Duval & McPhee and Christi & Hassay: Rules of Engagement Vol. 2 & Tribute to Paradise

Clifford Allen By

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Reedman Eric Dolphy and bassist Richard Davis created not only some of the most interesting reed-bass duets (if not some of the first) in jazz history, but also laid the groundwork for the conversant duo in realms not just of rhythm (reeds/drums, reeds/piano) but of sound. One just has to think of the ways in which the two play with bent notes, growled and slurred phrases, hacking apart time and melody only to rebuild them a few bars later—all in the span of thirteen minutes of "Alone Together" (on Conversations, FM, 1963), or gorgeously in sync on the closing bars of "Something Sweet, Something Tender" ( Out to Lunch, Blue Note, 1964) to grasp not only the rapport but the purity with which these two improvisers approach their joined axes.

Dominic Duval & Joe McPhee
Rules of Engagement, Vol 2
Drimala Records

Dolphy's and Davis's work is heavily informant upon bassist Dominic Duval's Rules of Engagement series (Drimala), on which he has sparred and conversed with reedmen like Mark Whitecage and now, Joe McPhee. Yet this canon of improvisation is not limited to bass-and-reeds duets, for vocalist Ellen Christi and altoist/vocalist Gary Hassay have, in their set of duets for Drimala, brought similar interests to the table. Christi and Hassay have removed the earthy poetry of wood and strings, and replaced it with breath and metal.

While certainly a strong improviser at paces both frantic and groovy—his gutbucket tenor, whether spurred into revenant action by Harold E. Smith's drums or the funk of Nation Time, is something to behold—McPhee's approach to the free-time ballad is on equal footing with the blues of Albert Ayler or Coltrane's pastorals. For where the quartet he co-led with Peter Brotzmann, Kent Kessler and Michael Zerang in Chicago (Tales Out of Time, Hat Hut) could approach high levels of communal energy on up-tempo numbers, the bluesy ballads and elegiac tunes were where McPhee particularly hit stride.

On this set with Dominic Duval, ballad themes and spare, moody dialogues are the focus, but where the wide vibrato of McPhee's tenor made his ballads as earthily sandblasted as the bell of their origin, here he employs the soprano saxophone for the entire set. In a way, as McPhee's sinewy lines approach both the taut and the ethereal, Duval's muscular, horsehair-slicing approach, a la William Parker or Buschi Niebergall, reprises the role that McPhee's tenor might have in a similar situation—girding its economical lyric with a strong forearm.

Though off to an intense beginning, most of the set focuses on a series of intertwined, revenant improvisations on the theme of Sunday, including "Birmingham Sunday," "Amazing Grace" and "While My Lady Sleeps" and a monologue by McPhee referring to the murder of four schoolgirls in Birmingham in 1963, which inspired Coltrane's "Alabama" in addition to, loosely, these compositions.

Gary Hassay & Ellen Christi
Tribute to Paradise
Drimala Records

Though wordless in approach, using hums, sighs and shouts in addition to a dynamic repertoire of lyrical sound, Ellen Christi is a unique vocalist whose improvisations belie careful study of African and indigenous North American vocal music as well as a sense of soul that approach both Jeanne Lee and Fontella Bass. Long a fixture in some of New York's most daring free-music contexts, she is joined here by altoist Gary Hassay. Hassay's art, at least in this setting, is that of a restrained-yet-frantic improviser, coolly toned but acerbic when synapses call for it, an odd edge that has also imbued Marion Brown, Braxton and Konitz at his freest.

Like Braxton, Hassay is also able to hit those low, tenor-like notes with a hushed vibrato, in many ways the perfect reed match for Christi's bubbly and dynamic cadences. Several pieces feature Hassay in vocal duet with Christi, Hassay welling up sound from deep within his throat to match Christi's sonorous lines—as on "Episteme." Whereas the voice-tube antics of someone like Han Bennink echo throat singing, Hassay is a masterful practitioner of the art, splitting octaves vocally as Evan Parker might in an epic of circular breathing.

In these two sets of duos, the conversant element has become as much about the exploration of what makes up words and sentences—in some ways much more elemental than dialogue. Relearning the production of sounds, strung together to create brief lines of communication while simultaneously reveling in the joy of having that very ability to produce sounds. So as we might say improvisation is a truly communicative art form, it is also one that gets at the very roots - the 'dik' - of communication.

Rules of Engagement Volume 2

Personnel: Dominic Duval (b) Joe McPhee (ss, voc)

Track Listing: Nexus - Sunday Improvisations 1 - Sunday's Coda - Birmingham Sunday - Monologue - Sunday Improvisations 2 - Amazing Grace - While My Lady Sleeps - Coming Forth - Solo Sax - Solo Bass

Tribute to Paradise

Personnel: Ellen Christi (voc) Gary Hassay (as, voc)

Track Listing: Three Deuces Three - Episteme - Mystery Within - Anodyne - Nikki Bright Eyes - Circle of Life - Outside the Box - Fireweed


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