Few jazz musicians have inspired obsessive devotion like Charlie Parker. The masters, alternate takes and airchecks, not to mention Dean Benedetti’s raw but fascinating live recordings, all prove that Parker could constantly reinvent all manner of melody and harmony. That caliber of brain merits fanatical research. Anthony Braxton’s legion of devotees might not rival Parker’s, but the composer/multireedist has certainly delivered enough material to keep his fans occupied throughout his five-decade career. Still, Sextet (Parker) 1993 stands as both a massive statement and artistic accomplishment: 11 CDs of music written by and connected with Charlie Parker, performed by a Braxton ensemble during a European tour.
The HatHut label originally issued 15 tracks from these sessions as Anthony Braxton’s Charlie Parker Project 1993. Now we have all 68 tracks by the leader with Phil Smoker (trumpet), Ari Brown (tenor and soprano saxophones), Misha Mengelberg (piano), Joe Fonda (bass) and Pheeroan akLaff (drums). (Han Bennink sits in for akLaff on one disc.) While Braxton doesn’t exactly avoid the classics in favor of more obscure tunes, he chooses from a wide swath of the Parker discography. The two compositions that recur the most have to be the oddest choices: “Repetition,” from the awkward pairing of Bird and Neal Hefti’s Hollywood-style orchestra; and “Klactoveedsedstene” [sic] from Parker’s Dial sessions. Six versions of each appear throughout the set.
Recorded over a period of just six days, the program’s sequence was chosen by Braxton rather than following a straight chronology, and this might explain why the band on Disc One sounds a bit reserved compared to what follows. (Granted, Mengelberg combines playful chromatics and Cecil Taylor-style aggression during “Confirmation,” Braxton frequently adds double-time delivery, and akLaff begins to combust.) As things proceed, more liberties are taken. In “Klactoveedsedstene” (like “Quasimodo,” spelled differently than the original), the group regularly abandons structure just beyond the spritely introduction, ignoring the head until the end. The same often happens with “A Night in Tunisia,” with the spot for the “famous alto break” acting as a cue for the proceedings to unravel. Disc Three features “Parker Melodies,” a 34-minute track in which disembodied Bird themes rise from various players between blasts of free improv, with some spoken exhortations coming from the leader. In a way, it links the source material to Braxton’s own work, which can include several compositions played in tandem.
With this much music, some of it recorded in a studio and some live, this box becomes repetitive. Braxton’s machine-gun-style approach to alto solos often sounds familiar. Smoker borrows this method, sometimes lacking a sense of direction to match his speed. Yet surprises still abound. A slow version of “Mohawk” gets twisted around, with Braxton on flute, Smoker blowing through a mawkish wah-wah mute and Mengelberg channeling Monk, who played on Parker’s original session. Disc 10 is consistently inspired. In “Darn That Dream,” Braxton and Brown play countermelodies akin to Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. With its sense of detail and strong voice, Fonda’s bass solo on “Bebop” could put the Young Lions to shame. In between those two cuts, Braxton sits at the piano for a raucous “Autumn in New York” and brings out the contrabass clarinet for “Sippin’ at Bells.”
Ultimately, Sextet shows how these musicians who are known for creating “new music” can just as skillfully approach one of jazz’s most sacred canons, celebrating it without sacrificing their sense of adventure or letting their reverence inhibit them. Surely Bird would approve.