What/If/They Both Could Fly
On a sultry July evening on an intimate stage at Kongsberg Jazz Festival, Norway, two elder statesmen of improvised music -- one wearing a grey shirt, the other sporting a Thunder Pussy T-shirt -- stepped up to the platform. What followed resembled an in-depth conversation between two old friends and sparring partners -- one that ranged from the amicable to the argumentative, from hush to harmony. Now, Norway's adventurous Rune Grammofon label is releasing a 40-minute recording of that event. What/If/They Both Could Fly is only the second time this titanic pair has appeared as a duo on record. Their paths have crossed sporadically over the years: Evan Parker has guested in Joe McPhee's Survival Unit III group, and they have frequently made up a trio with saxophonist Daunik Lazro. But their only release together was Chicago Tenor Duets, back in 2000, praised in Jazz Times for its mixture of lyricism and complexity. Evan Parker was 68 when this concert was recorded and by now, music just seems to beat within him, sure as his own heartbeat. McPhee, at 73, is the elder here, but his zaps of energy on the tiny pocket trumpet, and his thoughtful, exploratory lines and throbbing soprano sax overtones are played as vigorously as a man half his age. Listen to the amazing zigzags of interlocking sound about six minutes into opening track "What." Hear the microtonal mayhem swarming at the start of "They Both Could Fly." The duo never seeks to dazzle with virtuosity, but their total mastery of their instruments allows them to dance around each other and match each other's moves point-for-point and blow-for-blow. Joe has played in groups with Peter Brötzmann, Kent Kessler, Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love, Dominic Duval, and Joe Giardullo. He appeared with Evan Parker's trio on the legendary Redwood Session (1995). Since the early 1960s, there are few jazz and improv musicians Evan hasn't worked with; he has also cropped up unexpectedly on records by everyone from Scott Walker and Charlie Watts to Spring Heel Jack and British comedian Vic Reeves. A founder of independent free music label Incus, he now runs his own label Psi, releasing core recordings by himself and others. The duo improvises moment by moment, but there's a tangible, overarching arc that these two veterans instinctively understand -- a depth of vision that lifts them head and shoulders above their younger peers. Play this and you'll believe two men can fly.