If you were
going out and looking for two saxophonists who might play well together, its a safe
bet you wouldnt come up with the pairing of Warne Marsh and Pete Christlieb. Marsh
is one of the genuine mavericks of the tenor saxophone. He perfected his art under the
influence of Lennie Tristanos cool, rigorous discipline, but very early on he
managed to develop a style that was (and remains to this day) wholly unpredictable. He
will play double-time, half-time, and apparently out of time in the course of a single
phrase; just when he seems to be lagging lethargically behind the beat you blink your eyes
and find him right on top of it. Pete Christlieb, whose father is a celebrated classical
bassoonist now at work recording the complete works of Hindemith, is a bigtoned,
technically awesome, straight-ahead swinger. He has been a member of the Tonight Show band
for several years now, and while those who have been lucky enough to hear him play small
group jazz have come away mightily impressed, its unlikely that any of them came
away thinking about pairing him with Warne Marsh.
Pete and Warne themselves actually came up with the idea of
playing together. They made a recording of tenor duets, backed by bass and drums, that
eventually found its way into the hands of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who are better
known collectively as the multi-platinium-selling rock group Steely Dan. Again, the
combination is not the sort of thing that spontaneously comes to mind. But as Steely Dan
fans know, Fagen and Becker are adroit masters of traditional jazz harmonies, and more
than that, they are interested in and perhaps obsessed by the iconology of jazz.
Theyve written a song about Charlie Parker ("Parkers Band"),
rearranged Duke Ellingtons "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" for rock band and
pedal steel guitar, and conducted a particularly knowing examination of what can only be
termed the impulse to jazz, in their song "Deacon Blues." That song features a
tenor saxophone solo by Pete Christlieb.
And so, circuitously but inevitably, we
come to Apogee. To begin with, the right rhythm section had to be found. Lou Levy,
the pianist, turned in an astonishing performance on Marshs recent album All
Music (Nessa records). His rich, deftly placed chording frames the tenor solos
brilliantly, and his own improvisations are fresh and conscientiously inventive. Bassist
Jim Hughart and drummer Nick Ceroli kick things along righteously. They are a living
embodiment of that good old forward-propelling directionality, as Gunther Schuller once
called swing, but not once are they overbearing about it.
Joe Roccisano, who has been living in
Christliebs garage apartment and arranging for Phil Woods, among other assignments,
wrote some scintillating charts for the date. All the tunes except for Charlie
Parkers "Donna Lee" and the standard "Im Old Fashioned",
which were more or less impromptu jams, bear Roccisanos touch. The tunes themselves
are interesting and thoughtfully chosen. "Magna-tism" is basically an
improvisation on the standard "Just Friends" that Christlieb played some years
ago and Roccisano took the time to write out. Marsh chose "317 E. 32nd," a
challenging line by his old mentor Lennie Tristano. "Rapunzel" is a Fagen and
Beckers first bebop composition and suggests the pair may yet make something of
themselves if they keep at it. "Its probably the first bebop tune based on the
chords to a recent popular song," says Fagen, "the song being Land of Make
Believe by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, not the Chuck Mangione tune of the
same name. We heard the song on a Dionne Warwick record and thought it would be nice to
blow on." The albums all-out flagwaver, "Tenors of the Time," was
written by Roccisano.
Identifying the soloists should be a snap,
but for the listener who is not a rabid tenor freak, at least not yet, here is a
breakdown. "Magna-tism," which begins with delirious counterpoint from the two
tenors and then breaks into some heavy riffing by way of introducing the theme, features
Christlieb first and Marsh second. "Pete is a burning tenor player with a lot of that
Texas sound," says Fagen. "He exhibits an incredible amount of vitality in his
playing, and technically hes incredible. But its never a letdown when Warne
follows him, because Warne is so damned interesting." In fact, Marsh is
practically perverse on this cut. If Pete is straight-ahead, Warne is multi-directional.
His lines seem to unravel in bursts and jolts, to expand, contract, and a double back on
themselves. Yet he projects an admirable aura of relaxation; his lines flow.
Marsh, Hughart and Ceroli usher in the
Tristano tune. The tenors flurrying five-note phrases that come in just after Levy
enters have an unmistakable Lennie T. ring to them. Levy is resourceful and very much
himself in his piano solo and Christlieb manages to be both soulful and classy in his
concluding improvisation. Everybody has a good time on "Rapunzel," which has
lovely bell chords behind Hugharts opening bass solo, oblique but ravishingly
coherent Marsh, then Levy, then Christlieb, then some of the albums most inspired,
densely entwined counterpoint. "Tenors of the Time" begins at a flat roar and
never lets up, with Christlieb soloing first and a heated Marsh following without a break.
The two saxophonists came up with the mirror-image spacing of the theme on "Donna
Lee," which again features Christlieb and Marsh in rapid succession. "Im
Old Fashioned" is all Christlieb, a ballad feature with a subtle and lasting charm.
Levys solo ends with a sparkling little coda, followed by a brief Christlieb
signature phrase that signals Finis.