Last night the San Francisco jazz scene got a vigorously healthy shot of adrenaline (which it has desperately needed for far too long) at the Luggage Store Gallery. The latest installation in the Luggage Store Creative Music Series, hosted by Outsound Presents every Thursday evening, featured the Marshall/Allen/Spirit trio in the second set of a two-set evening. The first two of those names both play tenor saxophone and both happen to have the same first name, Joshua Marshall and Joshua Allen. Rhythm is provided by drummer Spirit, and last night he was joined by guest artist Max Johnson on bass.
Some of the high points in the history of modern jazz have involved no-holds-barred improvisation by two tenor saxophonists. The first tremors could probably be traced back to encounters between John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins in the Fifties. However, this was before Trane began to work on his interest in free jazz. His exchanges with Rollins were highly imaginative and adventurous in their own way; but he had not yet taken an interest in those areas on the map labeled “terra incognita” (unknown land). By the time Coltrane encountered Pharoah Sanders in the Sixties, maps no longer held much value for him. The results were often ear-shattering. (As a colleague once put it, it was music to melt the wax in your ears.)
However, if the music offered up a provocative rhetoric of rebelliousness, Coltrane and Sanders shared an aesthetic that grounded all expressiveness in a solid foundation of faith. This came to a head with the release of Meditations; and the wildly uninhibited opening track of “The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost” stunned listeners with aggressive professions of devotion that previously had been relegated to the Holy Rollers. Trane and Pharoah were drawing a new map; but there will always be regions of terra incognita beyond any map’s physical boundaries.
Both Allen and Marshall have past history of venturing into such regions. However, the experience of their making the trip together amounted to an entirely new and fresh take on free improvisation. Mind you, there was nothing particularly new about the technical lexicon, well-endowed with multiphonic overblowing and rapid-fire fingering. Nevertheless, the overall spirit tended to recall the experience of Meditations, even if the overall logic now gave off a thoroughly secular light. Most important was how each saxophone voice had its own unique qualities, while the duo seemed to function through a keen understanding of how the players would exchange presence in the foreground.
For better or worse, all of that energy pretty much overshadowed most of the rhythm activity. Johnson is a vigorous bass player, whether he is plucking or bowing. However, what he was actually playing was almost always too far in the background to be audible (except for a solo towards the end of the second piece in the set). Spirit was more comfortable in that background role, working his own polyrhythmic textures but realizing that they provided a landscape for the almost non-stop blowing by Allen and Marshall.
Curiously, while both Johnson and Spirit were highly physical in their execution work, there was an almost serene stillness in both Allen and Marshall. Both seemed well aware that too much physical engagement might disrupt the focus required not only for the production of the sounds themselves but also the mutual awareness that each had of everything the other played. These were performances in which all focus was on the making of the music itself. Any sense of look-at-me-play-my-instrument was dismissed as wasteful, if not counterproductive, supererogation.
It is also worth noting that the entire set was acoustic. This contrasted with the Jeffrey Alexander Trio in the first set, in which Alexander’s electronics required amplification of Arjun Boehner Mangelwurzel’s violin in order to achieve balance. (Aaron Levin had no trouble holding his own on drums.) The point is that, however inventive Alexander could be with his electronics, Marshall/Allen/Spirit reminded us that sometimes audio technology just has to be put to the side and that some of the most creative inventions come solely from what instrumentalists can produce entirely under their own steam.