Braxton Doing Bird Doing Bebop

The brilliant Anthony Braxton makes an eleven-disc homage to Charlie Parker an easy listen


“When I first heard Charlie Parker — the record was Bird on 52nd St. — that record frightened me. It frightened me, and it was the most exciting music I’d ever heard…”

Those were musician and composer Anthony Braxton’s words in a 1988 biography about him, Forces in Motion, by Graham Lock.

It’s now hard to believe that the 72-year-old Braxton — a fearless musician who created the music he felt compelled to make, popularity and commerce be damned — was ever frightened of anything, especially of a portly man in pinstripe suits. But sepia-toned photos of Parker don’t fully illustrate that he was a Kansas City rebel with a cause, a Beat prior to Kerouac, and two beats ahead of hippies and punks.

Even a young Braxton was sophisticated enough to recognize Parker’s musical intellect, which was as mathematically precise as it was wildly inventive and subversive. (Admittedly, to my own very untrained, early-teen ear taking alto saxophone lessons at the venerable Palomba Academy of Music on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, Parker just sounded old, like something my father listened to. At the time, I only wanted to sound like Grover Washington.)

In October 1993, five years after the biography was published, Braxton took a sextet to Europe to reconsider and renew the music of Charlie Parker, and by doing so, re-examined the insurgent nature and dynamic language of bebop. In 1995, the Swiss label Hathut Records released the two-disc Anthony Braxton’s Charlie Parker Project 1993 from that week-long engagement. Now, 25 years after that European tour, comes the complete project, Anthony Braxton’s Sextet (Parker) 1993, a limited-edition eleven-CD set just out from the Tri-Centric Foundation and New Braxton House Records. It includes the entire tour through Cologne, Germany; Amsterdam; Antwerp, Belgium; and Zurich; and a 26-page booklet with photographs and an extended essay by Stuart Broomer, who uses Braxton’s quote about first hearing Parker as his epigraph.

Over the past fifty years, since his searing 1969 solo recording For Alto — in which he dedicates pieces to John Cage, Leroy Jenkins, and Cecil Taylor — Braxton has produced one substantial volume after the next in his career: his beginnings with the AACM in his hometown of Chicago; his work with the group Circle; his classic 1980s quartet with pianist Marilyn Crispell, drummer Gerry Hemingway, and bassist Mark Dresser; his Ghost Trance Music of the 1990s. And those are just a few.  

If an eleven-CD set devoted to Parker — or anything, for that matter — sounds like spinach, or eleventh-grade trig and algebra II, it may seem even more so coming from the scholarly Braxton. From 1990 to 2013, Braxton was a professor of music at Wesleyan University. In 1994, a year after this Parker exposition, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Lester Young may have been famous for his porkpie hat, but no one in jazz rocks a professorial cardigan like Anthony Braxton.

Of course, Braxton never limited himself, or let anyone else limit him, simply to “jazz.” He’s almost been his own, to borrow an algebra term, superset of jazz, as much in the new music and improvised music realms, where he’s composed a number of orchestral works, chamber pieces, and operas, such as 1981’s Composition no. 96, dedicated to Karlheinz Stockhausen; Composition no. 102and Trillium R. (He’s also perhaps the most recorded musician of all time, in or out of jazz.)

Braxton has always been committed to innovation and preservation. Beneath the chilly exterior —Composition no. 96 and Composition no. 94 for Three Instrumentalists (1980) are typically austere album titles for Braxton — is a deep appreciation for the jazz canon, whether it’s for lesser-appreciated explorers like Warne Marsh and Lennie Tristano (Eight (+3) Tristano Compositions 1989 for Warne Marsh), or Parker and Thelonious Monk (see Six Monk’s Compositions 1987), or even standards, as in his Seven Standards 1995 and 9 Standards (Quartet) 1993.

Twenty-five years after that latter release, Sextet (Parker) 1993 is a progressive yet affectionate examination of what was born nearly a half-century before: an iconoclastic interpretation of an iconoclast.

Braxton is among the most important altoists since the war, along with Parker and Ornette Coleman. (A 1971 photo of Braxton and Coleman playing pool appears in Val Wilmer’s 1977 book, As Serious as Your Life: Black Music and the Free Jazz Revolution, 1957–1977.) But he is known to play a wide array of woodwind instruments (the sopranino and C-melody saxophones and E-flat clarinet among them). On this eleven-disc set he picks up the soprano saxophone, flute, and contrabass clarinet, which he breaks out on a growling, minimal, wholly original take on “Scrapple From the Apple,” on disc two. It’s almost funny when he plays the melody on the otherworldly contrabass. He plays piano as well — off-kilter, abrupt, and blunt — on “Autumn in New York” and “Yardbird Suite,” on disc three. (Two years after his Bird homage tour he would record Solo Piano (Standards) 1995.)

His exceptional sextet here is made up of the Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg, who passed away last year and was a star in Europe’s free-jazz scene, if under-recognized stateside; Ari Brown on tenor and soprano saxophone; the late trumpeter Paul Smoker, an astute listener and accompanist to his reedmates; the experimental bassist Joe Fonda; and Pheeroan akLaff, well-known in downtown New York musical circles, on drums. (Han Bennink, another European all-star, is behind the kit on disc seven, a concert from Zurich; we only learn of the setting in passing from Broomer’s essay. The sequence of the set is not clearly stated, though this box set is not a day-to-day, concert-by-concert, document.)

For many, jazz in the 1990s was a time to look back at old masters. Don’t forget Robert Altman’s 1996 film, Kansas City, which had cameos from many of the day’s “young lions.” None, though, rejuvenated the past quite like Braxton.  

His band created both the lyricism and neurosis of the original melodies and complex harmonies — whether on the familiar “A Night in Tunisia,” “Hot House,” “Koko,” or “Darn That Dream” — and then stripped them down and freely improvised on them. The Cuban-flavored “Repetition” (penned by Neal Hefti, popularized by Parker) is heard five times in the span of the eleven-disc set, but Braxton’s arrangement, and rearrangement, never makes it feel repetitive. The version on disc nine is especially spry, with Braxton’s alto at turns gorgeous, jittery, and finally guttural. The improvisers push the music beyond bebop’s own harmonic confines into open, unmapped terrain, and venture through tempestuous squalls, long quiet interludes, or back to the perfectly brisk theme, whether sweet or sour. Think of this as avant bop, to the eleventh power. Sextet (Parker) 1993 will stand out as one of Anthony Braxton’s indispensable achievements, an astounding interpretation of an astounding oeuvre. It’s Bird set free.