Modern bass playing, and the special relationship in jazz between bass and piano, could be said to have begun in the early 1940s, with the partnership of pianist Duke Ellington and bassist Jimmy Blanton.
In a series of duo recordings as impactful, among musicians, as saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's couplings a few years later, Blanton took his instrument beyond its role as a more or less lumpen metronomic device and, in intimate relationship with Ellington's piano, revealed its potential as a harmonically and rhythmically fully functioning, proactive presence.
Amongst the songs Ellington and Blanton recorded was "Pitter Panther Patter," Ellington's alliterative sketch of Blanton's feline agility. In a nod to their illustrious godfathers, the tune closes Line Up, longtime playing partners pianist Russ Lossing and bassist John Hebert's debut album as a duo.
Line Up is a mainly improvised, sometimes craggy but more often warm and playful message from the lyrical avant-garde. It's harmonically adventurous, and mostly avoids simple motor rhythms, but is engaging and accessible. And, while light years on from the Ellington/Blanton collaborations, is unmistakably in the tradition.
"Pitter Panther Patter" and Irving Berlin's "All Alone" are the only covers on the disc. Both are deconstructed but not so completely as to abandon the composers' original forms and changes, and "Pitter Panther Patter" ends with a by-the-book rendition of its theme. The remaining tracks are either free improvisations or co-compositions. Hebert contributes three of his own tunes, Lossing one.
Forms and changes figure amongst the originals too. Sketchily, in the free improvisationsmost of which begin within a pre-composed rhythm patternand more completely in Hebert and Lossing's solo compositions. Hebert's "For A.H.," a peaceful, very lovely tune written for pianist Andrew Hill (to whom Hebert showed it a few weeks before Hill's death), and "Blind Pig," a noir-ish, waltz-based piece, are precisely structured. So too is Lossing's perky, boppish title track. "Fais Do-Do" is actually rooted in a Cajun three-step, though the provenance is pretty well disguised.
Piano and bass offer a relatively restricted tonal and textural palette, and it takes outstandingly creative and interactive players to engage interest over an entire album. Lossing and Hebert succeed without a single longueur. You don't even have to meet them halfway. Albums like Line Up make one regret, once again, that so many listeners avoid anything perceived as free improv. It's a broad church, if only more people knew it.