Kindred Spirits
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Heavenly Places
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Old avant gardists never die … they just begin playing standards. That’s a statement which experience has shown is more authentic than amusing. Witness the post-1960s career of a New Thing explorer like tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp for instance.

Pianist Bobby Few, best known for his 1960s and 1970s work with fire-breathing saxophonists such as Noah Howard, Frank Wright and Albert Ayler seems to have arrived at a variation of this strategy as well. For instance, KINDRED SPIRITS, the first of two duo CDs the Paris-based American expatriate has released with saxophonist and clarinetist Avram Fefer of New York, finds the two playing four Monk, two Mingus and one Ellington composition along with original material.

Their playing is professional and moving enough. But the memorable fashion in which truncated versions of two Fefer compositions are handled on this disc really sets up expectations for HEAVENLY PLACES’ three originals. Happily these expectations are met, with the two creating glorious renderings of three pieces created by both men, the shortest of which clocks in at almost 11 minutes. Also included is a completely spontaneous improv that wows the live audience.

Why the first disc then? Perhaps it’s because the reedist, who first encountered Few during a five-year sojourn in Paris – Few has lived there since 1969 – wanted to honor the pre-Free jazz tradition. As well, since the disc preceded a North American tour, possibly they felt shorter versions of these classics – Charles Mingus’ “Orange was the Color of Her Dress Then Blue Silk” at nearly 9½ minutes is the lengthiest by far – would endear them to more conservative audiences.

Throughout, the renditions are at little too similar, relaxed and low key. Few, who spent years in the 1960s as singer Brook Benton’s musical director and playing Playboy clubs, undoubtedly invests several of the numbers with enough sensuous blues licks that you suspect he may be kidding. A respectful reading of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” for example finds him producing echoing contrapuntal lines from either hand, negotiating the changes in a style that seems mid-way between James P. Johnson rent party breeziness and the crammed notes of Earl Hines’ metronomic pulse. To blend in – Fefer, whose other CDs feature younger, fellow tradition expanders like trombonist Steve Swell and bassist Michael Bisio – outputs a soprano sax style in the Sidney Bechet-Johnny Hodges manner.

Although here, despite the odd stop-time passage, the Cleveland pianist’s treatment of the four Thelonious Monk numbers seems to smooth down too much of their angularity, his constant chording on “Pannonica” does make obvious the link between Monk and Ellington, whose tune precedes it on the disc.

As a matter of fact, it’s the almost 9½-minute Mingus piece that comes off best. Starting with a sort of blues fantasia from Few that somehow encompasses vaguely Oriental fills, Fefer alters his embouchure in such a way as to use split tones to smoothly suggest the melody without too many embellishments. For his penultimate variations, Few turns from trebly tingles to near-Chopinesque harmonies that make the keys ring.

“Heavenly Places”, which gets its definite reading on HEAVENLY PLACES, is done at half its length here and approached hesitantly. Few does exhibit an undulating right-handed piano line and Fefer a grotty and smeary soprano sax tone though. Gospel-tinged, the two versions of “Kingdom Come” at barely two minutes each appear to be there to show how the reedist would treat his tune on both tenor saxophone and clarinet.

These church music echoes are made plainer on the other CD’s version of the composition and are one of the chief constructs of the almost 17½-minute version of “Heavenly Places” on the CD of the same name.

One part of Few’s background comes forward in his soloing and accompaniment – he comes from a very religious family including a grandfather who was a Baptist minister – but the tune’s polyphonic counter line would have been called heathen by those folks. That’s because the pianist unspools crashing, tremolo Native Indian-like rhythms from his keys and pedals.

It’s this beat which defines the exposition and first variations of the tune, with the piano pumping out equal parts cadenzas and contrapuntal lines. Dedicated to deceased associates of the duo, drummer Oliver Johnson and bassist Wilber Morris, the tender threnody develops with Fefer undulating heavily-breathed Tranesque cadences that vibrate with almost like double-reed-like spetrofluctuation. Expanding the coarse reed biting textures on top of mirroring accompanying chords from Few, the saxman’s honking and snorting aural evocation of Trane’s cadences are taken one step further with dissonant tone shredding.

For his part, the pianist underscores the funeral air by slowing the tempo and sustaining the harmonies with foot pedal action, creating a series of glissandi and waterfalls of substantial and sonorous notes. After he speeds up the performance with cross-handed glancing rococo decorations, Fefer recapitulates the theme, and adds new variations, finally reaching a finale that evokes metallic and harsh overblowing from his horn and echoing tension-filled dynamics from Few.

Fefer’s Coltrane admiration is also on display on “Happy Hour”, even if the piece is only one-third that length. Constantly churning, strong-armed arpeggios from the pianist mix with scattered contrasting dynamics, the better to synchronize with the reedist’s smears and honks. Pitchsliding and growling, Fefer hacks apart his strangled tone as Few’s swift-paced cadences overcome the saxist’s momentary hesitation with an almost militaristic series of glancing cross chords.

As Fefer’s lines continue to dissolve into teeny squeaks, squeals and beeps, the piano man rolls arpeggios back and forth from the keyboard to the soundboard, until a gusher of splayed notes reconstitute themselves into dramatic overtones and basso, work their way to a Stride imperative. A new theme, introduced by Fefer with sniggering clarinet pitch vibrations soon has Few sounding low frequency individual key-clipped notes that attain modern Swing patterns.

With the sax work now implying both “Cherokee” and sheets of sound, both men appear to be improvising at different angles. But like a high wire act catching one another in mid-air, they lob timbres into one another’s direction as they pass. Few’s near boogie-woogie cadenzas equalize Fefer’s more atonal outbursts in chalumeau register, turning them climatically legato and contemplative, with Few’s echoing harmonies providing the coda.

Anyone interested in top rank duo work should seek out HEAVENLY PLACES, while those desiring a different view of the two, or of a more conservative bent, can investigate KINDRED SPIRITS as well.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Kindred Spirits: 1. Ask Me Now 2. Light Blue 3. Reincarnation of a Lovebird. 4. Come Sunday 5. Pannonica 6. Friday the 13th 7. Orange was the Color of Her Dress Then Blue Silk 8. Heavenly Places 9. Kingdom Come –clarinet 10. Kingdom Come – tenor sax

Track Listing: Heavenly Places: 1. Happy Hour 2. Heavenly Places 3. Improv/Kingdom Come

Personnel: Avram Fefer (soprano and tenor saxophones and clarinet); Bobby Few (piano)