Walking Distance featuring Jason Moran – Freebird (Sunnyside)

The title, of course, has nothing to do with lighter-hoisting encore-shouters at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. Instead, it signifies this two-saxophone band’s quite liberal approach to the repertoire of Charlie Parker as they deconstruct and reassemble Bird’s initial flights into new compositions. Indeed, the band pushes these pieces past the point where even careful listeners could easily locate the originals within, exploring the question of where Parker’s music fits into today’s jazz.

Drummer Shawn Baltazor has explained that each of these pieces “is strictly based” on Parker tunes, and that the transformative process involves identifying a compositional rule on which the quartet then focuses until it results in something fresh. Even when you can identify the source material, the band’s penchant for splicing in bits of DNA from various tunes yields hybrid mashups. Two tracks written by alto saxophonist Caleb Curtis and bassist Adam Coté illustrate this approach. The provenance of the album-opening “William” only comes into focus as snippets of the original — Miles Davis’ “Little Willie Leaps” — blink in and out of the blistering melody line, a technique that also marks “Donnalise” (based on “Donna Lee”). It’s like hearing these tunes in a dream state, where an occasional real-world fact shows up just in time to anchor an otherwise otherworldly narrative. On tenor man Kenny Pexton’s “Pexterity,” the melody sticks a bit closer to home (Parker’s “Dexterity”). But repeated listenings may be required to find specific bop roots to tracks such as the rollicking “Feather Report” and the marvelous dirge-like “Quasar Halo.”

An equal if not greater mashup occurs between the material and Walking Distance’s stylistic forbears — the crisp two-saxophone melodies that Lennie Tristano used in crafting the only contemporaneous challenge to bebop’s hegemony in the 1940s and ’50s. Tristano’s cool minimalism imbues much of Freebird, while the heated expressionism of pianist Jason Moran — who appears on half the tracks — adds another outside-the-box element to this fascinating project.— Neil Tesser

The Authoritative Voice in Jazz

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