From the very first notes of “Longing”, the opening track of Parallel Moments, a new album by the saxophonist Raymond MacDonald and the pianist Marilyn Crispell, there’s an awareness that that you’re in the presence of something special. MacDonald’s sound carries such poise and pathos, Crispell’s chords are so sensitively voiced and weighted. The arc of the piece, as they increase the intensity before releasing the tension, is simply perfect. I don’t think I’ve been so moved by the interplay between an alto saxophone and a pianist since Carlos Ward and Carla Bley duetted (with the help of a string quartet) on “Desireless”, from Don Cherry’s Relativity Suite, back in 1973. “Longing” is here, if you want to try it.
Each of the four surfaces of the CD’s mini-gatefold sleeve carries a detail of a painting by MacDonald. The one on the inner spread, as seen above, is my favourite. I like what I imagine to be the symbolism of it: the strokes of cerise and ochre represent the players, while the white is the intangible third element created by their collaboration. But you don’t need to bother with such a clumsy interpretation. It’s my guess that if you respond to the painting in any way, you’ll like the music: a kind of abstract expressionism in search of unobvious beauty.
MacDonald, who is Scottish and lives in Edinburgh, has collaborated with many leading European and American free jazz musicians and writes music for film, theatre and dance. Crispell, who was born in Philadelphia, came to prominence in the groups of Anthony Braxton in the 1970s and has made many noteworthy albums, including Nothing Ever Was, Anyway (ECM, 1997), in which she interpreted the extraordinary compositions of Annette Peacock.
Their collaboration on these 10 pieces, which range in length from under two minutes to 11 minutes, is a thing of constant and unfolding wonder. On a track such as the lengthy “Conversation” they make highly personal adaptations of the sort of instrumental techniques associated with Cecil Taylor and Evan Parker, including bright upper-register splashes of great precision from Crispell and involuted rapid-fire flurries from MacDonald, to create a completely satisfying dialogue. Minimal resources, but a vast scope of emotion — and, pervading the whole album, a rarified and very precious lyricism.
* Parallel Moments is released on the Babel label.