By Des Cowley.
As I write, we’ve been living under a cloud for some three months. The last gig I attended was on 15 March, a performance by Sydney bassist Joseph Franklin held at Jazzlab in Melbourne. Just days ago, with restrictions starting to lift, I booked tickets to a live performance by Julien Wilson’s Stock. But with new restrictive measures announced just yesterday, remaining in force in Victoria until at least until mid-July, it is unclear under what circumstances this performance will take place. In the interim, like many, I’ve taken my music any way it has been offered, mostly via concerts hastily assembled and streamed during lockdown. It is not the same, but I have found myself grateful to the organisations and musicians who have provided it.
We don’t yet know what art will emerge from this period we are living through. Artists, like many, have been in the direct firing line, most unable to work due to venue closures. At the same time, it has been a period of contemplation, of reflection. I recently read that pianist Brad Mehldau, stranded in Amsterdam, has used his time to compose a suite for solo piano April 2020, dwelling upon the anxiety and unexpected graces of this time. There will be more to come, much more.
Among the earliest to draw my attention is this duo recording by saxophonist Loretta Palmeiro and pianist Mark Isaacs. While not purposely framed as a response to the virus, it would not, in all likelihood, have come about otherwise. The performance took place on 25 March, just days after the outset of COVID-19 lockdown. It was organised by the Sydney Improvised Music Association (SIMA), and streamed online as part of their Meditations in Jazz series. The sombre and reflective feel of this music, its stark beauty, even its brevity, can be related to the very manner and circumstances in which it was performed and recorded.
Palmeiro and Isaacs have played together informally for around five years, under the name Some of Two Parts, making their public debut at the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival in 2017. On the strength of this recording, it is to be hoped that their musical partnership continues to grow and be nurtured. While pianist Isaacs is very much a known entity, with a long career of composing and recording behind him, Palmeiro’s music was new to me. A Sydney-based composer and saxophonist/woodwinds specialist, she works across both jazz and classical music, and is a member of Spyglass Gypsies and the long-running Sirens Big Band, amongst others. Despite this, the current release of All who travel with us, along with a recent EP by the same duo, represents her first release under her own name.
Palmeiro and Isaacs have referred to their musical approach as composition in real-time, and their duo album follows on the heels of Isaacs’ own recent album of solo piano improvisations Forgotten Fields. For this live SIMA performance, Palmeiro and Isaacs brought along no compositions, no roughs sketches, or pre-ordained motifs, just a willingness to play, and to listen to one another. What is clear, from the results, is that their five years of playing together has fostered a deep, near spiritual, communication, along with an openness to risk-taking, and the trust and confidence it requires.
All who travel with us is a three-part suite that begins with the gentlest of piano, as Isaacs carves out an initial theme. His opening notes display a startling sonic clarity, spacious and resounding, leaving ample room for Palmeiro to weave her soprano saxophone into the mix, its tone rich and warm, and song-like in character. As it unfolds, this music reveals itself to be at once deeply lyrical and full of yearning. Isaacs’ delicate touch fabricates gentle plinking sounds, deep rumblings and cascading runs, acting as a springboard for Palmeiro’s improvisations, which increasingly soar and glide.
Throughout, Isaacs exhibits a spontaneous invention that recalls Keith Jarrett in his Köln Concert phase. We can feel his tentative probes, hear the slow unearthing of melodic nuggets, plucked seemingly out of nowhere, and then mined to wondrous effect. Palmeiro, meanwhile, demonstrates a wide-ranging approach, veering from the stately and classical through to unbridled free-flight, and bird-like trills. As the suite moves toward its finale, the music builds in intensity, brimming with strange beauty, before dropping away, and returning to silence once more.
Palmeiro and Isaacs never try to replicate the rhythmic timekeeping that bass or drums might have brought to this session. Instead, they strive for a freer, less encumbered sound, with Palmeiro’s soprano repeatedly soaring above Isaacs’ tumbling notes. The music eddies and whirls, responding to its own internal rhythms. Throughout, there is an emphasis on tonality and colour, on constantly shifting patterns and shapes.
Is there a recognisable simpatico between soprano saxophone and piano? If evidence were sought, we need only point to the starkly evocative recordings made by soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and pianist Mal Waldron. But Palmeiro’s soprano technique has little in common with Lacy’s angular, Monk-like tone. Nor, for that matter, with John Coltrane’s intense flurries of notes. Instead, her work has more in common with the gentler lyrical approach demonstrated by Wayne Shorter on his 1997 duets with Herbie Hancock 1 + 1. Like Shorter, Palmeiro favours a purity of tone, her instrument’s upper register capable of a rich singing quality.
Despite its brevity – a mere twenty-seven minutes – this work grows in magnitude with each listening. It is intensely focused, and at times delicate music, complex in its construction, which takes the listener on a lyrical and impassioned journey. While entirely improvised, there is a discernible, almost compositional, arc to this suite, spun from its fragile piano opening through to its final heartfelt resolution. It might be asking too much of this music to hear in it a glimmer of hope in dark times. Whether consciously or not, it feels to me that Palmeiro and Isaacs have managed just that.