EVAN PARKER/JOE MCPHEE

Chicago Tenor Duets
OkkaDisk OD 12033

BARRY GUY-EVAN PARKER
Birds and Blades
Intakt Double CD 080

Two more aural essays on the subtle art of the duo, these CDs feature three improvisers who long ago proved that they can hold their own in musical situations involving any size of band.

Connection between the two discs comes from the presence of British saxophonist Evan Parker, who with his philosophical theories and technical mastery has been producing intelligent commentary on reed advancement since the mid-1960s. On BIRDS AND BLADES, A two-CD set recorded in Zürich in 2001, he’s partnered with longtime confrere bassist Barry Guy. Another cerebral experimenter, the bassist and the sax man have worked in contexts from big bands to duos for years, with their first duo meeting taking place in 1981.

On hand for CHICAGO TENOR DUETS, which (no surprise) was recorded in the Illinois city in 1998, with Parker featured exclusively on tenor sax — he also plays soprano on the double disc — is American Joe McPhee. Intellectual in a similar fashion to his Brit counterparts, the reedist recorded a trio — all soprano saxophones — session with Parker and French player Daunik Lazro in 1995. Over the years he has also had separate dual sax meetings with American Joe Giardullo, Lazro and another French highbrow, woodwind stylist André Jaume.

More than a rematch, CHICAGO TENOR is set up as an experiment to see what unique dialogue(s) can arise from using the lower-pitched woodwind, now that the two have investigated its higher-pitched sibling. The results will only upset those with an outmoded view of the so-called avant garde. There may be squeaks, squeals, multiphonics and a variety of extended techniques on show, but overall, the axe’s entrenched definition is amplified and only slightly redefined.

In this series of 11 duets, motifs including rolling tones, circular chases and unison smears are more prominent than endless circular breathing — a Parker specialty. At times the two sound like one man — Rahsaan Roland Kirk, perhaps — playing two saxes simultaneously, at other times they elaborate the same line, creating octaves apart from one another.

Otherwise, Parker and McPhee are two reedmen soloing in the same place at the same time, but not playing together. There are points where what they do can be visually compared to an amoeba, with their sounds glancing off on another, then splitting apart within milliseconds. Harmonically, the reedists can twin one another, or singly create cavernous fog horn sounds, buzzing lines, hisses of pure air or harsh key-popping mouthpiece percussion.

All in all they seem to gain strength and confidence as the session proceeds almost chronologically, with “Duet 8” and “Duet 11” — each just a little less than 11 minutes — their most concentrated showcases. The former finds them spewing out double honks that blend into one whole tone, but played enough apart so you know two horns are involved. One then offers up twittering and trilling buoyant reed slides, while the other ripostes with squealing split reed tones and rolling tongue slaps. Staccato pinpoint notes soon meet key pops until the duo joins again for unison air hisses.

“Duet 11” finds both venturing into buoyant, so-called BritImprov territory with near inaudible sighs. These are succeeded by growling undertones and adagio buzzing acoustic drones, as accented notes cycle back and forth. The climax comes when Parker introduces circular breathing, with a basso countermotif from McPhee existing until they join together for a coda.

McPhee and Parker’s meeting also isn’t a sparring match, neither is the duo with Guy and Parker. Although the results on the one live and one studio session that make up BIRDS AND BLADES, usually whirl by at an speedier and more strident pace than what was created by the tenor tandem, this two-CD set is another heartfelt dialogue.

Peculiarly, the seven studio-recorded instant compositions are listed as being by Guy-Parker; in contrast the four live tracks that appear to have been created by Parker-Guy. Whether this is a musical version of political correctness or an indication of which player contributes the most to each group of tunes is uncertain. Surely the idea of a duo is that neither partner is paramount.

Moving from nomenclature to sounds, the live tracks run a minimum of slightly more than 14 minutes to more than 19 minutes. As Parker notes, the great length results from a fear of finding out the audience isn’t enjoying itself. Fat chance. Take “Circling” — an appropriate description of just about everything played on all three CDs — for instance.

A mixture of notated and improvised sections, like everything else the duo plays, it begins with Parker’s nearly patented circular breathing reconstructing itself as the sound of a flock of chirping feathered creatures, filling the sky with different melodies and tones. Squeals and strums then arise from Guy’s bass as he rubs, picks and forcefully pulls at the four strings. His constant arco motion melds with cheeping, flute-like reed wiggles from Parker, occasionally interrupted for quick dives into the bass clef.

Eventually, as the saxophonist continues to slipslide out of time, producing great gouts of notes, and as the bassman alternately plucks and bows a corresponding number of tones, you feel your head and solar plexus spinning as the two seem to be sucking all the oxygen out of the air. Just as it seems that you can’t accept any more soprano saxophone trills and near-the-pegs string bowing, the tempo abates to adagio, with the piece concluding with serene concert bass bowed lines.

Even on the seven studio compositions, the duo’s command of their respective instruments, and the resulting extended techniques are such that the absence of drums isn’t noted. Parker can produce quick, clean squeaks as readily as rolling purrs from his horns and Guy is as apt to create fingerpicking clawhammer banjo notes as abrasive, many-stringed bowed sounds.

As a matter of fact, on the title tune and longest track, the bass seems to morph into a chamber-filling mythical string quartet, though Guy’s delivery is speedier and more metallic than that mixture of violins, viola and cello would create. Meanwhile, the mid-range trilling sounds from Parker’s soprano sax describe a perfect Catherine Wheel of sound. Falling in and out of congruence, as the reedist’s conveyer belt of sounds appears, Guy breaks up the aural pattern with a series of tiny changes — bowing deep into the bass clef, at one point, sneaking in quick, classical cello-like associations at others, and turning to mandolin-like flat picking elsewhere.

In this partnership of more than 20 years, each instrumentalist can improvise on his own, sometimes together, but often apart as the tune unravels. This relationship and the one with Parker and McPhee are probably the only non-exploitative examples of separate but equal that has existed since the time of Booker T. Washington.

Jointly and singularly, the improvisers featured on these three discs reconfirm that musical elasticity can be built into even as simple a structure as a duo.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Chicago: 1. Duet 2 2. Duet 3 3. Duet 4 4. Duet 5 5. Duet 6 6. Duet 7 7. Duet 9 8. Duet 8 9. Duet 11 10. Duet 12 11. Duet 13

Personnel: Chicago: Evan Parker and Joe McPhee (tenor saxophones)

Track Listing: Birds: CD 1: Studio 1. Alar 2. Swordplay 3. Cut and thrust 4. Froissement 5. Coulé 6. Barrage 7. Birds and blades CD 2: Live 1. Angulation 2. Circling 3. Point in line 4. Lunge

Personnel: Birds: Evan Parker (soprano and tenor saxophones); Barry Guy (bass)