Lol Coxhill/Alex Ward

Old Sights, New Sounds
Incus CD 61

Alípio C. Neto/Thelmo Cristovam

Triatoma Infestations

Creative Sources CS 188 CD

Gianni Mimmo/Harri Sjöström

Live at Bauchhund Berlin 2010

Amirani Records AMRN 026

Unusual to contemplate and difficult to execute without straining, duos involving improvisers playing high-pitched reed instruments unaccompanied are as unique as they are infrequent. Yet the skills, talents and techniques which characterize the three duos here convincingly demonstrate that first-rate playing can arise in this potentially limiting format.

Tellingly, each duo is made up of partners who are distinctly different from one another, making for the necessary tension and distance that must characterize sets such as these. Gianni Mimmo and Harri Sjöström for instance are both soprano saxophonists of about the same age influenced by Steve Lacy. But the similarity ends there. Sjöström was born in Turku, Finland, studied with Lacy among others, composes film music and has played with improv masters such as violinist Philipp Wachsmann and pianist Cecil Taylor. Often working in solo situations, with silence and electro-acoustic timbres, Gianni Mimmo a native of Pavia, Italy, has played with guitarist John Russell and vocalist Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg. Meanwhile on Old Sights, New Sounds; more separates soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill and clarinetist Alex Ward than choice of instruments. Coxhill, who has worked with nearly everyone in British improv from drummer Roger Turner to pianist Pat Thomas – as well as Lacy –, is 42 years older than Ward, who also plays rock guitar, usually in the company of drummer Steve Noble and bassist John Edwards. Triatoma Infestations’ Alípio C. Neto and Thelmo Cristovam on the other hand, are both Brazilian. But besides improvising on C-melody saxophone here, Cristovam also plays trombone and trumpet, studied physics and mathematics, researches among other facets, psychoacoustics, phonography and computer music and works with artists, poets, filmmakers, writers, engineers, animators and game developers. More of a full-time musician, Neto who now lives in Rome, has recorded with, among others, violinist Carlos Zíngaro, guitarist Scott Fields and trumpeter Herb Robertson.

Although Neto is also involved with a synthesis of Hard Bop and Free Jazz, Triatoma Infestations is a nearly 42 minute slab of uncompromising Free Music, perhaps relating more closely to Cristovam’s interests. Certainly unison harmonies and showy reed glossolalia aren’t heard among this collection of multiphonic squeaks, friction-laden split tones and blurry and chunky textures. Although glissandi and sibilant honks are sometimes present much of this dual fantasia is also concerned with clear air blowing and framed single notes, divided between the C-melody’s growly textures and the soprano’s staccato reed bites. Frequently layered so both horns’ output swells into circular breaths, the minimalist interface also encompasses air leaks, sniffs and clicks, plus a combination of key percussion, horn body smacks and tongue slaps. With a mid section of vocalized cries and altissimo yelps, a longish pause ushers in the final variants where Cristovam’s horn turns to splintered triple-tonguing while Neto’s outward breaths take on foghorn-like properties. Eventually the garbled polyphony divides with one man braying a gravelly undercurrent and the other weaving a skein of affiliated, higher-pitched tones, which in this context appear lyrical. Finally a single split tone indicates the ending.

Recorded significantly on the sixth anniversary of Lacy’s death, Mimmo’s and Sjöström’s live session is, in contrast, divided into nine heart-felt instant compositions. Still the vibe is anything but solemn, with the two joking among themselves, to the audience, and with a whole minute on “Facing the Distance” given over to Sjöström discussing the benefits of playing with Italian coffee cups. Down to business, the two knit a multiphonic narrative eventually trading in altissimo squeaks for mid-range expressiveness. That one exposition is filled with abstract vibrations while the other seems to reference a dawdling “Home on the Range” recap points out their contrasting styles.

This lyrical/strident contrast is exhibited throughout the recital, although neither saxophonist appears to stick to either role. On “Tag-soup” for example, joint tootling soon gives way to connective arpeggios and latterly to tremolo peeping from one and legato blowing from the other. Although reed-biting friction is still obvious by the finale, enhanced tonal coloration allows both to shift midway to more swing-based interaction. There’s a similar modus operandi on “Twin Constellation”, when the two aurally scrutinize various timbres with tongue slaps, tremolo pitches and juddering sound flashes. Each man’s cries may be irregular and rubato, but they balance one another. Multiphonic intersections involving buzzing friction again foreshadow flutter tongued, but lyrical ramifications on “Threshold Song”. While cooperation completes the interlude on the final “Spirals” the two do exactly as the title suggests: winnowing and echoing lines at one another. For a climax, one saxophonist squeaks in dog-whistle territory, while the other methodically outlines the scale, coloring the exercise with doits and intense vibrations.

Detached textures and juddering oscillations are the order of the day on Old Sights, New Sounds, although interludes of legato harmony appear on the seven improvisations as well. Like the sounds on the other CDs, it’s often difficult to tell one reed from the other, or even from other instruments.

“Pull Back” for instance features near- tárogató slurs, likely from Coxhill. that are subsequently harmonized with Ward’s shill glissandi to create a series of burbling and burping buzzes plus sprinkles of altissimo peeps. As the pitch becomes harder and tauter, the soprano saxophonist appears to be duetting with himself, as the clarinetist’s tongue flutters add a third voice. It’s probably Coxhill who exhibits a reed-shedding kazoo-like tone on “Back Story” as free-floating tones from Ward pitchslide into a round robin with the other reedist. As the saxophone’s vibrations accelerate to pinched whistling, clarinet tones downshift to throat-bursting growls until both harmonize. Elsewhere, as on “Slug Line” the counterpoint is more atonal. Coxhill’s rough circular breathing sharply swerves from Ward’s baby chick-like peeps, until both reed runs becoming more pressurized and disconnected through the use of finger vibratos and overblowing.

With few resorts to chromaticism, linearity and lyricism, the three duos manage to keep improvisations involving similarly pitched reeds constantly interesting whether as one track or a series of segmented explorations. Each deserves attention.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Old: 1. Establishing Shot 2. Back Story 3. Angle On 4. Slug Line 5. Tight On 6. Pull Back 7. Dissolve

Personnel: Old: Lol Coxhill (soprano saxophone) and Alex Ward (clarinet)

Track Listing: Triatoma: 1. (41.43)

Personnel: Triatoma: Alípio C Neto (curved soprano saxophone) and Thelmo Cristovam (C Melody saxophone)

Track Listing: Live: 1. Introduction 2. Tag-soup 3. Uncovered-pointed 4. Curtain and Beyond 5. Threshold Song 6. Twin Constellation 7. Lied 8. Elliptical 9. Facing the Distance 10. Spirals

Personnel: Live: Gianni Mimmo and Harri Sjöström (soprano saxophones)