One feature of the Hyde Park Jazz Fest that has quietly distinguished it over the last few years is the prevalence of dynamic duos, whether the pairings are new or seasoned, improvised or driven by tunes. Notable among this year’s terrific offerings is the first local performance by alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella and cellist Tomeka Reid since the release of their superb debut album, Signaling (Nessa). The record opens with the soulful, melodic “Blues for Julius and Abdul,” a tender homage to one of improvised music’s most distinctive alto sax and cello duos, Hemphill and Wadud. From there the pair push into more abstract terrain, alternating between measured aggression—such as biting phrases of needling vibrato from Mazzarella on the title track while Reid toggles between bittersweet arco expression,and frenzied pizzicato—andhollowed-out delicateness, such as the tip-toe exchanges on “The Ancestors Speak.” On the surface it might appear that Mazzarella is running the game, but Reid’s elegant lines and gestures prod more than follow.
When I attended this year’s Winter Jazz Fest in New York, no set gave me greater pleasure or made me think as much as a performance by endlessly inventive drummer Andrew Cyrille and often-overlooked tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, who played music from their excellent 2016 album, Proximity (Sunnyside). Both players operated with sophisticated simplicity, foregrounding forehrounding subtlety rather than grandstanding or vacant intensity. On “Fabula,” written by Chicago percussionist Don Moye, their connection suggests the easygoing rapport of Sonny Rollins and Shelly Manne on the classic “I’m an Old Cowhand.” Cyrille’s adaptation of the Leadbelly song “Green Corn” (titled “Drum Song for Leadbelly”) highlights his refined melodic sensibilities as he teases out a full kit’s range of sounds off the rim of his snare. On the album’s tender title track, Cyrille’s masterful brushwork is so subtle it’s almost inaudible—for a while, his granular swirl almost feels like an extension of McHenry’s lyrical, gorgeously restrained, slow-moving lines.