It’s almost trite to mention the indelible mark that saxophonist Charlie Parker left on the world of culture at large, and more specifically with the practitioners of jazz, the music that he redefined. In the years since his death, his music has been covered incessantly, which in many ways, has robbed the music of its essential vitality. One solution to this ubiquitous problem lies in the stunning invention of the NYC based quartet Walking Distance and their second album, Freebird, which features the resplendent piano playing of Jason Moran on a number of tracks.
As the title suggests, Freebird almost literally unbinds Parker’s repertoire from the dregs of boring, staid covers of his work and into something modern, contemporary, humorous and ebulliently bursting with vitality; so imaginative that one would be hard pressed to identify the source of inspiration in the first place. On Freebird, the listener is treated to a set of music, which covers a tremendous amount of musical territory, all with aplomb, irreverence and a distinctive group sound.
The quartet – comprised of alto saxophonist Caleb Curtis, tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Kenny Pexton, bassist Adam Coté, and drummer Shawn Baltazor – released their debut, Neighborhood, in 2015, which was acclaimed in Downbeat, AllAboutJazz and elsewhere. On that album, Walking Distance happened by chance upon the concept that would grow into Freebird. By displacing just one of the melodic phrases of Parker’s “Dewey Square,” their original interpretation “Dewey Circle” came alive and this concept was born. Freebird is the full realization of this idea.
Baltazor elaborates: “Each song is strictly based on a composition, or multiple compositions, by Charlie Parker. Literally. We would find a rule, and stick with it until it presented musical challenges that we’d have to figure out, rehearse them to an almost hypnotic degree. Then, not only did we have a new completely fresh sounding idea that was unmistakably be-bop, in its own deconstructed way, but through each process we developed a whole new concept for composition and improvisation in general.”
This relentless process of rehearsal – refining their group sound and approach, and redefining their source material – are both on full display on Freebird and, with the addition of Moran, the group is elevated to a higher plane. Baltzor explains: “Moran embodies so much of what we love about Charlie Parker: a sort of super-hip irreverence done at such a high level that no one can say shit.” Curtis expands upon that, saying: “Not only did he bring that fresh perspective, but he seamlessly integrated himself into the musical fabric of the band, surprising and inspiring us along the way. It was an incredible creative experience to have him on Freebird.”
The album opens with “William,” a hard-swinging melody which features Curtis’s bright alto sound and fluent, engaging, and dynamic phrasing and an epic, exploratory narrative solo by Moran, who is in top-form playing with these younger musicians. It also showcases a staple of this album: an open-armed acceptance of advanced studio techniques – toward the end, the melody almost seems to be swallowed whole, then spewed out; layers chasing each other into a manic conclusion. “Feather Report” is a sprawling melody, which builds and floats atop a tense rhythm section feel and features Coté’s insistent, yet warm, bass feel.
“Ghilnooorty Classic” and “Simple Ghilnooorty” are both short pieces with memorable arcs and uncanny rhythmic patterns – “Ghilnooorty Classic” the brighter of the two, with a slow walking feel behind it, while “Simple Ghilnooorty” is brooding, dissonant and dark; splattered with overdubbed percussive hits and atmospherics. Neither in any way would call to mind the original source, “Ornithology,” and this set is perhaps most demonstrative of Walking Distance’s imagination.
“Lost and Found” is evocative of just that: a childlike sense of wonder, peppered with cut-up suspense, interjecting phrases and unsuspecting harmonies abound in this, an exploration of the 12-tone row from Parker’s “Moose the Mooche.” The following track “Bigment,” is perhaps the most elaborate orchestration on the album; a feature for the genius stride piano playing of Moran, with theatrical, dramatic horn arrangements as complement, and an interjection, mashup of a new take on Parker’s memorable head, “Segment.”
“Quasar Halo” is Freebird’s emotional centerpiece and the group moves together lushly, emotively expressing the material with a rumbling and restless Moran ending the piece alone. “Pexterity” is an exhilarating bop escapade which, in just under 3 minutes, showcases Curtis, Pexton, and Coté as compelling solo voices, burning over fast swing. “Cheat Sheet” possesses some of the most unmistakably “grooving” moments of the album, and showcases an engaging, soulful side to Baltzor’s drumming.
As its name suggests, “Donnalise” is based on “Donna Lee” and might be the album’s most recognizable arrangement, yet that resounds to its benefit – it’s a wonder to marvel at the blend Curtis, Pexton and Coté conjure while tackling the devilishly difficult chromaticism of the melody. “Fly By” is an anomaly on the album – a piece that extensively uses samples and layers to create an interesting concrete piece, with surprising turns. Freebird concludes with “Confirmation Bias,” a refrain on the vamp from “Feather Report,” used as an effective theme and sign-off.
Walking Distance have pulled off something ambitious, bold, and ultimately successful with Freebird – they’ve presented a thorough knowledge of jazz history (and all of the references that go along with it) while approaching that knowledge without any pretense of undue seriousness. Freebird shows a young generation of insanely versatile New York musicians truly pushing this music into a new realm. Unsatisfied with merely covering Charlie Parker’s music, these musicians fashion a world all their own, where that influence is apparent but not oppressive; liberating rather than restricting.
Exploration and improvisation are the eternal hallmarks of jazz, with each new performer adding his individual stamp to
the library of the genre. Bring four fiercely individual players together, and a shared musical vocabulary emerges.
This is exactly the dynamic of Walking Distance, the New York collective of Caleb Curtis, Kenny Pexton, Adam Coté and Shawn Baltazor....more