The duo recording is one of the most open windows available into the nature of improvisation; its give and take or "discussive" aspects are often made very clear by two players involved in musical conversation. And nowhere are melody and rhythm so tightly balanced as they often are in a saxophone-and-drums duo. Coltrane’s last and finest flights were with Rashied Ali on Interstellar Space ; Ali and tenorist Frank Lowe met a few years later to record the blistering classic Duo Exchange. Evan Parker and Paul Lytton have had a longstanding experimental duo that extends the language of reeds and percussion toward a unique sonic palette. So where does this recently unearthed 1981 studio recording of alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc and drummer Denis Charles fit in along the continuum?
Moondoc, an original stylist whose dry, acrid tone is reminiscent of Ornette, Dolphy, or Marion Brown, was an active figure on the "loft" free jazz scene in New York throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, dropping off by the middle of the decade until he resurfaced in the mid-90s. Charles is the more storied player of the two, having worked regularly with Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy and Archie Shepp in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, and was, like Moondoc, a regular fixture in the loft scene.
Charles’ calypso rhythms and stabbing interjections fit like an old shoe with Moondoc’s angular lyricism; his buoyant meter aptly lending a swinging bob to the Moondoc composition “Judy’s Bounce” and continually feeding the altoist’s sinewy grace. “Home,” the only ballad of the set, presents the moodier, bluesier side of the altoist’s playing. Moondoc’s compositions are almost as interesting as his phrasing; their thematic material is consistently fresh and quirky, whether in the nursery-rhyme cadences of the aforementioned “Bounce” or the stop-start agitation of “We Do.”
This set also has, in my mind, a strong affinity with Steve Lacy’s early-'80s trio featuring Charles and bassist Ronnie Boykins (captured on the Hatology CD New York Capers and Quirks ), Moondoc’s off-kilter and singsongy alto phrasing having a lot more in common with Lacy’s twisted Monk-isms than one might initially think. (Too bad Lacy and Charles never recorded a duo!)
If one is used to LP-length recordings, then the fact that this set clocks in at barely over the 42-minute mark won’t be a problem (it’s a fair guess that this would’ve been the third Muntu release had it come out in 1981). As far as continua are concerned, We Don’t is neither fire- breathing heaviness nor ice-cold experimentation, but a creative and energetic ride through the dictions of two of the most original voices on their instruments. Moondoc and Charles have obviously had many deep and complex musical conversations before, and their seamless interaction is now finally available for any and all open ears.