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Joe McPhee & Joe Giardullo: Specific Gravity

Derek Taylor By

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Horn duets are often as challenging as solo horn recitals, both to listeners and performers alike. Free from the frameworks of traditional chordal and rhythmic instruments such pairings can also create a rewarding theatre of unrestrained experimentation. The two players who join forces on this disc aren’t your average Joes. Both seem bent from the onset on unlocking this shared state of being.

Cycling through reeds (and in McPhee’s case a spare brass tool) the duo charts a course by way of constantly changing and often-ethereal sounds. The underpinning of electronic manipulation further stretches the harmonic canvas opening up the inherent limitations of their instruments to a multitude of previously impossible sound precincts. The sprawling opening track holds true to the instinct-laden connotations of its name as the pair unveils a litany of extended techniques and spontaneously rendered patterns ranging from piercing note extensions to fluttering, barely perceptible reed pops. Clocking in a close to a half-hour these highly personal creations are necessarily spotted by moments of lesser impact and collective resolve, but the journey from impetus to completion is also pregnant with thought provoking moments. McPhee’s use of circular breathing on valve trombone two thirds of the way through the piece is just one instance, a revolving orbit of Doppleresque lines that drone in tandem with Giardullo’s bass clarinet.

The other pieces on the disc may be less momentous in length, but each one contains kernels of analogous brilliance comparable to their more spacious cousin. On the title track fluttering streams of elongated tones dance above an abyss of silence, while hue-saturated “Sienna” exists as a sonic veneration to electro-acoustic improvisation. Trane’s timeless “After the Rain” is rendered comparatively straight, but lacks none of the brave sense of discovery that imbues the other tracks thanks to the communal creativity both players funnel into their exquisite variations on the theme. The art of the duo is a sphere necessarily reserved improvisers able to negotiate its myriad challenges. Giardullo and McPhee prove themselves in possession of such mettle, but those listeners familiar with either player are unlikely to require any such convincing.


Track Listing: A Priori/ Specific Gravity/ After the Rain/ Sienna.

Personnel: Joe McPhee- alto clarinet, soprano saxophone, valve trombone, electronics; Joe Giardullo- flute in C, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, electronics. Recorded: September 27, 1997, Bridgeport, CT.

Year Released: 2002 | Record Label: Boxholder Records | Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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