The piano and saxophone duo of Matthew Shipp and Rob Brown has a musical history which dates back three decades to Sonic Explorations (Cadence, 1988) but they have recorded in this formation sparingly, only releasing one other album, Blink of an Eye (No More Records, 1997). The balance which developed at the start of both of their recording careers has not gone out of sync despite the chronological gap between projects. On Then Now, the maturity and accumulated proficiency of the pair makes for a satisfying reunion.
The eight improvised pieces acknowledge the complexities of language that Shipp and Brown have individually developed over time but, in each case, a lyrical and accessible foundation supports the music. Rumbling turbulence often beaks the surface within individual pieces such as "Then Now #2" and "Then Now #8" but, overall, that is not the demeanor of the album. The clarity with which Brown and Shipp express their improvised ideas is prominent. Most intriguing is "Then Now #4"; Brown's impassioned alto lines resist Shipp's bifurcated clips at the keyboard before yielding to the intensity. Both players get a solo track; Shipp on the very brief "Then Now #5" and Brown on "Then Now #7."
Then Now is uncompromising; the improvisations do not resolve but ceaselessly and blissfully vacillate from one sequence of concepts to another. If there is a strategy here, and it is not at all clear there is, it could be capitalizing on Shipp's and Brown's ability to focus deeply and at length on the aggregate elements of their music without losing sight of each other. There are no premeditated tête-à-têtes between the two, but a kaleidoscope of ever-changing colors, some in hushed tones, others in gasps. Then Now is strikingly difficult and melodically elegant in equal measure.