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The Pandemic Sessions: Duos, Part 1


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After the initial shock of the COVID-19 crisis and subsequent lockdown, artists did what artists do. Unable to tour, many musicians created solo projects. Musicians, like other sentient beings though, crave contact, so when some of the most severe restrictions lifted, duos were formed and production returned. These small positive steps (note: some were recorded before the pandemic) are a glimmer of hope for a return to normalcy.

Michael And Peter Formanek
Out Of Your Head Records

There's no better example of the old saying, "the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree," than this father and son duo of Michael Formanek and Peter Formanek. Listeners no doubt will be familiar with bassist Michael Formanek's work in Thumbscrew with Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara, his longstanding association with Tim Berne's projects, and his own ensembles both large and small. Besides the solid anchor that is his bass playing, he has an organizational and compositional sense built into every situation he finds himself. Certainly that is evident here, not only in the bassist's compositions, but also in his son's. Peter Formanek has a solid tenor saxophone voice that is as weighty as his pop's bass. His composition "After You" displays a mature and patient approach to his playing, and the improvised "The Woods" explores the edges of his clarinet technique, but never goes off the rails. Half of the music is penned by either father or son and the remaining half are improvised. Kudos to the pair for creating coherent and satisfying music both compositionally and instantaneously.

Sarah Ruth Alexander & Damon Smith
God Made My Soul An Ornament
Balance Point Acoustics

While not the first meeting between multi—instrumentalist/vocalist Sarah Ruth Alexander and bassist Damon Smith, God Made My Soul An Ornament is their first recording together. Alexander, a Texas performance artist, can be heard in various settings including pop music, metal, ambient drone, electronic noise and new music composition. Her shapeshifting style informs this recording and energizes Smith's approach. Not as if the St. Louis bassist needs motivation. His musical expressions seem boundless, traveling and recording with everyone from Roscoe Mitchell to Burton Greene, Cecil Taylor, and Joe McPhee.

The titles of ten tracks here come from Fernando Pessos' The Book Of Disquiet. Like the book itself, the music is fragmented and shapeshifting. Nevertheless, the pieces scattered by the duo seem to always come together in captivating shapes. While initial impressions might be centered around Alexander's voice—she has an approach similar to that of Shelley Hirsch—it is her combination of voice plus dulcimer, slide whistle, recorder, and objects that elevate this recording. Alexander hums over Smith's knocking physical manipulation of his double bass before she rattles objects (dinner plates and bells?) in tandem with his fingers and arco bow attack. Alexander and Smith reduce the entire Art Ensemble of Chicago down to just two performers.

Giancarlo Nino Locatelli & Alberto Braida
From Here From There
We Insist! Records

The conversation between clarinetist Giancarlo Nino Locatelli and pianist Alberto Braida continues with From Here From There. It's a tête-à-tête that has been almost continuous since 1996. Two friends in dialogue, with each one having the ability to complete the sentence of the other. The pair's previous releases include Nel Margine (Red Toucan Records, 2013), The Big Margotta (Editions Brokenresearch, 2009), Due (Z-rec, 2004), and Diciannove Calefazioni (Takla Records, 1999). There are also collaborations between the two and Gino Robair and Peter Kowald. This outing finds the pair sharing compositional credits and playing in a most relaxed manner. The music reminds one of the Steve Lacy & Mal Waldron duos. Like Lacy/Waldron, the pair take their inspiration from the music of Thelonious Monk. Not in the choice of tunes, but in the space between notes. Locatelli's Bb clarinet differs from Lacy's soprano saxophone in that Lacy's sharp acerbic tone is replaced by a sweet tempered sound. Same can be said for Braida; his piano touch has as much in common with that of John Lewis as it does Monk. Locatelli and Alberto Braida catch the listener off guard by delivering an avant-garde performance wrapped in a very approachable sound.

Paul Dunmall & Mark Sanders
577 Records

Although saxophonist Paul Dunmall and drummer Mark Sanders have been performing and recording together for multiple decades in every combination from trio (Deep Whole Trio) to large ensemble (Moksha Big Band), they had not laid down a saxophone + drums pairing. There was Pipe & Drum (FMR Records, 2012) a bagpipes and drums recording, but it appealed to a very select audience. Unity delivers what The Kinks would sing: "Give the people what they want." Certainly what the people desire is this distillation of a Coltrane and post-Coltrane world, one that Dunmall and Sanders have been trading in for years. Dunmall's various tribute albums to Coltrane have always started with the master's music before developing and expanding the concepts. With Unity, the saxophonist plays tenor on two tracks, "There's The Distance" and "The Quiet Mind." Both suss out the Coltrane effect with Sanders sounding much like a cross between Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali, in other words, like himself. The latter composition trades in a meditative sound with Sanders' gong and brushwork. "Dwelling In Unity" takes its cues from Albert Ayler's high-wire balancing act with Dunmall on alto and the final two tracks, "The Vacuum" and "Henry Grimes," finds him with his C melody saxophone. Those two tracks are the richest, most unique Dunmall/Sanders visions from this session. The performance here (and throughout) is fluid and full of life-affirming declarations.

RareNoise Records

While only one of the six tracks on HUMANBEING includes a second performer, the exploration of the corporal body by composer Rossano Baldini gives the distinct impression it is a pandemic duo. Baldini, an Italian pianist and composer, has toured with orchestras utilizing his skills at the accordion and also composed soundtracks for cinema and television. That dualistic thread is further demonstrated by Baldini's creation of the alter-ego HUMANBEING for this project. Begun before, but completed during the pandemic, the six organs of the body represented here become Baldini's partners. "Flesh" is borne out by a synthesizer waves and solitary notes struck on piano and his bercandoneon, a two handed accordion device. The music, like a body, is interconnected. "Flesh" segues into "Blood" which has the insistence of pulse beating a tempo. The music draws from the electronic eeriness of Aphex Twin, Biosphere, and Squarepusher, but with more cinematic themes. Baldini is a storyteller, and he is chronicling the body. "Skin" spreads out muffled voices covering an ambient expanse which, in another context, might play out as a continuous loop. The "Lungs" fuel the body's engine, turning the magic of oxygen into fuel, sounded by the complex architecture of notes that collide from synths and guitar. Onward to "Liver," pulsing and filtering with a machinelike cadence, and "Heart" adds Carmine Luvone's cello for a ramping up of pulse and a culmination of this fantastic journey.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Two, Not One; Wandering, Searching, Digging, Uncovering; After You; The Woods; Push Comes To Shove; How Was The Drive?; There's No There There; Hoarse Syrinx; Wavy Lines; Hurricane; Ballad Of The Weak; DNA; That Was Then.

Personnel: Michael Formanek: acoustic bass; Peter Formanek: tenor saxophone.

God Made My Soul An Ornament

Tracks: My Curiosity, The Sister Of Skylarks; The Perfidious Anxiety Of Sunsets, The Shy Shrouds Of Dawn; Low Sky Of Unmoving Clouds; A Cosmis Holding Of Breath; We Are Only Able To Teach The Real Rules Of Life To Those Already Dead; Metaphysical Enemy; Indefinite Lucid Blue Pallor Of The Aquatic Evening; History Rejects Certainty; Feeling Is Such A Bore.

Personnel: Sarah Ruth Alexander: voice, hammered dulcimer, recorder, slide whistle, objects; Damon Smith: double bass.    

From Here From There

Tracks: C'è Un Luogo; Calamus; Counterpoint; Flatus; Ninna Nanna; Once It Was The Color Of Saying; Lucius; Campanile; Tropus.

Personnel: Giancarlo Nino Locatelli: Bb clarinet; Alberto Braida: piano.    


Tracks: Dwelling In Unity; There's The Distance; The Quiet Mind; The Vacuum; Henry Grimes.

Personnel: Paul Dunmall: alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, C melody saxophone; Mark Sanders: drums, percussion.    


Tracks: Flesh; Blood; Skin; Lungs; Liver; Heart.

Personnel: Rossano Baldini: piano, electronics, Rhodes, synthesizers, electric guitar, bercandoneon; Carmine Luvone: cello.    

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