Alister Spence/Raymond MacDonald

Stepping Between the Shadows
Rufus Records RF095


Phone Book

ILK 190 CD

From the time of Johnny Hodges’ work with Duke Ellington, and especially Paul Desmond’s with Dave Brubeck, the musical compatibility of alto saxophone and piano has been emphasized; and sometimes put in broader relief by featuring no other accompaniment.

Danes, alto saxophonist Laura Toxvaerd and pianist Jacob Anderskov express this in an exemplary fashion on Phone Book, interpreting four of the saxophonist’s graphic scores based on telephone book listings – city and country not specified. More freewheeling, Stepping Between the Shadows features seven free-form elaborations that link Australian keyboardist Alister Spence with Scottish alto saxophonist Raymond MacDonald. Each member of the two duos has extensive experience elsewhere. Anderskov has played with stylists such as reedist Chris Speed and drummer Gerald Cleaver plus lead his own group, while Toxvaerd front her own band and is also a part of one of Anderskov’s as well. Spence, who plays piano and prepared piano here has also worked with such musicians as bassists Joe Williamson and Lloyd Swanton. A founder of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, MacDonald has worked with individuals such as bassist Barry Guy and saxophonist Lol Coxhill.

Despite the four players’ ensemble-orientation, bass, drum and other instrumental textures aren’t noticeably missed on the Spence-MacDonald CD. With pedal force and key clipping, scuffs against the instrument’s outer wood and inner soundboard, as well as string twanging and vibrating, Spence is a percussive enough pianist to preserve a needed rhythm – although it is appropriately irregular. Some tracks such as “Northern Window (a)” are exercises in polyphonic parallelism, with MacDonald’s intense split tone and lengthy slurs matching similar staccato and agitated impulses from the pianist. Eventually the intervallic narrative settles on an interaction where the saxman’s vocalized tweets and speedy flutter-tonguing is sympathetically engaged by the pianist’s tremolo patterning.

Sharpness and toughness aren’t the only adjectives that could apply to the duo however. With dexterity and attention the two approach balladic status on other tracks, as the reedist’s level and restrained flat-line timbres operate in broken-chord agreement with the keyboardist’s kinetic, high velocity chords. There’s even a point within “Found On The Way (a)” that McDonald appears to be quoting “Body and Soul” before returning to his contrapuntal exposition alongside Spence’s low-pitched cadenzas.

Shaking and smearing tones, the saxophonist also, consciously or not, appears to play the head of “A Love Supreme” as the duo wraps up “Found on the Way (b)”. Other timbres “found on the way” include those from Spence’s full keyboard sweeps, with his fingers then burrowing into the piano’s innards for basso rumbles; as well as others which include MacDonald’s circularly breathed lines that intensify in fervor, in due course encompassing repeated trills and glottal punctuation.

Ostensibly more clinical in design, but as emotional in execution is Phone Book. Initially though it seems that despite graphical notation directions, Anderskov’s playing might be either too heavy handed or overly delicate. However Toxvaerd’s staccato extensions appear to encourage him to source irregular, yet sympathetic side ripples. By track 2, “Bark”, the resultant sounds undeniably reflect the title. Following a spectacular broken-chord piano introduction, Anderskov’s accompaniment is dynamic in its motion, while the saxophone lines first narrow to irregular trills then swell to stuffed judders. The ending highlights simple unison harmony.

Tellingly, “Fishbone”, the most impressionistic piece despite its skeletal title, lacks neither high-octave tone jumps from Toxvaerd nor percussive and angular keyboard jabs from Anderskov. However the descriptive mid-section is this side of Hard Bop, with the pianist seemingly quoting “Prelude to a Kiss” and the saxophonist responding with phrases that could come from pages of the Great American Songbook. Angular reed overblowing and keyboard picks and clicks finally situate the performance in the Free part of FreeBop.

“Cacklecabin”, the final track, comes across as less than a summation and more like a continuation of the compositional ideas which have been displayed earlier. Toxvaerd’s slurs and reed-bites get thinner and more mercurial; Anderskov’s expansive glissandi and tremolo chording cover all the keys. Plus irregular variations share space with more traditional ones with neither subsuming the other.

Overall, these are two high-class modifications of the alto saxophone-piano tradition that should probably lead to further encounters.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Phone: 1. Androidangle 2. Barking 3. Fishbone 4. Cacklecabin

Personnel: Phone: Laura Toxvaerd (alto saxophone) and Jacob Anderskov (piano)

Track Listing: Stepping: 1. TransHemispheric 2. The Distance From Here To There 3. The Places In Between 4. Found On The Way (a) 5. Found On The Way (b) 6. Northern Window (a) 7. Northern Window (b)

Personnel: Stepping: Raymond MacDonald (alto and soprano saxophones) and Alister Spence (piano and prepared piano)