A new 2003 release on Okkadisk features two extraordinary reedsmen, Evan Parker and Joe McPhee. The recording is titled Chicago Tenor Duets.
Putting this CD into the player is similar to inviting two friends to come into the living room.Their performance elicits a conversation between them to which I can only listen. For that reason, it seems that any words that I write here become superfluous but which, as the nature of words is, beyond normal musical jargon, verbal language can form a bridge to musical language. No wisdom conveyed in words, however, can equal the wisdom delivered by this music.
With a startling fanfare, the recording launches into an ongoing series of interlaced improvisations that defy being divided into "Duets #2-#13". The fact that no "Duet #1" exists expresses that all the duets are "Duet #1", the one and only duet. The ultimate in "tenorism" is stretched like a rubber band and, therefore, implies more than is obvious. There are innumerable ways in which the instrumentalists push the limits of their horns to make it easy for me to think that the instruments change often from the deepest sound of a baritone to the high nasal-ness of the soprano.
The abstract textures that the two players knit contrast constantly to each other. Each player plays with dignity and grace. They both reach boundless depth of tone; and at the opposite end of the spectrum find squeaky pitches that do not seem like they could come from a tenor sax. In the construction of the textures, counterpoints pervade the space and in fact often feed the fluidity. Yet, out of the mix come exquisite concurrences that maintain the separation of the two players while simultaneously emphasizing their differences. The vernacular is purely Parker and purely McPhee. I can hear signature phrasing from both players. Parker blows with exceptional clarity and detailed technical process. McPhee often lilts into a bluesy sequence of notes and is boisterous as he can be when playing tenor. Neither player supersedes his vast musicality. The pairing makes perfect sense. Each has the incomparable capacity to finger up and down the register; each has the capacity to valve air through the horn and configure the slightest sound into the larger sonorous picture. Listening means riding the crest of the irreversible forwardness of time. A rhythmic few minutes is impeccably placed within the recording; this rhythmic passage brings the elegance of the predominant formality to eye level whence the musicians reiterate with intensity their evanescent concepts. Their closing gestures seal the totality of their passions.
Long ago when I heard both Parker and McPhee, in different settings, on different recordings, I wondered if the two would ever come together as a duo. When I heard that this recording had been made, in 1998, actually, I awaited it with eagerness. No longer do I have to anticipate what a duo recording would sound like. There is nothing "like" the recording that arrived. And there never will be again. It is a landmark statement.