BOSTON — Improvised jazz duets are arduous testing grounds for musical creativity. For pianist Marilyn Crispell and saxophonist and flutist Joseph Jarman, the duet format represents even more than a musical challenge. Both came to their concert at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Church in Madison, Wis., last year with the desire to establish a deep sense of spiritual union through their performance.
A new recording of their first meeting in concert, Connecting Spirits (Music & Arts), offers a moving document of sensitively executed experimental jazz as a means for spiritual communication.
Jarman has been most renowned for his innovative saxophone playing with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which he was an integral part of for nearly 30 years until leaving the band last year. Crispell is best known for solo recitals, though she has occasionally been associated with various small jazz ensembles.
Their meeting in Madison occurred at a point in Jarman's career when it appeared his music career was taking a back seat to his religious commitments. He is a Buddhist priest and Akido instructor, and those pursuits loomed larger in his schedule last year than concert or recording dates.
While Crispell continues to maintain a busy musical career, touring heavily in the US and Europe (where many of her CDs sell more briskly than here), she too has been actively involved with Buddhist study and meditation.
Before an audience of 100 in the modernist church (which looks like a rising tide of glass waves from several angles), Jarman and Crispell presented five duets, captured on this disc with remarkable clarity and presence.
Listeners of "lite" or "smooth" jazz should be warned: This jazz is not for the unadventurous. Crispell sometimes plays loudly dissonant passages complimented by Jarman's squawks and squeals. Yet these passages occur within compositions marked by gentle lyricism and stark melodic beauty.
For example, the opening piece, "For Joseph," which is the pianist's tribute to her partner, opens with Crispell performing cascading chords creating a sea-like lull. Seven minutes pass before her playing offers hints of aggressive atonality, a stormy sound well counterpointed by Jarman's sharp-edged saxophone phrases. Yet the piece resolves with a return of a peaceful theme suggesting a tranquil reflecting pool.
"Meditation on a Vow of Compassion," showcasing Jarman's skill on flute as well as saxophone, uses small stretches of carefully placed silence to create a jazz tapestry akin to a Japanese ink drawing. The theme is reinforced by softly sounded phrases by Crispell.
The high point of the disc is "Dear Lord," a hymn by the late John Coltrane. Coltrane composed jazz out of a deep awareness of African-American gospel music and out of a heartfelt need for spiritual connection with his audience.
Crispell, who has often recorded versions of Coltrane's music, offers an interpretation with Jarman that heavily underscores the qualities of devotion and yearning heard in Coltrane's own recordings. The 10-minute performance strikes this listener as the closest that jazz artists might ever come to using their instruments as instruments of prayer.