The music is tough to get ahold of, sure, but it's precisely the shape-shifting nature that makes it so exciting. Duets -- the aural equivalent of human conversation -- are the ideal way for the uninitiated to eavesdrop on (and really hear) this otherwise difficult music. Three recent CD releases offer up-to-the-minute examples of duo improvisation; with only two instruments for listeners to focus on, the complex interconnections of the melodic lines are easily discernible.
Duets were an unconventional format among improvisers until the late 1960s, but as early as 1928 Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines (celebrated bandmates in the Savoy Ballroom Five) paired off to bust one another's chops with rhythmical jousts on tunes like "Weatherbird Rag." Until the advent of Chicago's groundbreaking Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), forward-pushing musicians didn't regularly explore one-to-one improvisatory relationships.
"In the last couple of years I have noticed an abundance of duo records, of all kinds of combinations," wrote Anthony Braxton on the notes to his brilliant collaboration with Muhal Richard Abrams, Duets 1976. "And hopefully this is more than just a trend -- but rather, an accepted and challenging area of creative music that has been rediscovered."
Anyone who's followed Braxton's whirlwind career, as both artist and educator, knows the wisdom of his words. Only 20 years later, the duo format, especially for saxophone and piano, is de rigueur among mainstream and alternative musicians -- from Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock to Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron, Braxton and Georg Grawe.
The reason is simple: Given the keyboard's seven-plus octave range, it's the most versatile vehicle for accompanying jazz's primary reed instrument. The 88s can also act as a sort of miniorchestra, fleshing out the sax's single-note lead with sweeping harmonic substance.
Whether jumping off from a notated score or improvising freely with little or no preconceived direction, there are, appropriately enough, two different styles of duets. The traditional model sets up a chord-based relationship between the players; one provides harmonic support while the other introduces the melody and then solos over changes.
The advanced contemporary model, which applies to the more open-ended forms embraced on new recordings by free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman (with Joachim KYhn) and AACM alumni Abrams (with Marty Ehrlich) and Joseph Jarman (with Marilyn Crispell), places both musicians on an equal plane. This means that at any given time, either of the performers can step to the fore and steer the music; it's up to the partner to follow the other's lead, without stumbling, and appropriately contribute by falling in line, or by suggesting a countercourse.
This dynamic could reasonably be called dual leadership. But Coleman puts it another way. "In music, there are no leaders," he told German pianist KYhn before teaming up for an appearance at the 20th
Anniversary Leipziger JazzTage. Indeed, on the concert recording Colors, the pair play as if they are mutual guides. For example, Coleman blows a characteristically pithy phrase on "Refills," and the classically trained KYhn eloquently reiterates it about midway through, not unlike a simple campfire round (imagine "Freres Jacques" in overdrive). KYhn expands the melody -- coloring in between Coleman's lines -- and lays down a light flurry of passing tones. At
this point Coleman is clearly leading the advance. But KYhn's multinote momentum powers the tune with a persistent forward pitch. Both players are engaged in action and reaction, setting up signposts for one another to follow (or not), and neither dominates for very long. Sometimes Coleman's alto opens up a path with seemingly endless melodic variations and KYhn's piano trails in the horn's widening wake -- in unison with the sax or with unusual chordal accompaniment in half-time. Elsewhere, it's KYhn who pushes the tune somewhere else, and Coleman acknowledges this with a suitably buoyant, confident melody, as if he were expecting this turn all along.
Teeming with movement, Coleman's performances are often equated with freedom, because the parameters of his compositions never limit improvisational possibilities. But calling his music "free" is somewhat deceptive. While the arrangements are completely unpredictable, both uptempo and slower pieces are solidly organized with recognizable motifs. So-called ballads like "Story Writing," "Night Plans," and "Passion Cultures" resound with a restless lyricism and seem impossibly full for a two-man band. KYhn matches Coleman's soaring romantic gestures without copping to the bathos of someone like Bill Evans. It's an enigmatic gesture -- almost as if this duo has redefined, or at least revivified, the ballad into a less sedated, more proactive art. And they didn't even need a rhythm section to make it happen.
Credit the hands-on character of the keyboard for taking up any potential rhythmic slack. Under the nimble fingertips of pianists like KYhn, as well as Abrams and Crispell, the instrument resonates like an entire marching band. Abrams' "Marching With Honor" on The Open Air Meeting is an exceptional set of duets with saxophonist-clarinetist Ehrlich, where the widely recognized spiritual godfather of the AACM maintains impeccable time with his left hand without relying on static meter. His rhythmic drive quick-shifts from deep blue notes to march beats to thunderclaps, and yet never disrupts the flow of the song.
Likewise, former Braxton Quartet affiliate Crispell rolls and tumbles throughout Connecting Spirits with saxist Joseph Jarman. But the spikes and plummets of her great intervallic leaps somehow always stay within the context of a particular tune. She remains deeply in the pocket on the punchy "Structure I," and offers crushing bass-chord clusters as a striking but sympathetic contrast to Jarman's trance meditations on the Coltrane homage "Dear Lord."
The rapport of both Abrams and Ehrlich and Crispell and Jarman shows that balance is often the key to a successful duet, which ideally comes across as a private conversation that a third party (the attentive listener) gains total access to. Abrams and Ehrlich best demonstrate their skills as evenhanded interlocutors on "Bright Canto," a blazing track that moves on and on like a caffeinated confab, with no single motif sustained for more than a few bars at a time. Crispell and Jarman are most communicative on "Connectivity," the rowdiest tune on Spirits. But even when Crispell presses the saxophonist toward full-tilt blowing, he manages a Zen-like serenity amid the uproar, and remarkably, the pianist responds in kind.
Despite the outwardly diminutive nature of the duet, master players can raise a symphonic ruckus, and at the same time bring an intimacy to the music-making that eludes larger combos. The format's compulsory give-and-take process serves as a model for all types of collective improv. And for players and fans alike, the duet's an essential part of consummate music appreciation.