If a drums/saxophone duet album sounds a bit austere to you, well, I get it. Is it going to swing without a bass player? Without a piano or guitar, where will the sense of harmony come from? Won’t it just get … dull?
But Proximity, the album of duets from drummer Andrew Cyrille and saxophonist Bill McHenry, is actually more entertaining than most jazz recordings. Both of these musicians are rich in wit and play, so every second of their interaction is like a chase between cat and mouse. They dash and dip, push and pull. If you want to start with the most smile-inducing 4:21 of 2016 in jazz, just dig “Drum Song for Leadbelly”, a simple-folks tune that has Cyrille and McHenry trading phrases, mimicking each other, prattling and gagging each other to your heart’s content. It’s a gas.
Not everything here is so direct and so straight, but even the more daring material is played with a direct sense of communication. There’s good history here setting up this session. A decade ago, Cyrille and McHenry recorded a trio session with Henry Grimes on bass (Us Free, Fish Stories), and Cyrille has been working in duo settings for decades. Additionally, Cyrille’s recent work with Trio 3 (featuring Oliver Lake on saxophone and bassist Reggie Workman) has been in this vein: highly communicative and straight-forward.
Listen to “Let Me Tell You This” and you’ll see why Cyrille and McHenry are incapable of boring you. Though this is a fairly abstract track, seemingly a free improvisation, each note is played with forceful deliberation. Cyrille begins with shots to his snare and toms that are like the argument of a great lawyer: clear and compelling. McHenry plays right into the clarity of it, matching each hit, bending his tones the way a drummer can make a drum “talk”, and the two of them race each other, slow down and discuss the weather, bicker, badger, then agree. There’s no written melody to hem in the amazing conversation.
At times this is decidedly groove music. “Dervish” uses the feeling of a tribal dance, with McHenry bending his tones so that he sounds like a keening, nasal horn from the east. You can’t help but think of Coltrane and the way he used his soprano sax, which reminds you that these drum/tenor sax duets are plainly in the tradition of Interstellar Space, the still-breathtaking 1967 date of duets between Coltrane and Rashid Ali, one of Cyrille’s mentors. “Aquatic Life” finds McHenry playing rolling, fluttering patterns that approximate the style of the ’67 album. There is also a real sense of pocket on “Drum Man Cyrille”, which swings its ass off.
McHenry and Cyrille also sound great on some meditative tracks. “Proximity” is a slow prayer for McHenry that allows the drummer to whisper and color in the background, and it is heavenly — particularly the ending, where McHenry merely blows into his mouthpiece and Cyrille plays bells. “Broken Heart” is less than 60 seconds long, but it also captures a blue cry with the subtlest of rhythm accompaniment. “Seasons” has a subtle pulse and a sense of meditation and composure at once, and the opener “Bedouin Woman” is driven by a repeated, ringing tom pattern from Cyrille that sounds like a haunted kettle drum.
It has a been a brilliant year for Andrew Cyrille, who also produced a fascinating ECM album working with Bill Frisell, Ben Street, and keyboard pioneer Richard Teitelbaum. Nate Chinen wrote in The New York Times about a late-career renaissance for the drummer, but I’m not sure that Cyrille has been reborn as much as we’re just hearing him more clearly. He was a “free jazz” drummer by reputation for decades, but the truth is that now we take him as a master and a musician fully in the mainstream of the art. Every stroke of his sticks is deliberate and measured. And you can hear him with true clarity on this duo recording.