When one thinks of a bass duet record, one expects a dialogue with another rhythm instrument, if not another stringed instrument. Bass/piano duos are not uncommon (Matthew Shipp/William Parker, David Izenzon/Joe Scianni), but to hear the bass in conversation with a frontline instrument is rather rare. Of course, the matching of wits between two untempered instruments produces sympathetic results: the ability to slide between notes and match harmonics is common to both strings and reeds, so it should be no surprise that Dominic Duval's contrabass and Mark Whitecage's saxophones and clarinets match up so well.
Duval and Whitecage have been playing together for some 20 years, and though Duval has only been recording regularly over the last 15, a number of his sessions have been with Whitecage. However, Rules of Engagement is their first duo recording to see the light of day. Whitecage has historically been a rather "unbridled" player; fast runs of bent and jagged tones were the order of the day on recordings with vibraphonist Bobby Naughton in the late '60s and early '70s (he plays a mean distorted basset horn on Understanding ), and his alto flights were the standout on David Eyges' The Captain.
Though in recent years he seems to have tempered the vicious tone a bit (not a bad thing), his flair for Dolphy-esque runs has not abated: witness the spiraling heights to which Duval's arco pushes him in "A Moment's Thought." The ability of his alto to move from smooth, liquid lines to jagged, gutbucket smears is also reminiscent of a less schizoid Byard Lancaster (it's probably no coincidence that a free version of "Over the Rainbow" is included here). Duval is an amazingly propulsive player; in this context, one might expect somber bowed lines or gimmicky technical flash, but as with William Parker, kinetics and strength more than make up for the lack of an obvious "beat." On the boppish "Snap Judgment," for example, all the motifs point to what could be a great alto/bass/drums romp, but the effortless swing that these two create needs no backbeat.
One of the most noticeable aspects of this session, however, goes somewhat beyond the actual improvisations: the recording quality is superb, capturing every bit of horsehair-on-string or string-to-wood detail in Duval's bass playing. Whitecage's clarinet retains its woody quality, and no unintended shrillness befalls his saxophones. Speaking as one who prefers the analog warmth that LPs offer, this disc is right up the audiophile's alley. Plus, in an age of super-sized album lengths and the filler they engender, Rules of Engagement clocks in at a perfectly-rounded 45 minutes.
If the task of creating a compelling reed/bass duet session fell to a slightly less well-matched pair than these two, the subgenre might befall the same wallpapery fate as so much lightweight chamber-jazz free improvisation. However, in the hands of Duval and Whitecage, the bar has been set very high. It is now up to the next pairing to maintain the pace set by this first installment of the Rules of Engagement.