Furthest From "Weather Bird" So Far...

Nic Jones By

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I've taught jazz history classes where I've made use of the Armstrong yardstick. It's a straightforward thing involving no more than comparing and contrasting two Louis Armstrong performances from the 1920s, the latter of which is always "Weather Bird," a duet featuring Armstrong and Earl Hines, on piano. So pitting, say, "Skip the Gutter," from June of 1928, against the Armstrong-Hines version reveals an extraordinarily accelerated rate of musical development in both players, especially as a mere six months separate the two performances.

There's been nothing inevitable about that rate being maintained. In later years—and for all of the miracles of his trumpet solos—Armstrong settled down as an entertainer more than he did a musician intent on always moving forward. Jazz history shows us how even arch-conservatives can often make for a rewarding listen, but it's still fun to speculate, and a quartet of recent releases makes it unusually so. Violinist Aleks Kolkowski and vocalist Ute Wasserman's Squall Line (Psi, 2011), singer Kay Grant and clarinetist Alex Ward's Fast Talk (Emanem, 2012), and pianists Sebastian Lexer and Christoph Schiller's Luftwurzeln (Matchless, 2012) and AMM's Two London Concerts (Matchless, 2012) not only fit the mould in realizing the potentialities of duo music, but also serve as loosely working definitions of how the music might have turned out if jazz—or, more precisely, improvised music—hadn't split into the multiple strands now enjoyed.

Given the remit imposed by music captured on record, three of the duos are mapping uncharted territory, although to say that AMM isn't, merely because it has a recorded legacy, is misleading. Kolkowski and Wasserman augment the austere lineup of strings and voice with a musical saw (rescued from Vaudeville, at last!), an Edison phonograph and the singer's collection of bird calls. The resulting music is rich, and would be unnerving if it wasn't for the regularity with which the duo fashions intricate counterpoint. In a piece like "Blunk," it's intent on ensuring an equal distance between austerity and richness is maintained.

Grant and Ward are comparatively naked, as it were. Their music comes from Grant's voice and Ward's clarinet and that's it. It might, therefore, be assumed that their efforts exude an air of struggle against limits, but its effortlessness proves otherwise. Their accommodations with the moment are—even when they're at their most overtly active—always sly, and occasionally infused with wit, especially in Grant's case. Given this, a title like "Thin Ice" takes on more than a little irony, especially as the piece consists of some of the most quietly potent music on offer.

Something that the two duos already discussed have in common is a tangible link with the human: it could hardly be any other way, given the presence of voices. Lexer and Schiller offer no such touchstone, and furthermore the negation of the known is integral to their music. The lineup of piano+ (the plus symbol is essential, suggestive as it is of a keyboard augmented) and spinet is hardly rife with precedents. Over the course of just under 43 minutes the sound —and the singular applies despite the joint input—flows in denial of any evolutionary idea. In so doing it can, by turns, merge with the ambient sounds of everyday life as easily as it can raise the question of just how that piano was augmented and, indeed, how some of the sounds were made. Given this pervasive quality, it comes as a surprise when obvious keyboard sounds do appear—as they do in the 19th minute of the album's only piece, but by that point it's obvious that this is a duo which habitually thinks in long-form.

Such thinking is second nature to AMM, one of longest-standing groups in the recorded history of freely improvised music. Consisting of pianist John Tilbury and drummer/percussionist Eddie Prevost, on Two London Concerts the name now implies a restlessly creative collective spirit that hasn't been reduced by familiarity. The two pieces, "E1 AMM" and "SE1 AMM," show the duo going against the historical grain in its shared desire to keep moving. Tilbury's relatively grand gestures in the opening passage of the first piece are as near to convention as the music ever gets, and by the 12th minute the duo is flirting with the silence in one of the many manners to which it has grown accustomed, albeit without ever being mannered.

The work of two need not necessarily ally itself with the known, then; a point which was as true of Armstrong and Hines on December 5, 1928 as it was of AMM on November 27, 2011. The distance covered in the years between has, in many ways, far exceeded the passing of physical time, which only goes to show how endlessly intriguing improvised music can be.

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