Frozen reeds presents the only recorded duo playing of two legendary musical figures. Derek Bailey and Paul Motian – two longstanding pioneers of distinct strains of improvised music – came together for a brief period of collaboration in the early 1990s. Tapes of their two known live performances (one at Groningen’s JazzMarathon festival in the Netherlands, the other a year later at New Music Cafe, NYC) were recently unearthed in the Incus archives, and their contents will surprise and delight fans of both supremely idiosyncratic musicians.
The Groningen concert (1990) is released on vinyl, while the New York date (1991) is included with the digital download, free of charge for all purchasers. A conversation between Bill Frisell and Henry Kaiser on Bailey, Motian, their intertwined backgrounds, and the significance of these recordings is included as sleeve-note insert.
“This is one of those moments that we’re always hoping for, and it's so rare. And it's so hard to talk about, because it's so beautiful. It's like you're seeing some new species of plant that you never knew existed or something.” – Bill Frisell
Each player bringing decades of crucial experience to their encounters – with histories taking in vast swathes of the development of jazz and free improvisation – these fleeting shared moments provide some of the most riveting playing in the career of either.
There is precious little recorded evidence of Motian as a free improviser, but his mastery is beyond any doubt in these recordings. From knife-edge precision to textural haze, Motian’s palette is astounding, but perhaps even more impressive is his confidence in the non-idiomatic conversation itself. Pushing far beyond the established vocabulary of free percussion, his playing allows a measured degree of repetition to take form, giving rise to almost song-like structures. The covert influence of the drummer’s work on the post-rock genre (just taking its first nascent steps in the early 1990s) is made overt here.
In turn, Bailey allows some of his most unashamedly melodic passages to unfold without a mote of his trademark contrariness or antagonism. Patterns that would be acerbically disrupted elsewhere are allowed to settle, with variations of note and timbre introduced more gradually than is typical of his playing. When forceful changes in dynamics or tone do arrive, they do so in such close tandem with Motian’s rhythmic and textural transitions as to beggar belief. The guitarist’s duos with percussionists (Jamie Muir, Han Bennink, John Stevens…) arguably provide some of the highlights of his discography. ‘Duo in Concert’ represents a strong addition to the list.
An elegant sense of construction pervades the sets, as the duo ably fulfil the promise of free improvisation: carving out hugely compelling, expertly balanced, and thrillingly paced music as if from thin air.