It’s always a delight when reedman Joel Press comes to town, and he proved that once again in his duets with pianist Spike Wilner at Smalls (West 10th Street, Greenwich Village, New York City) on November 17, 2011.
I’ve admired Joel’s playing for some time — first on record, then live — his soulful way of exploring a melody without being tied to familiar harmonic patterns . . . but he never loses the thread. And although he denies this (“How could a Jewish boy from Brooklyn sound like a Southwest tenor player?”) he has deep roots not only in Lester but in Herschel and that moaning saxophone sound.
Spike was a mature player when I first heard him perhaps six years ago — lithe, swinging, witty, surprising — but now he sounds like a pianistic version of 1957 Coleman Hawkins: he knows the risks and rewards of throwing away the polite rulebook of jazz-school-piano and he often sounds like someone who has decided to let his deepest impulses guide him — without a life vest — and those impulses take him and us to wonderful surprising places.
Both players, also, have a fine sense of the past: Joel lives in 2011 but sneaks glances back at 1944 and 1956, and Spike is always playing / playing with walking tenths and stride bass patterns (as well as hilarious glances at the Swing repertoire, such as I FOUND A NEW BABY seen out of the corner of his eye).
Here are two performances — complex, surging but delicate — by this duo, a pair of masterful conversationalists who point the way for each other and for us at every turn.
A strong-willed reading of IT’S YOU OR NO ONE:
An improvisation on OUT OF NOWHERE:
Spike and Joel invited trumpeter Dwayne Clemons up to join them for a leisurely look at Sonny Rollins’ BLUE SEVEN — both forward-looking and affectionately Basie-flavored. At times I thought I was listening to Nat Cole, Illinois Jacquet, and Harry Edison time=traveled to Greenwich Village, Autumn 2011. And that’s a compliment, even though none of the players had any desire to imitate anything:
This is one version of what improvisation is supposed to sound like!