One feature of the lockdown period is the way that duo performances have become a significant part of the online virtual offer. I’m thinking of the excellent duets between Rob Luft and Eleni Duni and also with Alice Zawadzki, then Sara Coleman with Steve Banks, Liam Noble with Fred Thomas, Sarah Farmer with Nick Jurd and Alicia Gardener-Trejo with Andy Woodhead.
There are obvious reasons for the number of duo performances during the lockdown period, but the duo has always played a role in contemporary jazz. Here I’m taking the term ‘contemporary jazz’ to cover all the related forms of modal jazz, free jazz and improvised music.
There is something special about the duo; it has an intimacy and intensity coming from the need for both players to listen very carefully to what the other player is doing. In a good duo performance the interaction becomes a musical conversation in which the individual performer listens to the duo partner and reacts to what s/he is doing. Each member of the duo has the right to take the conversation in a different direction, but it is important that neither performer dominates the interaction.
Below is a list of duo performances that I have really enjoyed; some are historic, others are more recent, but pre-lockdown, and some have appeared recently during the lockdown period and are available on Bandcamp.
INTERSTELLAR SPACE: JOHN COLTRANE and RASHIED ALI Impulse Records
This is a very late recording of Coltrane’s not issued until sometime after his death. I love the way that Ali’s polyrhythmic approach on the drums fits perfectly with Coltrane’s improvisations. Many people did not get used to Coltrane playing with a drummer other than Elvin Jones. While I clearly love Jones’ playing with Coltrane and the way on certain tracks they would launch into a sax drum duet, I can also really enjoy Ali’s very different approach. I always feel that Coltrane in his last years had really absorbed Ali’s rhythmic approach and that on Interstellar Space they kind of do their own thing, knowing that it all fitted together so well. Have a listen to one of the tracks Jupiter here (with apologies for the adverts!)
DUO EXCHANGE: RASHIED ALI and FRANK LOWE (Survival Records reissued in 2019)
After Coltranes’ death in 1967 Rashied Ali became a key figure in the New York loft scene. He and Frank Lowe started their Survival record label with this very impressive duo double album. Interstellar Space had not actually been released when they recorded these duets, but I suspect that Ali was wanting to capture some of the excitement of that performance with Coltrane to launch their own record label. Frank Lowe is a member of the group of saxophonists strongly influenced by Coltrane, but has his own voice.
LEE KONITZ and DAN TEPFER
There is a link between and the two previous albums in that when I originally booked Lee Konitz for this concert for Birmingham Jazz at the CBSO Centre in 2009, it was to be a duo with Lee Konitz and Rashied Ali. Sadly Ali died before the tour could take place and Lee came with Dan Tepfer, a pianist he had been working with on a regular basis in New York. I found this a memorable duo, again because of the interaction between the two players and also because of the way that Konitz clearly had not given Tepfer a set list, and just went from one tune to another with Tepfer having to pick up where Konitz was going. I have always preferred to retain the memory of that live concert, rather than buy their album, but they did record Decade on the Verve label in 2018.
Some recent duo performances:
TIM BERNE and NASHEET WAITS: THE COANDA EFFECT https://timberne.bandcamp.com/album/the-coand-effect
This was a live performance between two players (Berne on alto sax and Waits on drums) who I was surprised but delighted to hear together. There is a great fluency to Berne’s playing and Waits is with him the whole way.
CHRIS SHARKEY and PAUL HESSION: WATERCRESS https://chrissharkey.bandcamp.com/album/watercress
I like the description of Sharkey’s approach to music as ‘smashing the genre’ rather than playing free jazz (Petter Frost Fadnes: Jazz On The Line). This is a powerful and exciting duet between Sharkey on guitar and electronics and Hession on drums
CHRIS SHARKEY and MARK SANDERS: LINES OF FLIGHT https://chrissharkey.bandcamp.com/album/lines-of-flight
Another great duet between guitar/electronics and drums. It’s an example of Sharkey defying expectations in that one might expect another full-on session with Sanders on drums, but in fact it starts with a gentler and rather contemplative set of improvisations and then goes through a series of arcs building up to a series of mini-climaxes. It remains totally absorbing throughout.
OLIE BRICE TOM CHALLENGER DUO https://vortexjazzclub.bandcamp.com/track/olie-brice-tom-challenger-duo
This was a single track of about 15 mins recorded in support of The Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston London. It was to be part of a whole album the recording of which has been postponed. Brice and Challenger have an excellent rapport, both on a personal and on a music level and the interaction between is excellent here. I love Challenger’s forceful tone and Brice’s reaction to the ways in which Challenger occasionally takes the music in a new direction
PAUL DUNMALL and ASHLEY JOHN LONG https://ashleyjohnlong.bandcamp.com/album/paul-dunmall-ashley-john-long
This is an online recording with 7 relatively short improvised tracks with Paul Dunmall on various saxophones, clarinet and flute playing with bass player Ashley John Long. It is a beautiful album, also quite contemplative with Dunmall listening intently to what Long is doing and reacting immediately in brilliant ways.
DAVE SMITH and KIT DOWNES: FALLING ABACUS https://davesmithdrums.bandcamp.com/album/falling-abacus
This recording is very much the product of the lockdown period in that the two parts – by Kit Downes on keys and Dave Smith on drums – were recorded separately and then added to and manipulated afterwards. The result is a series of three quirky if occasionally over-produced tracks. Definitely worth hearing though.
RACHEL MUSSON AND COREY MWAMBA: ONE AND OTHER https://coreymwamba.bandcamp.com/album/one-and-other
I found this having subscribed to Corey Mwamba’s Bandcamp collection; it was recorded in 2013, seemingly at The Vortex. It was recorded live and there are some beautiful sounds and textures in the interaction between Musson’s tenor saxophone and Mwamba’s vibes. Also good to hear David Mossman’s voice introducing the duo.
INGRID LAUBROCK AND KRIS DAVIS: BLOOD MOON Intakt Records
Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Kris Davis have a very similar approach to music and their rapport is very clear on this excellent album.
WILL GLASER AND MATTHEW HERD: CLIMBING IN CIRCLES Pt 1 www.matthewherdwillglaser.bandcamp.com/yum
Another saxophone drums duo with excellent interaction from these two relatively young members of the UK scene.
A final point: I regard Interstellar Space as the finest duo recording in jazz and have wondered whether it has had a direct or indirect influence on contemporary duos, especially where that duo has saxophone and drums. A few queries to musicians suggest that it does not have any direct influence, only a possible subliminal influence.
I am grateful to Paul Dunmall, Olie Brice, Tom Challenger and Mark Sanders for conversations that have informed this piece.