Dual Identity – Dual Identity (CF 172)
Exploring jazz is contagious. You hear one record, and it leads to your listening to five others because of who’s on them. There are entry points and major landmarks that everyone ought to hear. A lot of curious listeners who start out in rock do this– it’s fun and relatively easy. Finding your way into modern jazz is much tougher. For one thing, there are dozens of strains, and a lot of the good stuff in the progressive vein isn’t built around familiar, singable tunes like “Autumn Leaves” or “My Favorite Things”. Jazz has had its cerebral qualities since the 1920s, but super-heady composition and playing have become central to forward-looking jazz, partly as a reaction to its becoming less a mainstream music and more of a world populated by enthusiasts. So where do you start? How about right here? Dual Identity is the result of a quintet session led by saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Steve Lehman, and it embodies a lot of the exciting, bracing playing and ideas coursing through progressive jazz circles.
Mahanthappa and Lehman are, to put it bluntly, two of the finest saxophonists going. They’ve each built styles from a patchwork of inspirational sources, including each other. Mahanthappa, an American, has blended his Indian heritage into his unique style through his studies with Kadri Gopalnath, a player who managed to adapt the sax into the Carnatic tradition of Indian classical music. Lehman played in Anthony Braxton’s band at 22 and studied with Jackie McLean, and his style broadly bridges bop and free-jazz sensibilities. Together on this record, they are a force to be reckoned with, leading a dual attack that’s often jaw-dropping, as their rhythm section of guitarist Liberty Ellman, bassist Matt Brewer, and drummer Damion Reid sympathetically bends itself to their will.
The two eschew unison playing and straight harmonizing in favor of a double lead style that lets their distinct voices on the instrument sing at once– it’s amazing that they never clash. “Circus” opens with a quiet but jagged groove, and both saxophonists launch in at once, playing an intricate, rhythmically varied counterpoint that gradually unspools into an improvised duet. It’s like a conversation in a Woody Allen movie, where everyone has the perfect rejoinder or seems to know the next word out of someone else’s mouth. But it’s not just a two-way conversation. Reid and Brewer talk their way through beats that alternately swing and flay, while Ellman is an accomplished and idiosyncratic soloist in his own right, and he gets his chances to shine here as well. His solo on “SMS” is brilliantly weird, as the rest of the band drops out and he takes a circuitous route through the various tonalities represented in the composition.
So yes, Dual Identity is a great entry into progressive jazz. It’s not an easy listen, but its intensity and invention go some distance to open the record up to listeners who aren’t up on the genre. Fans of progressive jazz will find a trove of riches to dive into here as well. We won’t get a history of contemporary jazz for some time, and the era of jazz stars known outside the jazz world is mostly over, but Mahanthappa and Lehman seem likely to find themselves well-ensconced in that future history, and this record shows why.