Tony Bianco and Paul Dunmall at the Vortex in London

John Sharpe By

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Bianco kicked off with a machine gun ratatat, atop a polyrhythmic rumble, which he continued unabated for almost the entire 35-minute first piece.
Tony Bianco/Paul Dunmall Duo
Vortex Jazz Bar
London, England
January 25, 2009

It was billed as a trio, but in retrospect it was hard to see how a bassist could fit in with the powerhouse duo of U.S. expat drummer Tony Bianco and English reed explorer Paul Dunmall. As it happened, bassist John Edwards was in demand gigging elsewhere, leaving his two colleagues to put on a mesmerizing performance at London's Vortex Jazz Bar in front of some 30 people on a rainy Sunday night.

New York-born and bred, Bianco functions in both the contemporary jazz and improvised fields, with luminaries such as saxophonists Dave Liebman, Luther Thomas and Evan Parker, and bassists Reggie Workman, Jay Oliver and Anthony Jackson. He came to London in 1996 by way of Berlin, hanging with the improvised music scenes in both countries. Dunmall has been among his most regular collaborators in England, and they are jointly featured on ten recordings to date, with Utoma Trio (Emanem, 2000) being among the most highly regarded.

Dunmall should need no introduction by now, being one of the UK's most impressive saxophone voices, with a worldwide reputation (witness his set at the 2008 Vision Festival). The Kent-born reedman's resume includes well- known figures as diverse as Johnny Guitar Watson, Alice Coltrane, and Henry Grimes. But even more characteristic are his wide-ranging collaborations with a diversity of less well-known, but no less worthwhile, musicians across a range of genres, many of them documented meetings on the sixty plus releases on his own Duns Limited Edition label.

On this night in late January, they together conceived a distinctive free-jazz cocktail over the course of two fully improvised sets totaling some 90 minutes. For saxophone/drum duets, John Coltrane's Interstellar Space is an inevitable touchstone, which both men would acknowledge, but which both have used more as inspiration than source.

Bianco kicked off with a machine gun ratatat, atop a polyrhythmic rumble, which he continued unabated for almost the entire 35-minute first piece. After a few minutes, Dunmall entered with measured phrases in the higher register of his tenor saxophone. Pacing himself, he gradually increased the intensity and angularity of his lines, as Bianco varied his snare patterns and introduced cymbal splashes into the mix. Somehow the drummer raised his energy levels even higher, causing Dunmall to respond with long legato lines culminating in hoarse rasping honks. Even though the saxophonist worked at a slower tempo than Bianco, their separate lines meshed and engaged for a satisfying whole.

After a while the cumulative impact of Bianco's stick work took on a hypnotic quality, akin to minimalist composition, where even a small variation assumed great significance, evidence of the drummer's interest in creating drones as well as investigating varying time signatures. Most of the time Bianco played with his eyes closed, only occasionally glancing across to Dunmall or out at the audience, sometimes with mouth open, emitting a wordless shout or moan. Nonetheless, he was responsive to the nuances of Dunmall's playing, emphasizing deep saxophone blurts with a flurry on his snare, incorporated without interrupting his overall flow.

By way of contrast to the wall of sound, Dunmall worked with short phrases, sculpting them out of the middle and lower registers, then pausing and reworking in different directions. As he warmed to his task, he would sway backwards and up onto his toes, exorcising gruff blurts and multiphonic squawks, before slipping back to the middle register to build again, with an almost oceanic inevitability. For the second piece he unleashed his saxello (which used to belong to the late Elton Dean) for a more piercing, and if anything, even more thoughtful contrast to Bianco's imperceptibly varying fusillade. Towards the end of the piece, Dunmall repeated a long sustained tone, as a cue for Bianco to wind down for a unison close.

For the second set, after another intense tenor saxophone and drum duet, the pair was joined by the Philadelphia-based saxophonist Elliott Levin, lately residing in London. Levin graced the ensembles of both Cecil Taylor and Odean Pope, and appeared on small group sessions with Sun Ra Arkestra stalwarts saxophonist Marshall Allen and the late trombonist Tyrone Hill, among others. As befits a veteran free jazzer, Levin worked in the upper registers more consistently than Dunmall, with lines composed of sequences of squeals, briefly played with the bell of his horn pushed into his thigh to muffle his sound.

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