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Joe McPhee and Evan Parker - Chicago Tenor Duets

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Artist: Joe McPhee and Evan Parker

Album: Chicago Tenor Duets

Label: Okkadisk

Review date: Mar. 30, 2003

Parker and McPhee

I remember being cramped in the Empty Bottle in May 1998 during that club’s annual festival. As always, the audience speculated about what festival curator John Corbett had planned for that evening’s surprise set, which customarily puts together unexpected or unusual combinations of players. When it was revealed that the evening’s set would pair the tenor saxophones of Joe McPhee and Evan Parker, a current of excitement went through the crowd, which quickly became church-quiet as McPhee and Parker proceeded to blow us all away. When I returned to the club for the next day’s performances – the duo set from the night before still lingering, along with my awe at McPhee’s ability to coax Parker into lyrical spaces – I overheard that the players had felt so strongly about their set that they’d gone into the studio.

Here, at long last and after many delays, are the results. And let me tell you, this shit is deep. You probably already know that each of these fellows has recorded abundantly in both solo (Parker’s many soprano masterpieces and his lone tenor date for Okkadisk, McPhee’s legendary Tenor, As Serious As Your Life, and the reissue-worthy Graphics, all for Hat Art) and duo situations (with and without other saxophonists). And Chicago has its own history of tough tenor battles. But, without much exaggeration, let me just say that this one will knock you out. From the melancholy grains of the opening “Duet 2” (which could almost be a dopesick Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz from outer space, a vibe heard again on “Duet 6”) through the high harsh keening of “Duet 3” (the circular breathing of angry birds), Parker and McPhee were in top form.

The terrific warm acoustics of Airwave studios showcase their spitfire fantasies, their clucking and popping, and the cooing of their abstract melodicism. Across this rich, varied program there is a huge range of moods, with material that stretches along the dynamic and structural spectra. Each player, clearly long familiar with the other, is generous in spirit, occasionally ceding to the other’s idiom while also pulling his partner along when the moment demands. So McPhee engages in some of his most radical horn-playing since the ‘70s, while Parker relaxes into some of his most warm and gentle playing (it’s hard to say whether that isn’t actually the more radical gesture these days). The long “Duet 5” is an exquisite example of this type of meeting of radicalism and lyricism. And on “Duet 9,” believe it or not, the two create some fantastic tumbling counterpoint that might just silence some of those who claim that free improvisers can't swing. “Duet 11” has some high lonely overtones floating and blending softly and mysteriously. So: this ain’t no cutting contest, just one of the best improv discs in recent memory. By no means should you miss this rich course from two brilliant musicians.

By Jason Bivins

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