Tony Marsh with John Tchicai, and Louis Moholo with Evan Parker at the Vortex; Paul Hession with Bill Orcutt at Cafe Oto, October 2011

Tony Oxley

I typically listen to a lot of John Coltrane, but I’ve been increasingly drawn to his Interstellar Space of late, the duo recording with the drummer Rashied Ali. It is an oddity in his canon by virtue of its minimal instrumentation, but the result of this uncharacteristic paring down affords the listener an opportunity to really hear the interaction and the dynamic between its two protagonists. In a duo there really is nowhere to hide, no rest, you can’t drop out while an another formation spontaneously assembles from within a larger group, and as a result there is a particular intensity, you can really hear the players listening. With a duo comprising a drummer and another, there is the potential to exploit both rhythm and melody, obviously, but some skilled practitioners can blur the expected roles, the drummer using extended techniques and kits which expand the range of pitches available to them, and the other engaging them on their own turf with staccato patterns and pulses. There is also the potential for extreme dynamics, from huge bass drum kicks to the faintest of brushwork, from full-throttled rampages to more circumspect approaches. It makes the drummer-plus-one format, in the right hands, potentially one of the most exciting and varied, whether the partner be sax, piano, guitar or electronics, and the results anywhere on a spectrum between jazz and noise.

My own personal Interstellar Space sessions coincided with some stellar combinations appearing in London venues. On Friday at the Vortex jazz club, the veteran British drummer Tony Marsh played with the legendary Dane John Tchicai, while South African percussionist Louis Moholo was paired with an old foil in Evan Parker. On Saturday, as part of a Tusk Festival on tour bill, drummer Paul Hession was on hand to spar with American four-string hero Bill Orcutt.

John Tchicai

John Tchicai famously played with John Coltrane a couple of years before Interstellar Space, in a very different lineup, one at the other extreme of the personnel spectrum: the eleven-strong Ascension sessions. At the Vortex he was playing just with Tony Marsh, a man who is no stranger to playing in duos. But this was a particularly strange duo. Tchicai, while nominally a saxophonist, spent only the minority of this set on the instrument – but this only increased the variety, and opportunities for interesting dialogue, both planned and unplanned. He began with an improvised monologue about “the sound of the yellow fence, when struck”, illustrated sonically by Marsh. However, Tchicai then began to fret about sound levels, and Marsh carried on playing while he remonstrated with the sound engineer, quietly brushing his snare to accompany Tchicai asking for more volume. Such subtleties continued throughout a flute/drum section, all air and light, before Marsh started to build some deep, circular rhythms. But the most fascinating aspect of this was just watching Marsh, his face lined with feeling, immersed in the emotion of Tchicai’s flute lines. It was like he was illustrating a story, his brushwork adding shade to the meanings. After some Ayler-like vocal idealism on the all-we-need-is-love theme, with scat singing and some unsteady high notes, Tchicai finally picked up the sax, Marsh cleverly cajoling and encouraging him on a journey up to some forced high notes, completing and repeating his lines. A grand master at work.

Louis Moholo

The contrast between Tony Marsh and Louis Moholo was huge. While Marsh may have looked the more frail and cerebral, he drummed with pure emotion, and considerable power at times. Moholo, with drum sticks like tree trunks, looked more physical, but actually played with an unexpected delicateness and precision. In fact, the quiet, minimal nature of his contribution took the duet with Evan Parker thousands of miles away from the free Township swing of their Brotherhood Of Breath days. Parker instead floated some more textural ideas over a regular heartbeat pulse, and even some sections of circular breathing, with the attendant piling up of notes, had to be taken more gently than usual, playing out over soft-handed brushes from the gruff, stiff-looking Moholo. He finally loosened up a little to play some wood block percussion while Parker clicked and clacked at his keys, ending their short set by creating a percussion duo in all but name.

Paul Hession

With the greatest of respect to drummer Paul Hession, he wasn’t the reason that most people were in Cafe Oto on Saturday. As part of a Tusk Festival showcase, American guitarist Bill Orcutt was in town, on a bill which also included The Hunter Gracchus and guitarist Steve Gunn. Orcutt’s three LPs (well, two and a half) since his return from his post-Harry Pussy sabbatical have opened up new paths, his four string guitar work clearing a hitherto untravelled route through punk, noise, Derek Bailey-inspired improv, and the blues. His set with Hession started on a low key note, far from the shards of jagged noise that open his recent How The Thing Sings LP. They built so quickly and concertedly from there, crashing chords answered by meaty tom slaps, then stuttering runs meeting spasmodic riffs, that at times it was hard to believe it wasn’t rehearsed – surely he must have known in advance that he would do that in order to be able to respond so rapidly with that. Yet Orcutt’s style is so instinctive, the guitar almost an extension of his central nervous system, that in fact razor sharp reactions (particularly from the drummer) would be the logical explanation. “Alright, that’s a song”, said Orcutt as he slammed the brakes on and they screeched to their first dead stop.

Bill Orcutt

While Hession has played with Derek Bailey, he has only (to my knowledge) played with Orcutt once before, so the level of interplay here was nothing short of sensational. Inevitably, all attention was drawn to Orcutt, who sang (an eerie, childlike sound) and cradled his guitar like a baby, while Hession had a far more unshowy style. But despite the differences, they had such conversational common ground, tossing ideas back and forth: Orcutt shaking his guitar, Hession picking out the pulse; Hession scraping on a cymbal, Orcutt blowing on the guitar’s strings. My last memory was of Orcutt howling along to the resonance which consumed the last dying notes, as if unable to let the song escape the room. He needn’t have worried, as this duo performance – one of the best of its kind – will live on a long time in the mind.