PAUL SMOKER

Duocity in Brass & Wood
Cadence Jazz Records CJR 1155/56

DOMINIC DUVAL/MARK WHITECAGE
Rules of Engagement, Vol. 1
Drimala Records DR 03-347-03

Duo improvisations featuring a double bass and a horn are some of the hardest performances to realize. The challenge is compounded if the non-bass-playing partner only has a trumpet’s three valves and his embouchure with which to create. Thus Rochester, N.Y.-based trumpeter Paul Smoker should be complimented for sheer audacity. His double CD session of live, more than 60-minute duets with either Dominic Duval or Ed Schuller shows what can happen when two accomplished musicians strip down to the essentials and go at it with no preconceived notions.

Nevertheless, what appears pacesetting and awe-inspiring when sitting a few feet from a performer in a live setting, reveals its flaws and shortcomings when exposed to the light of a laser. This is what happens throughout DUOCITY IN BRASS & WOOD. Compounding the weakness is the hour plus running time of each CD. Lacking the visuals and personal interaction, aural hard slogging can result with only three valves and four strings on show.

This is brought into starker focus when you compare Smoker’s session with Duval’s duet with reedist Mark Whitecage on RULES OF ENGAGEMENT. Not only does Whitecage divide his responses among clarinet, soprano and alto saxophones, each one of which is capable of creating more textures than a trumpet, but the entire studio session doesn’t wear out its welcome — it’s over in less than 44 minutes. Also, while the 11 trumpet-bass duets are instant compositions, Duval wrote all the duo tunes on the other CD.

Performing for the first time as a duo and with not many previous encounters under their respective belts, Smoker and Duval spend most of the time on the seven tracks playing slow-moving themes to determine each other’s skills. In the case of the trumpeter especially, this seems to involve extended techniques that at time stray close to the show-offy.

On “Burn Dialogue/Blue Monk”, the nearly 13½-minute longest track for instance, he begins a cappella with a capricious display of growls and chromatic high-pitched note bending. Just before the solo threatens to turn into a Maynard Ferguson style extravaganza, it finally become a hell-bent-for-leather dialogue between Smoker’s chromatic trills and Duval’s slower-paced, carefully emphasized arco work. As the bassist bows away the trumpeter decorates the output with shrill high notes and a line that sounds like “Cherokee” played at a languid pace. There’s no mistaking “Blue Monk”, which soon appears in proper cadence here, replete with plunger trills. As Smoker dispenses his variations on the theme, Duval counters with pealing, pizzicato strokes that offer a sandpaper rough version of the same thing.

Other than a singing version of “If I Were A Bell” presented in a muted Milesean fashion, the tunes concentrate on brass and bass effects. At one point Smoker warbles

offbeat slurring phrases as Duval introduces well-modulated triple stops; at another four-string strums from the bassman calls forth echoes that could come from an Alpine horn —then choked valve plunger work examination.

Fittingly, the final tune is both abstract and conventional. Initially it resounds with idiosyncratic brass note flurries that go from andante to adagio to allegro, as the bass line becomes excessively discordant. The ending however finds Smoker appropriately quoting “The Party’s Over” in mid-register, Bobby Hackett-like fashion.

Over-abundant experimentation also characterizes the four Schuller/Smoker duets, with the others leading up to and away from “Hypnotics/Bassoptics Mutetics/Nostematics”, an almost 31-minute tour de force. Separated by periods of silence and applause, the first section showcases legato trumpeting with thundering bass lines that get harder, stronger and more repetitive as Smoker shrilly whistles from his mouthpiece. As Schuller strongarms a vamping ostinato back and forth, the trumpeter buzzes grit from his valves and soon broaches mouthpiece kisses, small smacks then squeals. Following a pause, a dark, double-stopping bass solo seems to invite Smoker’s most idiosyncratic response as higher-pitched, Harmon-muted obbligatos share space with deeper open tones. It almost appears as if he’s playing two trumpets at once. As Schuller continues to snap out short melodies and decorative asides that then turn to a walking bass line, Smoker completes the showcase with a flourish, producing a steady “Flight of the Bumblebee” buzz from his mute.

“Didgerotics”, is the most interesting of the pieces — not to mention the shortest — since Smoker manages to produce basso didjeridoo and radung or metal Tibetan bass horn sounds from his axe, not to mention vocalized plunger inflections straight out of the Bubber Miley Jungle book. Meanwhile Schuller moves from assured, low-pitched arco thrusts to split second visits to the effervescent cello register.

Trumpet and or bass aficionados may get the most from these duets, a limitation you don’t have to ascribe to RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, though you can only get it at http://www.drimala.com.

Improv associates of more than 20 years, nowadays Duval and Whitecage often perform in trio formation with drummer Jay Rosen. That, of course, is when the bassist isn’t busy with many of his other projects including sideman gigs with pianist Cecil Taylor and multi-reedist Joe McPhee. Not that Whitecage, whose experience as a multi-reedist goes back to the 1960s, has to take a back seat to anyone. He’s suitably expressive on each of his three horns on different tracks here.

Take “Rainbows Were Over”, which — no surprise — includes a recasting of the “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” melody. Beginning with blurting irregular tones from the alto that meet rasping, bowed arpeggios from the bass, Whitecage soon digresses into husks of the original melody as Duval provide a unvarying swing foundation. When the saxist arches out shrill reconstructions — speeding up and double-timing the theme — Duval answers with his own sonorous quotes, slowly sounding one note at a time.

“Snap Judgement” is another alto feature for Whitecage’s speech-like inflections, Bird-like feints inside the horn and a bubbling, bluesy ending. True to the title Duval constantly snaps his strings to such an extent that you can savor his precise note placement as the tune moves from andante to allegro, finally settling into ringing pedal point accompaniment. Duval’s bass work is brisk, however, as he strums with blurred fingering on “Katherine’s Song #4”. A reverberating threnody, the piece revolves around melancholy expressed by Whitecage’s trilled soprano that extends barbed obbligatos with intense vibratos. Examples of the reedman’s cultivated, woody clarinet playing are exhibited other places.

This is how the scorecard reads. Duval and Whitecage have created an altogether satisfying session. Smoker and his two bass partners may have done so as well, had they perhaps limited themselves to one CD.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Duocity: CD1: 1. Metatactics 2. Didgerotics 3. Hypnotics/Bassoptic Mutetics/Nostematics 4. Cruisinistics CD 2: 1. Greetings 2. Mutant Swing 3. If I Were a Bell 4. Rage Against It 5. On the River 6. Burn Dialogue/Blue Monk 7. Interval Loops/The Party’s Over.

Personnel: Duocity: Paul Smoker (trumpet); Ed Schuller [CD1]; Dominic Duval [CD2] (bass)

Track Listing: Rules: 1. Beginnings 2. A Moment's Thought 3. Snap Judgement 4. Katherine’s Song #4 5. Rainbows Were Over 6. Mark’s On the Wall 7. Solo Clarinet 8. Solo Bass

Personnel: Rules: Mark Whitecage (soprano and alto saxophone, clarinet); Dominic Duval (bass)