Whittled down to twin instrumental poles, there can be a temptation to fill the yawning gaps between. However the best duets are those which take the less traveled path, taut without undue rhetoric, the route taken by these three saxophone and piano twosomes.
Saxophonist Joel Press' Untying the Standard reunites him with pianist Kyle Aho for a roster of largely standard fare delivered with passion, wit and affection. Though not conceived as a tribute album the standards evoked in Press' mind performances by past masters, such that "There Is No Greater Love" immediately conjures Ben Webster in Press' breathy burnished lines. Recorded in Press' home rehearsal-cum-recording space, the session has the warm intimate vibe of two men reveling in the pure pleasure of making music. Aho proves a perfect partner, playful and knowing, bringing classical and jazz skills to bear without self-consciousness, with their sideways look at Monk's "I Mean You" being a particular highlight. Two joint extemporizations round out the 62-minute set, fitting easily alongside the familiar in their love of melody and flexible approach to time.
Exploring similar terrain is Memories of Vienna by the infrequent pairing of pianist Ran Blake and reed iconoclast Anthony Braxton. Both were in the studio in 1988 during the recording of trumpeter Franz Koglmann's Pipetet, when the opportunity arose for an impromptu session. A list of standards was hastily assembled and the tapes rolled, capturing sparkling interplay in a series of relaxed and expansive renditions. Blake's oblique approach casts Braxton as the straight man with his cool light alto steering clear of the timbral distortions that can be such a feature of his work. Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes" is wrung of all the regret and pathos they can muster while Monk, again, inspires a lovely astringent "'Round Midnight." Generally their readings are straightforward with none of the radical rethinks that characterized some of Braxton's later encounters with the tradition.
More cerebral is Live at Saint Stephens, the duet of baritone saxophonist Charles Evans and longtime associate Neil Shah on piano. They explore five of Evans' introspective and episodic compositions, along with one by Jan Roth, on this live recording where the large hall adds to the austere ambience. Although blending jazz harmonies, free improvisation and contemporary classical techniques, the overall feel is closer to the last in its chromatic lines and avoidance of regular meter in what is nonetheless a genre-busting outing. Evans' mastery is impressive, smoothly negotiating registers to exploit the full range of his horn, with a rich but light falsetto voice particularly on the second part of "On Tone Yet." Shah supports more than leads, his repetitions and atonal voicings providing spare accompaniment in what comes across as a carefully controlled recital from a single entity.
Tracks and Personnel
Untying The Standard
Tracks: You Do Something to Me; Help!; It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got that Swing; Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?); Cherokee; Not So Lucky (for Lucky Thompson); There is No Greater Love; Softly As in a Morning Sunrise; I Mean You; There Will Never Be Another You; I'll Remember April.
Personnel: Joel Press: tenor and soprano saxophones; Kyle Aho: piano.
A Memory of Vienna
Tracks: 'Round Midnight; Yardbird Suite; You Go To My Head; Just Friends; Alone Together; Four; Soul Eyes; I'm Getting Sentimental Over You.
Personnel: Ran Blake: piano; Anthony Braxton: alto saxophone.
Live at Saint Stephens
Tracks: JuniePart ! "The Father," Part II "The Friend"; On Tone YetParts I, II and III; Mono Monk; An Die Fliegenden Fische; Mother And Others; What Worked, What Didn't, What Wouldn't, What Would've.
Personnel: Charles Evans: baritone saxophone; Neil Shah: piano.