Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp - "Bleed (excerpt)" (Cosmic Lieder)
Julius Hemphill once said that the key to successful improvised music is contrast. He couldn’t have asked for more powerful evidence than this tightly focused baker’s dozen of performances from Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp. The powerful, probing Shipp (whose Art of the Improviser captures his recent piano solo and trio work) is always a challenging, exhilarating duo partner because his specific approach to the rhythm and chording is so distinctive. Then along comes Jones, a full-throated, exuberant alto saxophonist who’s barnstormed his way onto the scene in recent years with his own trio and rock-ish quartet Little Women. While Jones is heard in all his soulful power on Cosmic Lieder, with the resourceful Shipp as his partner, he explores new areas of his playing (or perhaps we’ve all just not been listening closely enough).
The whole song cycle is extremely emotional, but not necessarily in obvious ways. At times, I thought of these pieces as bagatelles or as miniature tone poems. On “Bleed,” Jones’ alto sounds almost like Jackie McLean playing stritch alongside the rapidly changing chords and feels. Elsewhere, they sound like straight-up shouts, as with the spitfire “Black Lightning” and the deeply felt “4-D Vision.” But what becomes apparent the further you get into Cosmic Lieder is how deeply in the grain each quality is woven, continually there to be summoned or coaxed in momentary gestures rather than settled on to the exclusion of other feels. On “Ultima Thule,” for example, Shipp moves seamlessly between elliptical harmonic clusters and lush expressive lines. Jones, too, is very careful and deliberate in his note choices, layering them atop the changing coil before letting loose with tightly focused cries or yawps. And on “Mandrakk” or “Weeja Dell,” Jones plays with such assured attention to microtones and melisma that it almost sounds as if we’re in the Matt Maneri universe, or at least it does so until they spit out a hard bop nugget (“Jonesy”), write their own Gymnopedie (“Zillo Valla”), or chirp along pointillistically (“Motherboxxx”).
So, yeah, the contrast is everywhere -- but it doesn’t display itself to you in any cumbersome sort of fashion. More accurately, these duo performances are truly sympathetic and move at the molecular level, making each piece on Cosmic Lieder wonderfully dense with information and ideas. It’s like listening to soul played by Emerson’s oversoul.