Mountains and Plains
Louie Records 035

Right Before Your Very Ears
Clean Feed CF 044CD

Two saxophonists from the Pacific Northwest – one of whom relocated to New York City years ago – disprove the old saw about “you can take a boy out of the country, but …”

Portland, Oregon-based soprano and tenor saxophonist Rich Halley, who is also a field biologist, brings a West Coast spaciousness to the nine originals that make up the appropriately titled MOUNTAINS AND PLAINS CD. Saxophonist Michael Blake, who grew up in Vancouver, B.C., yet relocated to Manhattan in 1987, offers up a program replete with Big Apple speed and toughness.

Both saxophonists are seconded by sympathetic associates. In Halley’s case, his long-stand trio is filled out by bassist Clyde Reed, who is also an economics professor at Simon Fraser University in a Vancouver, B.C. suburb, and Louie Records’ recording engineer and proprietor, drummer Dave Storrs. The reedist and drummer have performed together for over 30 years in many different contexts including one most generic for this date, Halley’s Outside Music Ensemble, which was formed in 1999 to perform creative music in interesting outdoor settings.

Meanwhile Blake’s partners for RIGHT BEFORE YOUR VERY EARS are fellow members of the musician-run Jazz Composers Collective, a non-profit, organization dedicated to presenting the original works of composers. Bassist Ben Allison also has his own groups, Medicine Wheel and Peace Pipe, in which saxman also participates, while drummer Jeff Ballard has worked with both mainstreamers and downtowners.

Oddly – or is it appropriately – enough, both horn men in intonation and execution are strongly influenced by Sonny Rollins. On balance, after all, it was Rollins in trio configuration, who created the definitive urban portrait “East Broadway Rundown”, and also recorded the legendary geographic specific WAY OUT WEST LP.

Happily Halley and Blake aren’t really opposite sides of the Rollins coin, but very much their own men, creators of equally notable dates. Blake may have a slight edge, but that’s because he seems more ardent here and willing to stretch himself further.

During the course of his CD, he even tackles a version of Rollins’ associate Thelonious Monk’s “San Francisco Holiday”, with both his horns – sometimes simultaneously. However his rubato layering and trilling slurs and glissandi suggests none of Monk’s horn partners. Blake also exits with a reading of “Careless Love” that’s almost primordial in its artlessness. Ballard shuffles like Baby Dodds and Blake’s reed conception is almost completely pre-modern, except for an extended, unaccompanied turnaround that intensifies the improvisation and heats up the bass and drum accompaniment. “Mt. Harissa”, the set’s slow change-of-pace, is treated uniquely, so that it ping-pongs between a contrafact of “Round Midnight” and an Appalachian ballad.

Other than that, the self-composed originals that make up the rest of the disk bristle with contrapuntal color and POMO strength, skronk-jazz if you need a term. During the course of the CD, Blake introduces curved, Ayleresque vibrations on some tunes and accelerating split-tones on others. In some compositions, he spins out a series of squeaking runs, in others emphasizing careful phrasing for a time then unexpectedly jumping into altissimo. On the smaller horn he can be nasal, but is also able to export rounded textures.

Modern, with a full command of col legno and spiccato runs, nonetheless Allison is capable of slapping a bass line that would have made Pops Foster proud. He and Blake often communicate in broken octaves or double counterpoint. Meanwhile Ballard thumps rolls, bounces and pulses as the occasion demands.

Probably the most self-descriptive moments on RIGHT BEFORE YOUR VERY EARS occur on “All of This is Yours”, the penultimate track, where the saxophonist sets up an unaccompanied call-and-response section with himself, alternating high-pitched vibrations and honking bass notes, then finally, after luring the other two into the dance, exits with staccato smears and a reverberating body tube vibrato.

West Coaster Halley does nothing as ear-catching as that, but his outdoor-oriented CD, enhanced with photographs of – you guessed it – mountains and plains, is more organic and earthly, but far from vanishing into New Age solipsism.

Perhaps the most evocative tune is the full band improvisation, “Three Way Shapes”, where each man works out his proper musical description. Here, on soprano saxophone, Halley’s wiggling, Steve Lacy-inflected chirps meet in double counterpoint with the steady bass work of Reed and are punctuated by blunt, echoing strokes from Storrs. With the bass playing appropriately woody and the sax hocketing textures, the piece is a three-way dialogue to the end.

Although he does come up with the odd col legno or sul ponticello passage, Reed is a more prosaic bassist than Allison, preferring to limit himself to producing a steady lope, walking powerfully but unobtrusively in the background. More flamboyant – although his vocalizations and whistling wouldn’t give Phil Minton or even Phil Collins pause – Storrs creates irregular waves of rhythm, wallops and shuffles as often as cross-sticking and drum rattling.

Certain tunes introduce unusual percussion as well. While “Before Dawn” matches what appears to be the resonation of a toy xylophone with buzzing bass lines and winnowing, musette-like soprano runs, other sounds suggest Aboriginal percussion. Halley’s straight-ahead tone is encouraged to spetrofluctuation and concentrated altissimo passages on “Long Valley” with shaken objects and hand percussion that brings to mind Native Indian tom-toms and Yaqui gourd rattles. And that’s not the only spot where the saxophonist’s masculine tenor saxophone tone is aided and abetted by expanded indigenous-American sounding percussion.

On the most quote, avant-garde, end quote, tune, Halley’s “Distant Peaks”, Storrs whistles and ratchets what sound like tubular bells to join with Reed’s chromatic bass strums. Together this interrupts the reedist’s balanced breathy, slurred textures.

More often than not, as on the more-than-10½-minute “The Rub” and other pieces, Halley pegs himself as a Rollins man. Biting off swaggering, double-tongued, staccato lines he expels note after note, each one tougher than the next. Dramatically he also exults in upturned sibilant tones that move from stop-time to squeals and reverberations.

Like John Denver, Halley is still a country boy, while Blake a confirmed urbanite. But both they and their trios have created CDs that can be admired in rural, urban and even suburban circumstances.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Mountains: 1. Problematic 2. Long Valley 3. The Rub 4. Before Dawn 5. Three Way Shapes 6. Mountains and Plains 7. Intermountain Rhumba 8. Distant Peaks 9. Winter Sky

Personnel: Mountains: Rich Halley (tenor and soprano saxophones, percussion); Clyde Reed (bass); Dave Storrs (drums, percussion, whistling and vocals)

Track Listing: Right: 1. Run for Cover 2. Funhouse 3. Mt. Harissa 4. Right Before Your Very Ears 5. Flip 6. Fly with the Wind 7. San Francisco Holiday 8. All of This is Yours 9. Careless Love

Personnel: Right: Michael Blake (tenor and soprano saxophones); Ben Allison (bass); Jeff Ballard (drums)