Johannes Nästejö/Agustí Fernández

Johannes Nästejö/Agustí Fernández
Konvoj KOR 007

Agustí Fernández/Don Malfon

Fortress

Discordian 061

For the past two decades, Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández has shown that he’s comfortable improvising in just about any circumstance – from solo to big band. But one of his most favored ensembles is the duo. Stepping into the musical ring with an acknowledged heavyweight of the Free Music world can’t be easy, but Swedish bassist Johannes Nästejö and fellow Catalan alto and baritone saxophonist Don Malfon acquit themselves admirably on these sessions. There are no knock-outs, just mutual satisfaction.

Considering that the pianist’s past duo partners have included the likes of Barry Guy and William Parker on the double bass side and Evan Parker and Mats Gustafsson among the reedists, Nästejö and Malfon have large music stands to figuratively position themselves behind. But the eight tracks on the eponymously titled first session and the nine on Fortress slide comfortably into place like the precision footwork of the best pugilists.

One peculiarity that both discs share is that Fernández barely touches the keyboard, sort as if one contender in a boxing match limited his reach in order to give the other more room to jab. But if both his partners are unfazed by this, they create appropriate sonic strategies to prolong the encounter. Fernández does return to full-flavored keyboard chording on “El Sol De Gener”, Konvoj’s final track, metaphorically suggests that the final round has been announced and that the match is nearly over. Nästejö, who has played with stylists such as guitarist Joe Morris and drummer Ramon Lopez, takes this change in stride, thumping out a rugged continuum for an appropriate ending.

For the majority of the other tracks, the bassist contributes iron-pumping pulses and strokes, layering his exposition so that it fits in with the staccato rubs and thrusts Fernández sources from the piano innards, occasionally augmented by pedal sustain or ringing chords. The dissident duets can, as on “El Dit Ferit”, take the form of dense abrasiveness, as the bassist’s relentless palming of higher-pitched timbres is matched by the pianist’s positioned scurries on stopped keys and vibrating strings. Be aware that this meeting isn’t like that of a champion pugilist matched with a less competent contender. Nästejö propels as many timbres as he counters, with the results at points adding up to astringent chamber music-like sequences and at others challenging the pianist with whaling sul ponticello pumps. Some improvisations like “Contrabajo Rex” have elements of both with the pianist providing the subsidiary ostinato, and the bassist scene-setting with dark arco sweeps that eventually narrow to merge and whine along with the scrapes from the piano’s string sets.

If the first CD is an object lesson in pugnacious cooperation that showcases more serrated lines that you would see on a bruised prize fighter’s face, then Fortress constructs novel music that is sonically situated midway between raspy Free Music and spirited Free Jazz. Starting with “Siegecraft”, the first duet, replete with snaking slides in-and-out of the piano and stuttering spews from the saxophonist, it appears as if the pair’s antecedents would be closer to guitar-and-reed meetings than anything involving pianos. But by “Especula”, the fourth track, Malfon, who has lived and taught music in Cuba as well as Spain, counters what sounds like Fernández pulling a comb through taunt harp strings with first flutter-tonguing honks and then with timbre replication. “Heavy Artillery” and “Resilience” amplify the changes. On the latter alto saxophone multiphonics turn first to tongue slaps and then to tones that could almost be defined as romantic, as the pianist’s cascading glissandi pace him. On the first, Fernández’s enhanced stops and dips in the piano’s lowest resonance provide a base on which Malfon stutters and sighs out near-conventional phrasing that sophisticatedly complement his proven prowess with extended techniques.

This reed ambidexterity, which also encompasses Bluiett-like baritone snorts, is set off most appropriately on the concluding “Inside … Repeat Process Again”. Fernández’s rugged inner-piano string plucks and vibrating buzzes resemble Bailey`s guitar scouring, as Malfon`s squeaks and honks reference Ornette Coleman and mid-1960s Sonny Rollins.

With the session concluding with as much buoyancy as satisfaction, the commanding title of the last track could be a proper program for this disk and the other one. Both demonstrate the skills of younger musicians and the adaptability of Fernández to create memorable music as an equal partner.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Johannes: 1. Dos Dies Amb Tren 2. Dins El Piano Viu Un Altre Univers 3. Nous Descobriments 4. El Dit Ferit 5.La Tireta 6. Contrabajo Rex 7. El Bosc 8. El Sol De Gener

Personnel: Johannes: Agustí Fernández (piano) and Johannes Nästejö (bass)

Track Listing: Fortress: 1. Siegecraft 2. Calcitrapa 3. Barriers 4. Especula 5. Heavy Artillery 6. The Main Gates 7. Resilience 8. Intervallum 9. Inside … Repeat Process Again

Personnel: Fortress: Don Malfon (alto and baritone saxophones) and Agustí Fernández (piano)