BY MIKE SHANLEY
Evan Parker and Joe McPhee belong to the old guard of the avant garde, a distinguished group. One was a few years shy of 70 at the time of this recording, the other a few years into that decade, and both are synonymous with free improvised music that can sometimes ask a lot from even diehard fans.
Recorded at the 2012 Konisberg Jazzfestival in Norway, What/If/They Both Could Fly marks only the second time these two friends have performed in a duo setting. For the occasion, Parker sticks exclusively to tenor saxophone, rather than his usual soprano horn. McPhee handles the soprano duties, in the sections when he doesn’t play pocket trumpet. Both men could be expected to unleash a torrent of altissimo shrieks, slow leaks of air, rasps and growls, and sounding as if they’re playing without concern for one another. And there are moments on these three tracks — each named for a section of the title — where that happens. At the same time, Parker and McPhee frequently come together, finishing each other’s thoughts or echoing them. The way they magically land on a unison or develop a melody in “What” makes you wonder whether the nearly 20-minute track has composed sections or if it simply arose spontaneously from two veterans who know when to converge and when to subvert. “If” gets a little looser. McPhee delivers trumpet rasps before he switches to soprano peeps, and Parker uses circular breathing to produce wild arpeggios which skillfully drop in volume as they reshape themselves. But even here, the climax sounds like a simple theme when they resolve together. The final track begins in a predictable territory, for these two at least, with smears, growls and below-the-register squonks.
But by the end, their pointillist approach proves that they can indeed fly.
DOWNLOAD: “What,” “If.”