As a protégé of Lennie Tristano in the late 1940s and early 1950s, tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh learned lessons that shaped his playing until his death in 1987. He has inspired a cult following among musicians, particularly saxophonists seeking an alternative to the John Coltrane approach, and Ne Plus Ultra fully justifies his status as a legend of the cool school.
Recorded in 1969 with a thoroughly rehearsed ensemble, the date finds Marsh exploring conventional forms with precision and depth. Having famously teamed with Lee Konitz for Tristano's sides on Capitol, Marsh enlists alto saxophonist Gary Foster for Ne Plus Ultra; comparisons to Konitz are inevitable, but the less influential Foster is still a force to be reckoned with. His polished tone and fluid lines are so compatible with Marsh's own that one begins to suspect some form of telepathic communication is at work.
The title of the Konitz composition featured here, "Subconscious-Lee," is particularly appropriate: calling to mind the anarchic dialogue of a Eugene Ionesco play, the saxophonists speak over one another, prompted only on a subconscious level by each other's phrases. To close the album, the two players trace the lineage of their advanced contrapuntal jazz to Bach with a tongue-in-cheek rendering of his thirteenth two-part invention.
Neither the absence of a chordal instrument nor the dominant character of the two horns can squelch the superb efforts of the rhythm section. Each of Dave Parlato's unaccompanied bass improvisations is a treat, and John Tirabasso's drumming is thoughtful and precise. Solos are brief and densely packed, lending an air of round-table discussion to the album. The group's dynamic range is somewhat limited, excepting "Touch and Go," a free piece containing the disc's most melodic and direct playing.
Hatology has reissued this much-bootlegged item with the usual pristine sound quality. Ne Plus Ultra is a no-brainer for Marsh converts; others may find its abstract qualities difficult to penetrate, but an engaged listener can look forward to a wealth of no-nonsense musical invention.
Track Listing: You Stepped Out Of A Dream; Lennie
Personnel: Warne Marsh: tenor saxophone; Gary Foster: alto saxophone; Dave Parlato: bass; John
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