LARRY WILLIS and HAMIET BLUIETT:
If Trees Could Talk
These beautiful bari sax/piano duos were the first encounter between these jazz giants. Willis complements Bluiett beautifully, supporting him with chiming chords and elaborating on the melodies 31/2 Stars, according to Down Beat. This recording lights up the gorgeous contrasts between Bluietts huge R&B-based sound and Larrys lush, romantic piano harmonies. They swing from stride and Monk to loft jazz, Coltrane and free improvisation. The Absolute Sound says an achingly lovely often magical session Sound quality is superb. (#06332)
Sometimes, the oddest pairings work out. In the case of these encounters between baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett and pianist Larry Willis, an apparent stylistic contrast contributes to the distinctiveness of the duets. Away from the World Saxophone Quartet, Bluiett can be a single-minded, raucous, potentially overwhelming force. He's determined to probe the outer limits of his horn's range. On tracks like "Ballad For Frederick," he reaches for high notes other baritone saxophonists wouldn't (and shouldn't) attempt. "Whenever We Could" and "Some Other (Schizophrenic) Blues" indulge Bluiett's taste for rowdy blues.
Larry Willis' playing is introspective and even-tempered where Bluiett is impulsive and volatile. Though each man is featured on solo tracks, the baritone horn is clearly the focal point of this session. Willis complements Bluiett beautifully, supporting him with chiming chords and elaborating on the melodies. On "Ask Me Now," the pianist's sensitivity brings out his partner's mellow side. Willis also plays straight man through the saxophonist's swooning, then screaming treatment of "Cherry Pink, Apple blossom White".
Mapleshade's recording of the proceedings is predictably fine. You hear depth and open space surrounding Bluiett's baritone. Without competition from drums and bass, you hear his sonic explorations clearly, from the piercing whistle and clacking of keys at the high end down to the deep grainy tone when Bluiett plumbs the depths. Chronologically, this was Bluiett's first date for Mapleshade, shelved for six years in favor of other projects. Engaging and varied, If Trees Could Talk deserved a better fate. We'll have to resume our wait for a new Larry Willis CD.
This is forward-looking music, full of ruminative subtexts, that retains an adventurous perspective about past milestones, particularly the type of visceral personal expression that marked late-'60s free jazz. It Reflects the community-based performance art of groups like Chicago's AACM and Bluietts's St. Louis brethren, BAG [the Black Artist's Group], and it extends on the saxophonist's long-term creative arc with the World Saxophone Quartet.
There is no questioning engineer Pierre Sprey's commitment to purity of expression in two-track analog recording: he employs minimal miking and no processing whatsoever. But I've found some of his productions, for all their unimpeachable musical integrity [for instance, In Walked Thelonious, a transcendent Monk recital by pianist Walter Davis, Jr.], almost analytical to a fault. But there is visceral impact to the sound of If Trees Could Talk that rises to match the power of the music. From the opening notes of "The African", Bluiett's baritone sax is rendered with stunning immediacy and timbral detail. Some cuts, such as the concluding "Runaway," a solo sax workout, are most definitely not for everybody. Sprey captures the raw character of Bluiett's frequency extremesfrom a foghorn low end to whistling, breathing multiphonics and near-inaudible air-flow soundswith taut realism. It was as if Bluiett were right in the middle of the room with meI could practically smell the brass, and almost offered him a beer. Even without the usual room cues and reverb trails to give you a sense of venue [Sprey favors a fairly dry, close-up sound], one nevertheless has the feeling of being inside a distinct acoustic space.
Not that every cut is so emotionally turbulent. On Monk's ballad "Ask Me Now," Bluiett plays with elegiac grace and grandeur, revealing a richly detailed midrange tone full of Ben Webster- like ornaments and embellishments, while Willis feeds him majestic, harplike chords. Again, the depictions of instrumental imagestheir scale, tone, and shapeare remarkably lifelike; the piano sound Willis elicits fron Sprey's 1911 Steinway Model O on his solo feature, "Ballad for E.K.," is as good as I've heard. And on the joyous dance of "Cherry Pink, Apple Blossom White," the swinging "Bro' Blue," and the gospelish "Aunt Hallie," Sprey captures Bluiett's capacious range, tonal details, and stentorian descents into the lowest register as no one else ever has. Adventurous listeners will be amply rewarded by this recital's impeccable audiophile quality and emotional depth.
The Absolute Sound:
An album of duets by Hamiett Bluiett and Larry Willis doesn't seem such a good idea, at first glance. Willis is the quintessential balladeer's accompanist, caressing lush chords from his keyboard and tossing them in the air like bouquets. Bluiett can go romantic, too, but he stirs up a lusty edge, inclined more to blues than violets, and when the passions rise, he goes howling at the moon. Nonetheless, this is an often magical session that coaxes surprising twists from both men without once prying loose their characters. Check out "Ballad for Frederick," an achingly lovely tune written by Willis, which he starts off with some dissonant clusters that seem utterly uncharacteristicuntil Bluiett's throaty baritone sax floats in with the melody, and you hear just how right they make the dark and the lyrical mesh. If Willis stretches his harmonic sensibilities into new territory, Bluiett presents his own palette of rare colors, most notably on "Straight Ahead, a Day on the Plantation," an up-tempo tune of Tadd Dameron-ish exuberance; you come away from it, whistling. The album opens with an anthemic African rhythm [featuring Bluiett and the percussionist, Asante] and ends with Bluiett, alone, blowing a wild dirge of anger and bewilderment that settles to a melodic peace. In between, there's a Monk, a Coltrane, and an eclectic array of original ballads and blues. Both musicians, who have frequently appeared on Mapleshade discs with their own ensembles, play together with an inventive wit and commanding grace. Sound quality is superb, as is customary from this label. The musicians seem right there in the room.
No duet encounter is worth its weight in salt if the participants aren't reading from the same page, and baritone sax master Hamiett Bluiett and pianist Larry Willis operate as if a pair of young siblings sharing the same engrossing book throughout this date. That sense of sharing, give and take further manifests itself in the musical selection chosen to flesh out these 14 vignettes. (The CD title refers to a Bluiett pronouncement at first encounter of the woods surrounding the antebellum, rural Maryland plantation mansion that houses Mapleshade Records.) The music ranges from the brief dissonance of Bluiett's opening duo with percussionist Asante (a curious inclusion, given the success of the piano-bari theme) through a program of contributions from both players leavened with Monk's "Ask Me Now" and Coltrane's "Some Other (Schizophrenic) Blues." Bluiett, with the soul of a blues and R&B player and the skill of uncanny range on his cumbersome horn that covers extreme top to resonant bottom, displays his most lyrical sidewith the occasional skronkon this date, not to mention an attractive sense of sheer relaxation that serves the program beautifully. Willis is one of those pianists whose versatility and impressive capacity enhances whatever context he's called for, but here he plays a largely subordinate role to Bluiett's big horn that eliminates any chance of train wrecks, giving the date its significant warmth and luster.