Walking Distance Featuring Jason Moran: Freebird (Sunnyside)

Review of irreverent quartet's second album, a sly tribute to Charlie Parker

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Cover of Walking Distance album Freebird

No, we’re not talking Lynyrd Skynyrd requests here. Walking Distance—the charmingly cheeky and technically adept combination of alto saxophonist Caleb Curtis, tenor saxophonist Kenny Pexton, bassist Adam Coté, and drummer Shawn Baltazor—is freeing Charlie Parker’s music from the shackles of its comfort zone.

Bird is most certainly the watchword throughout, but a deftly jumbled one. Rather than play to past conventions and crank out paint-by-numbers covers, this brazen brotherhood opts to use Parker’s compositions as inspiration, seed material, and springboards. The results are indebted to the totemic alto hero but proudly stand far apart from his renderings.

Many if not most of these song titles betray their compositional influence, but the music often keeps up a serious poker face. On the comfortably walking “Ghilnooorty Classic” and the throbbing “Simple Ghilnooorty,” for example, it’s difficult to suss out the influence of “Ornithology” beyond the anagrams. And despite the adoption of a tone row taken from “Moose the Mooche,” the fragmented “Lost & Found” operates in its own hip orbit.

Half of the album’s 12 tracks focus on the core band, but featured guest Jason Moran juices up the rest in various ways. The charged “William” finds him adding a wonderfully woolly statement, the Coté-buttressed “Feather Report” highlights his dynamic and insistent playing, and “Bigment” gives him an opportunity to put some gleeful avant-stride into action in a cyclone of a setting.

Bebop has its place here—on “Pexterity” and “Donnalise,” to cite two notable spots—but the music that proves most intriguing is that which moves beyond it. Parker was nobody’s copycat, so why should Walking Distance be hemmed in by his visions?