Free jazz is among the many things that should look easy but be hard. Hard and scary and rewarding, like performing feats of funambulism in a world without protective meshed fabric. Free-form ad-libbing in a duo, such as that of bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake, who'll warm up for Minneapolis luminary Douglas Ewart at the Walker this weekend (see A-List), is a special kind of hard: You run into the same denuding hazards of playing solo, and face the potential anxiety and euphoria of trying to become one with another person for about an hour or so. (I realize that I'm overdoing the sexual language here, but I do mean to talk about intimacy.)
For evidence of the format's worthwhile arduousness, check out the picture of Rashied Ali from the liner notes to Interstellar Space, John Coltrane's benchmark sax-and-drums album. Ali sits stoop-shouldered on his drum stool, kneading his brow and covering his eyes with his fist. It would be stretching the facts to say that he looks like hell in a tight turtleneck, but the turtleneck is tight and he doesn't look chipper. Which makes sense. The 1967 session, Coltrane's last, yielded fervent, demanding music; surely it was exhausting to play.
When Coltrane made Interstellar, unreleased until 1974, the jazz duet was in flux along with the rest of the world. Historically, jazz duos paired a vocalist or horn soloist with a pianist, guitarist, or bassist, and that was fine (especially when the players were Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, whose "Weather Bird" is the jazz duet par excellence). But by the mid-'60s, avant-garde saxophonists like Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler were frequently doing only-sax-and-drums gigs, leaving open lots of fertile harmonic space normally filled by bassists and pianists. 1967's The Lee Konitz Duets split the difference between old- and new-fangled duets and turned the standard "Alone Together" into an experimental-twosome manifesto.
Then came Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell's Mu, a '69 album of free improvisations on which Cherry used non-Western scales and sometimes put down his trumpet to play, for instance, a bamboo flute. Blackwell, meanwhile, augmented his conventional kit with bells and African percussion. It was world music before being so called, and it was one of those records whose influence outstripped its sales. By the '70s, free-jazz duos were about as novel as rock quartets.
New Yorker Parker and Chicagoan Drake play together in the Cherry/Blackwell tradition of global-jazz duets. Their 2001 album Piercing the Veil encompasses funk grooves and passages of heavy metallic noise and meditative quasi-folk music that sounds even better with incense. Perhaps it even sounds like incense. Drake plays drums, tablas, and other percussion; Parker plays bass, naturally (and unnaturally), but also bombard (a high-pitched double-reed instrument), dumbek (a Middle Eastern drum), shakuhachi (a Japanese flute), what have you. Drake's drumming is "multi-directional," to borrow a Coltrane term. And much of what makes Parker my favorite living jazz bassist is here: the head-bobbing blues vamps, the many-voiced arco work, the sheer force of his plucking and pulling and fretting.
In the Parker oeuvre, though, Veil is just a drop in the ocean. As a leader (of small groups and the 15-piece Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra) and with David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, and others, the bassist has played on well over 100 albums. Last year's highlights were his quartet's Ornette-y Sound Unity and the Ware group's Live in the World, both brilliant. This March brings Parker's Long Hidden: The Olmec Series, on which oblique merengue cohabitates with extended bass solos and the leader's pensive trysts with the African, guitar-like doson Ngoni. This spring Aum Fidelity will reissue Veil in an expanded version, followed in the fall by a proper Parker/Drake follow-up. Look for it.
Writing about Interstellar Space in Jazz, a Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings, Ben Ratliff recalls asking pianist Borah Bergman why duos are so common in experimental jazz. Bergman reportedly expounded a bit on the subject but couldn't come up with a satisfactory answer. "Then, a few days later," Ratliff writes, "[Bergman] faxed me a one-word answer: 'economics.'"
Improvisational intimacy and harmonic liberation are nice, and so is only having to split the money two ways. There's no disgrace in that--financial considerations lurk behind as many good artistic decisions as bad ones, and Parker and Drake are canny at making good decisions, even and especially on the fly.
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