strange bedfellows

For whatever reason, I'm drawn to the stranger jazz ensembles. If it's a band entirely of the same instrument, I'm almost certainly on board. I find tantalizing possibilitoes in an all-sax trio like Sonore (Vandermark, Brötzmann and Gustafsson). Small, drumless groups always catch my attention—whether playing in a more traditional mode, like the classic Jimmy Giuffre Trio or the modern, à la Bill Frisell's 858 Quartet. Lately, I'm obsessed with duos between saxophones and electronics.

There's a longer tradition to the pairing than one might expect: the earliest example I have is from 1976,  Anthony Braxton and Richard Teitelbaum—a duo that is still (periodically) active today. In fact, their 1982 collaboration Open Aspects (Duo) may well have been the first Braxton record I ever bought (a great record, but a poor starting point, as his duos with Tietelbaum are unlike anything else in his oeuvre).

Read any interview with a prog-rock keyboardist, and you'll find plenty of choice words about what wrestling with electronics was like in the 70s. Keyboard technology is still advancing rapidly, today. 40 years ago, they were barely more than barely tempered electricity. Early keyboards seemed like they were held together with chewing gum and twine—patches of wires that had to be connected manually, unstable electronics, sounds playing directly off magnetic tape and pitched by playback speed depending on the key pressed… Getting them to make a noise at all (let alone the noise you wanted) was a challenge. Compound all this with a desire to improvise responsively and you begin to get an idea of just how Silence / Time Zones was far ahead of its time.

By 1997, when Evan Parker and Lawrence Casserley's made Solar Wind, electronics could feature not as a separate instrument, but instead as an invisible sonic funhouse. Casserley manipulates Evan Parker's trademark saxophone squiggles in real-time with effects and processes to make them even more alien than usual. This experiment was so profound, Parker later expanded upon it to a long-running, larger group called the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble.

While similar ideas had been tried before—Brian Eno running Manzanera's guitar through a modular synth on John Cale's Gun, comes to mind—the technology was really beginning to come of age at the turn of the century. Thanks in part to techno's popularity, the tools and range of possibilities of electronics were expanding exponentially.

This idea, in the context of improvised music, is fraught. While a performer with a score need only carry on—playing what's prescribed them, regardless of the output—improvisors have to make compositional choices in the moment. With this set-up, Parker can't know what the choices he makes will sound like, once Casserley is done with them. He is having a sonic dialogue with a version of himself—one he has only limited control of.

Nowadays, these techniques and tools are far more prevalent in improvised music and I think (rather ironically) many standout improvisors actually use the most rudimentary equipment possible. Toshimaru Nakamura performs on what he calls a 'no-input mixing board'. Quite literally, he takes a small portable mixing deck and wires it to itself, creating feedback which he then manipulates with effects boxes and the simplest tools available: the board's volume, pitch and pan controls. Through singular dedication to this simple tool, he's become an adept, responsive and expressive collaborator.

Dusted Machinery is a recent album finding him in a duo with a European impov titan, John Butcher. Butcher's astounding store of extended techniques, keeps him closely tethered to Nakamura's squeals and rumbles. The delineation between organic and artificial frequently eludes you here.

There is very little more Earthbound than the saxophone. It's been said that—through some mystic combination of the breath, reed, echoing chambers and complex fingerings—the saxophone has the most human expression of any classical instrument. It's why there's more famous jazz saxophonists than any other instrument. Conversely, keyboards and electronics struggle to this day to be fully accepted as valid improvising tools. (The 70s dalliances of fusion jazz didn't help the case.) It's a base-level challenge to create a truly unique voice on a keyboard. Interestingly, even if they have the world of pitch and sound at their fingertips, that may also be a detriment. Limitations can be an amazing wellspring of creativity. If your instrument can make any sound imaginable in any pitch from subsonic to dog-whistle, you may well have too much leeway to operate, artistically.

The exploration of unknown possiblities crossed with restraint are the fundamental elements of these records. With no written material, each duo must quickly define the parameters they are going to work withing to get down to the real business of improvisation: communication. Listening to this most unlikely combination of instruments as they find a shared language is a revelatory window into the very art of the music itself.