Take No Prisoners
Konnex KCD 5115

Should there ever be a New Thing Revival along the lines of the New Orleans Revival of the 1940s then saxophonist Bert Wilson could be prime candidate to be its Bunk Johnson.

Like the legendary trumpeter from New Iberia, La., Wilson has since 1980 lived far away from mainstream jazz centres in Olympia, Wash., and plays in a style as true to what was recorded on ESP-Disk as Johnson was to pre-Swing Era traditional jazz. At 64, the alto and tenor saxophonist is even a decade older than Johnson was when he was fitted with new dentures and rediscovered in 1940. As for historical connections, if Johnson played with Bolden in New Orleans before the First World War, Wilson fittingly jammed with John Coltrane’s expanded sextet in Los Angles in 1966.

That sojourn in L.A. unfortunately, limits these comparisons. Unlike Johnson, who never recorded and was out of music before he was found and displayed as the genuine jazz article to fight the bebop heresy, Wilson, who has used a wheelchair since a childhood bout with polio, has lived in New York as well as L.A. Wilson actually recorded on ESP-Disk, with percussionist James Zitro and saxist Sonny Simmons, has made other recordings and played at many jazz festivals.

Besides, Wilson, a self-aware, jocular type, doesn’t want to be displayed as anyone’s genuine jazzer. Being confined to a wheelchair was, in one sense, a blessing, he’s said, for it gave him all the time in the world to practice. Someone who can reach five to six octaves on the saxophone, he’d rather play than do anything else.

He certainly shows his stuff on this duo, which is doubly impressive since his pianist partner here is Spokane, Wash.-born Jeffrey Morgan. Peripatetic Morgan, who has lived in Cologne, Germany since 1991, is a saxman himself, whose most recent achievement is a fine duo disc, TERRA INCOGNITA, with British drummer Paul Lytton. However he played piano before the saxophone and TAKE NO PRISONERS is like those LPs that featured bassist Charles Mingus on piano — a rare opportunity to hear an accomplished stylist translate his skills to another medium.

Maybe there are still some parallels to Johnson’s unvarnished Classic Jazz, however. This 73¾-minute session isn’t for jazz dilettantes. It’s six shots of long form improvisation with each man pouring his all into and through his instrument. Even for the committed it may best be experienced in small doss rather than in one sitting.

Wilson, for example, spends many passages on the longest — nearly 15 minute — title track squealing away altissimo. Along the way he adds sideslipping obbligatos, flutter tonguing and spetrofluctuation. Still, for all his extended techniques, he never sounds as if he’s at a loss for ideas, nor, no matter how hard he blows, do the tones ever sound forced. Morgan too shines, playing perhaps with a more powerful touch than usual since his instrument is an old upright. Creating allegro fantasias, he pushes uneven note clusters against a small thematic grouping, or flashes octaves over the keys.

Meanwhile, boiling repetitive overtones, minute vibrations, yelps and cries characterize the reedist’s work, which at times reaches an Aylerian march tempo. Wilson’s more versatile than many would suspect, though. By the piece’s end, duck-like quacks give way to tones that would be balladic in a different context, and he ends with a sweeping legato slur that reference pre-modern tenor titans like Ben Webster.

The Aylerian cast is even more prominent on “Centari” with Wilson and Morgan dredging up memories of New Thing saxophonist Albert Ayler and his closest keyboard associate Call Cobbs. Here Morgan sound as if he’s turning out mutant boogie woogie, while Wilson’s initial foghorn shrills soon turn into dog whistle shrieks. True to his own tuning system, he has the tendency to propel unrelated melodies into the middle of his solos that somehow fit perfectly with the irregular vibrations. If he’s biting his reed while playing, it seems as if he will devour it in the middle of a solo.

Wilson’s most varied work comes on “Poltergeist Meditations”. Beginning with an extended nephritic roar, he then reaches higher and higher pitches, seemingly just to prove that he can do so. He can, as well, smoothly sound entire well-modulated legato passages and timbres that appear to arise from the bottom of his sax bow — so thick are they with undersea-like notes. Coda is made up of the reedist wheezing out staccato high notes then blowing air through the body tube and gooseneck without moving the keys.

Interestingly enough, while the two often appear to take off in different directions, they end up coming together at just the right note, courtesy of Wilson’s experience and the appropriate piano technique of Morgan. It ranges from punishing the lower-pitched keys with pedal pressure, rolling out speedy arpeggios and stroking the internal strings on the soundboard.

All in all, perhaps the disc is mis-titled. “Take No Prisoners” may be a bit too bellicose for what the two do. What they actually create, as the final tune says, is “Lightning, Thunder and Rain” merely using acoustic instruments and their combined talents.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Sky Dive 2. Take No Prisoners 3. Centari 4. Fast Break 5. Poltergeist Meditations 6. Celestial Spheres 7. Lightning, Thunder and Rain

Personnel: Bert Wilson (alto and tenor saxophones); Jeffrey Morgan (upright piano)