.” Other first-night standouts included Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke’s “Epistrophy”—Braxton’s sopranino acidically high-pitched over the familiar ostinato, Charles tuning his bass upwards midsong to match—and Charles Mingus’s “Self-Portrait in Three Colors,” which ended with an unaccompanied Braxton solo. Sober, glowing, and resonating into the body of the piano, it was only a minute or so in length, but pretty much perfect. The first notes of Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” meanwhile, generated laughs of pleasurable disbelief from the audience.

The second night contained the most radically deconstructed piece of the entire residency, Monk’s “Evidence”—itself a radical reinterpretation of the older standard “Just You, Just Me”—submitted to the logic of Braxton’s own “pulse track structure,” in which “open improvisation” and notated pieces coexist in separate instrumental layers, or, in his own words, as “independent sound continuums.” A throat-catchingly beautiful version of Simon’s “Old Friends” saw Hawkins rhapsodizing over a single chord, judicious use of the sustain pedal rendering his sound chiming and rich, Braxton’s solo delicate and sweet. “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” another unexpected choice, channeled Pharoah Sanders’s inexorable groove under Braxton’s wailing soprano. The concluding number, Coltrane’s “Impressions,” was taken at a fast burn, Braxton and Davis’s sax-drums duo recalling the former’s superlative collaboration with Max Roach, Birth and Rebirth (1978), to huge applause.

Over the course of the residency, the band seemed to develop a kind of cumulative synergy, and the third night was the capstone. With Braxton sticking exclusively to alto, they moved through a rollicking “Freedom Jazz Dance,” Gigi Gryce’s bebop anthem “Minority,” Mingus’s “Sue’s Changes,” and Andrew Hill’s little-known “Alfred”—where Braxton’s astringent effluence was at once declarative and melancholic. In the original Mingus composition, the titular “changes” suggest not only fixed chordal sequences, but a shift from swooning ballad to up-tempo near-chaos—in part a representation of the tumultuous relationship between Mingus and his wife Sue Graham, but also a pun on the name of a jazz magazine she edited in the late ’60s. Braxton found the still center at the heart of a piece that’s meant to build the other way: The ballad that turns into a barnstormer here moved instead into unstable, silence-filled abstraction, a tightening-slackening high-wire, with Braxton breathing cries into the piano’s soundboard alongside fingertipped drums and Hawkins’s nearly imperceptible vamp on the keys. Braxton’s handwritten set list contained the following note: “We play the head into the open space.” And that’s exactly what this band did. Combining absolute precision with unplanned, unplannable invention, the result was exemplary and invariably beautiful.

Anthony Braxton Standard Quartet – Three Day Residency took place at Cafe OTO in London from January 19 to 21, 2020.