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Marshall Allen / Lou Grassi: Live At The Guelph Festival

Budd Kopman By

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Marshall Allen and Lou Grassi make quite a duo. On Live At The Guelph Festival, they play unprepared and unrehearsed music which, due to their skill, has a remarkable degree of coherence. Admittedly, this is free or avant-garde jazz, requiring coherence to be understood within that framework.

Allen is currently leading the Sun Ra Arkestra, after both Sun Ra (1993) and John Gilmore (1995) died, while Grassi has become something of the house percussionist at the CIMP and Cadence record labels. They had never played as a duo, and this meeting was arranged by festival director Ajay Heble.

Each piece develops spontaneously as does the entire set. The chances taken can be heard, as can each musician's reactions in the moment. For the listener, becoming aware and hence appreciating what is happening is what this kind of music is about.

The liner notes give no hint as to whether the names of the tunes were announced and edited out of the recording. The listener can, however, read the names while listening, and try and discern them throughout the improvisations. On the two standards, "When You Wish Upon a Star" and "Prelude to a Kiss," Allen is masterful in making oblique references to each tune's structure and, surprisingly, plays melodically most of the time, with but a few of the squeals and outbursts for which he is known.

The effect of listening carefully and hearing the tune being filled in, ever so delicately, is marvelous. Grassi is always right there, never playing an outright pulse, but rather creating melodic rhythm that comments, supports and urges Allen on. "When You Wish Upon a Star, being almost twenty minutes, is a textbook lesson in allowing the music to take its own time to develop without expectations, the music's sense created and understood moment-to-moment. Subsequent listens confirm, by familiarity, what was merely felt before.

The three central tracks are pure improvisations. On "Far Side," Allen plays flute, while Grassi uses his hands on the drums, and the energy is lowered after the towering sounds of "When You Wish Upon a Star." Allen plays delicately and the interaction with Grassi is actually soothing.

"Blues For Two" is not strictly a blues in structure, but rather is deeply blues drenched by Allen's phrases and Grassi's drumming, while "The Spirit of the Day" slowly takes shape from its simple and playful start, getting raucous at the end.

Allen's closing "Boma" has an actual thematic phrase, which is enunciated and repeated by Allen and taken through some harmonic changes. As this piece works itself out, Grassi maintains a curtain of sound, allowing Allen to build and react.

Live At The Guelph Festival is utterly convincing music that, in retrospect, feels inevitable.

Visit Marshall Allen and Lou Grassi on the web.

Track Listing: Spoken introduction; When You Wish Upon a Star; Far Side; Blues For Two; The Spirit of the Day; Prelude to a Kiss; Boma.

Personnel: Marshall Allen: alto saxophone, flute; Lou Grassi: drums, percussion.

Title: Live At The Guelph Festival | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: Cadence Jazz Records

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