Is there any more powerful sound in music than that of the sax/drums duo? Personally, I doubt it. The combination of the expressive blast of the horn and the undulant forms thrown by the drumkit seems to represent free music at its most elemental and dangerous. More than any other configuration, the sax and drums line-up also embodies the idea of improvisation as dialogue that, for me at least, has always been central to improvised music. It’s at times like this that I reach for the writings of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975):
The utterance is filled with dialogic overtones, and they must be taken into account in order to fully understand the style of the utterance. After all, our thought itself – philosophical, scientific, artistic – is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others’ thought, and this cannot but be reflected in the forms that verbally express our thought as well.1
Over the years I’ve seen a few sax players and drummers squaring up to each other, most often in permutations of Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark or Mats Gustafsson on the one hand and Paal Nilssen-Love or Didi Kern on the other. Of course, I missed Brötzmann’s gig with the British percussionist Steve Noble at the Blue Tomato this week – his first appearance there for over two years, and I missed his last one as well. But I was able to catch two superlative examples of the genre recently in Vienna.
First up, the long-established Vandermark/Nilssen-Love duo, again at the Blue Tomato. Vandermark is another musician whose gigs I keep missing. Can it really have been two years since I last saw him play, with his Resonance Ensemble at Porgy & Bess? This blog would appear to suggest so, but then again there have been many gigs I never got around to reviewing, so who knows. Anyway, Ken and Paal were electrifying on this occasion. Kicking off on tenor, Vandermark alternated zinging melodies with blasts of pure noise while Nilssen-Love wove intricate threads of percussive texture. During the two 45-minute sets, the pair demonstrated the kind of empathy and mutual awareness that can only come from years of playing together, listening to one another and responding to the other’s statements with declarative positions of one’s own. At one point, as Nilssen-Love took a stark, brittle solo, the reedsman reached for his clarinet before seemingly changing his mind and turning instead to the hefty baritone sax. Using the considerable wallop of this instrument to draw the Norwegian into ever more frenzied bursts of activity, Vandermark traced wave after wave of hook-laden melodic invention. Turning to the clarinet for a long, bracing passage of circular breathing, the American showed that his ability to scramble the conscious mind remains as sure and true as ever.
A month or so later it was time to check out the first appearance in Vienna by the brilliant US free drummer Chris Corsano, here in the company of Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen. It was a pleasure to watch this new duo play in the unusual and intimate environs of Mo.ë, a room which doubles as concert venue and exhibition space and as a result has a uniquely informal vibe to it. With the musicians setting up in the centre of the room and the audience able to wander around at will, the gig had the air of a friendly, spontaneous happening.
Mette Rasmussen has a remarkably fluid and expressive tone on the alto saxophone. Her playing at times evokes the rich, heavenward clarity of Albert Ayler, at others the throaty roar of Mats Gustafsson. Equally, though, she’s able to sidestep these influences and assert her own individual sound in piercingly high tones and controlled outbursts of free playing. Corsano, meanwhile, keeps up his end of the conversation in gripping manner, utilizing a wide range of extended techniques (bowing the edge of the drum, microscopic percussive incidents, blowing on some kind of customized reed instrument) but always returning to that infinite melting pulse. It was an engrossing encounter from a duo that seems destined for great things.
1. I was introduced to Bakhtin by my English tutor at Sussex, the late Frank Gloversmith, to whom I owe an enormous personal debt.