Live review

Anthony Braxton at Cafe Oto

Anthony Braxton
(Cafe Oto, 21 January 2020. Third and final night of residency. Review by Gail Tasker. Drawing by Geoff Winston)

Tuesday evening at the Cafe Oto was a clear reminder, if any was needed, as to what a creative improvising musician can do with jazz standards and numbers from the Great American Songbook. The concert in question featured the legendary Anthony Braxton performing the final night of his London residency. He was accompanied by an impressively tight rhythm section of British musicians, the unit operating under the title of ‘The Standard Quartet’. The 74-year-old saxophonist kept his audience on the edge of their seats as he peppered the well known tunes with twists and turns, stop-starts, and unexpected trajectories.

Anthony Braxton at Cafe Oto. Drawing © 2020 Geoffrey Winston. All Rights Reserved

Anthony Braxton’s association with standards spans his entire career. Amongst his vast discography, albums like Six Monk’s Compositions (‘87), 9 Standards (‘93) and Anthony Braxton’s Charlie Parker Project 1993 (‘95) stand out. Artistically, the saxophonist sits alongside Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman in his boundary-pushing. Yet, it seems the musician cannot help but further challenge the confines of the jazz genre by taking these well-wrought tunes out of their comfort zone and completely transforming them into something else.

The rhythm section was supreme in its ability to listen and react. The drums, played by Stephen Davis, provided an ever-changing sound palette which flitted rapidly from fighting to grooving to nothing at all. Neil Charles, on double bass, was the harmonic and temporal anchor, and provided strong, percussive playing throughout. Pianist Alexander Hawkins, chosen collaborator amongst other American avant-gardists such as Matana Roberts and Nicole Mitchell, stood out in particular. Highlights included moments where the pianist grounded Braxton’s otherworldly, untethered phrases with soulful chord progressions and blues-inflected licks, and, after dancing about in harmonic uncertainty, would lock in with the bass to bring in a rhythmic, bop-ish feel that drew cheers from the crowd.

The energy increased during the second set with more fast-paced tunes, including a rendition of Eddie Harris’ Freedom Jazz Dance, as well as slightly more faithful versions of Recorda Me and Out of Nowhere. Yet, overall the interpretations of the pieces defied “standard” melody, harmony, rhythm, and even time, leading listeners down a strange corridor of spontaneity, subversiveness and at some points total anarchy.

Interested readers will be glad to know that the night was recorded, so chances are we’ll be offered a new Anthony Braxton release in the not-to-distant future.

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