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Paul Flaherty and Chris Corsano - Steel Sleet & Last Eyes

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Artist: Paul Flaherty and Chris Corsano

Album: Steel Sleet & Last Eyes

Label: Tyyfus

Review date: Jun. 27, 2005

For the Finnish label Tyyfus, connecting with extreme music isn’t about getting it or not getting it; it’s about feeling it or not feeling it. Hetero Skeleton’s Reflaxativity Suite: A Suite in 40 Bowel Movements, Tyyfus’ first release, was a cassette of spastic noise bursts best described as anti-jazz. It said nay to all music fundamentals save one: physical energy.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based label Records also believes in blunt directness. When it comes to the label name, they couldn’t have found one more purely functional, more starkly descriptive. For contact info, they provide only a P.O. Box, the lockbox of anonymity.

Fitting then, that these two labels have released the latest efforts from drummer Chris Corsano and saxophonist Paul Flaherty. Both records were recorded on one day in a Cambridge radio studio. Steel Sleet, on Tyyfus, features Flaherty on tenor, while Last Eyes, on Records, features Flaherty on alto. Damien Mullane’s cover art uses the same thick block lettering, the same bold line drawings of the duo. Only the colors, black, white and gray (of course), differ, reversed on each like photo negatives.

Taken together, the records contain over 60 minutes of gritty, breathtaking improvisation that is unstructured but not disorganized; raw but not chaotic; always in flux yet never unfocused.

They crackle with the duo’s physical exertion. One is always aware that Flaherty is pushing air through a metal tube, that Corsano is beating skins stretched taut over wood and flattened metal. On “Post-dated still,” Flaherty squeezes a tiny rainbow of tones from an alto mouthpiece. At the end of “Whiskey & Soda,” he splits a held note into a strained twee and a brassy groan. Corsano’s kit sounds ready to disintegrate at all times.

The overall tone of the records recalls Albert Ayler’s primitive approach. The brief spell of thumping groove at the beginning of “Sign your name in the sand, please” could easily be one the saxophone maverick’s themes. Yet most of the pieces show the duo starting from one place, like the bubbly alto theme of “Doesn’t make sense considering your lack of fat,” and ending somewhere else, in this case a firestorm of snare, cymbals and alto scree.

Flaherty’s playing is febrile, his tone mercurial. It rises and falls through timbres resonating with history. His tone on alto is broad, at times Johnny Hodges-gorgeous, until it explodes with Ayler’s unhinged glossolalia. On tenor, Flaherty moves at moments with the muscular pathos and sentimentality of Sonny Rollins, at others he burns with brusque, untutored fire of Archie Shepp. Yet his playing is more than just a string of descriptive touchstones, as he guides these timbres into a titanic flow.

Rather than compete with the saxophonist’s surging and receding dynamics, Corsano anneals them. Towards the end of “Master of the Buffet,” as Flaherty shreds the tenor’s upper reaches, Corsano sprays the air with tight patterns of buckshot snare hits. Midway through “Doesn’t make sense, considering your lack of fat,” Flaherty tests the ductility of his alto phrases, stretching them upwards towards their breaking point. Corsano extends the saxophonist’s efforts, hammering out a rising rhythm that eventually shatters.

Flaherty and Corsano develop their aerobic improvisations with a virile, single-minded drive. The former sets the pace of Steel Sleet’s “Rhino Grey” with his breath, like an athlete pushing at the limits of endurance. He jumps hard on the beginning of a phrase, kicking up thick, wall-like waves of sound until they gradually die down. With each exhale the notes waver and quake with more urgency, effort becoming exhaustion. These pieces aren’t about developing a relation between melody and rhythm by repeating and varying a theme - they’re about avoiding stagnation by maintaining a focused blast of intensity.

Corsano excels at keeping the kinetic energy seething forward. The 30-year-old drummer doesn’t play anything strikingly new, but he articulates every snare roll, bass thump, tom beat and rim shot. On the 11-minute “Whiskey & Soda,” from Steel Sleet, he turns his set into a perpetual motion machine. He thrashes out a ride cymbal pulse for the duration, fluctuating the dynamics with a momentary eruption of double-time like he’s fused Elvin Jones’ architecture with Rashied Ali’s thunder.

The pair can also work as a fluid tag team, especially on the 12-minute “Master of the Buffet.” They continually threaten to let their feral rumble become a roar, until Corsano lays out and Flaherty vaporizes the tension with a blues-soaked, hymnal cadenza.

When Flaherty changes direction so rapidly, he invites risk, a whiff of danger even, to the proceedings. During the opening of ”Whiskey & Soda,” he rends the mournful calm of his mews with spurts of white-hot, piercing upper register.

Flaherty takes the opposite approach during an unaccompanied flight on “I Miss Jimmy.” He builds up a dark storm cloud of split tones, then depressurizes rapidly, leaving a ripe, menacing silence, the kind just before a tornado appears.

One never knows which direction he’ll choose, and when he does, it’s certain that Corsano will be there to push him further down the path. Together they achieve that holy grail of improvisation: unpredictability. Flaherty and Corsano’s strain of free music is not weighed down by abstraction, density or complexity. It is tangible, tactile, simple. And the stripped-down duo setting of these LPs provides a powerful way to experience it. Two men, one sax, one drum kit. No more, no less. Perfect.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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