The recent CD by pianist Bill Anschell and soprano saxophonist Brent Jensen is called We Couldn’t Agree More. The title is inaccurate. In an intimate concert last weekend at The Seasons, they were in even greater agreement, with more daring and more complexity.
The duo’s approach is to play well-known tunes without well-known routines; no arrangements, no obvious statement of melody, no predetermined tempos or key signatures. They call on their experience, ears and reflexes. That may read like a description of free jazz at its freest, but Jensen and Anschell operate in standard song forms. “We never play a tune the same way twice,” Anschell told the audience, “and we never know which way it’s going to go.” At The Seasons, Jensen made the first move after Anschell said he had no idea what tune his partner had chosen. Jensen began improvising on his curved soprano. Anschell listened intently as Jensen played nowhere near the melody on the chords of “It Could Happen To You.” After a chorus, Anschell slid in under him with counterpoint. They were off and running through a program that also included “Autumn Leaves,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” “Squeeze Me,” “All Of You,” “Willow Weep For Me,” “Beautiful Love” and an Anschell composition, “Dreamscape.”
“Squeeze Me” developed into an exercise in rubato–squared. With no bassist or drummer to dictate time, the tempo sped, slowed and undulated. At moments it seemed in suspension, and yet the two were swinging. “All Of You” was laced with similar interior time play, further convoluted by stop-time anticipation of one another’s phrases and Anschell’s broken metre in the left hand. Quotes abounded through the set, none more amusing than Jensen’s paraphrase of “Straight No Chaser” as he and Anschell simultaneously diverted “I’m Old Fashioned” through the West Indies for a calypso interlude.
Jensen set up a tune with phrases that seemed headed toward “Have You Met Miss Jones?” but it turned out to be “Willow Weep For Me” and included a startling series of interval leaps by Jensen from tenor sax territory up to clarinet range. Anschell followed with passages of stride piano. In line with the Anschell-Jensen operating principle of surprise, the stride receded and advanced in a pattern no listener could have anticipated, swinging all the while. The finale began with a Rachmaninoffian piano introduction that mystified the audience but delivered a clue to Jensen, who grinned and melded into “Beautiful Love.” The duo worked the piece into a brief passage that sounded like gospel music and ended the evening proving that minor keys do not necessarily mean gloom, sadness or remorse.
The Seasons is a former church with perfect acoustics. Its perfection has been distorted time and again by jazz groups insisting on amplification where none is needed. Jensen and Anschell played music there the way God intended, acoustically.
It was glorious.