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 T-shirt with the legend ‘Thunder Pussy’ – 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.
“What/If/They Both Could Fly” is only the second time this titanic pair have appeared as a duo on record. Their paths have crossed sporadically over the years: Evan has guested in Joe’s Survival Unit III group, and they have frequently made up a trio with saxophonist Daunik Lazro. But their only release together has been “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 seek 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. Play this and you’ll believe two men can fly.