How do you measure the level of musical possibility that can be sparked by only two instrumentalists? Before you answer, consider the sounds they create are totally improvised yet open to shifts in mood, style and approach. Finally, know these artists are longtime collaborators and friends and have reached across two continents for music that approaches jazz not as a hybrid of tradition and groove (although there is plenty of both in their playing), but as an open road headed to an uncharted destination.
This is the route Chicago saxophonist and clarinetist Ken Vandermark and Norwegian drummer and percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love have followed for well over a decade as a duo and even longer in a variety of ensembles that have regularly visited Lexington during the entire run of the 13-year-old Outside the Spotlight Series.
On Thursday, though, the two will perform their first OTS show as an unaccompanied duo.
"The duo is a kind of reference point for all the things we've learned in other projects," Vandermark says. "Because it has developed an ongoing thread over so much time through concerts and recordings, it has become a way to look at how things have developed in our own work apart from each other. It's like a gauge.
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"There tends to be an interest in velocity and high speed communications and changes in the music. That attitude, I guess, hasn't changed. But what we're making today has completely evolved and shifted over the years. Some tours, we'll work on finding an area to explore and stay with that for almost a whole set. On other tours, every idea is like a slide show. It's like, 'Here's an idea, here's an idea, here's an idea.' It's rapid fire. It's not that the ideas don't get developed, but it's more like you touch on an idea that signals another idea."
What that translates to on a series of fine duo recordings by the two, including 2011's immensely engaging Letter to a Stranger, is music that may adhere to a rugged groove, engage in a tug-of-war of textural drama or explode into a passage of free improvisation. The title of the newest Vandermark/Nilssen-Love album, released in conjunction with their current duo tour, illustrates the immediacy that emerges out of such music: The Lions Have Eaten One of the Guards.
"Our focus is this idea of tension and intensity," Vandermark says. "But intensity can be silence. It can be the air of the room you sense when waiting for the next event, the next action, the next sound. Silence can be unbelievably intense. Paal and I are very aware of that range, from doing nothing as an action that has a lot of purpose — which sounds contradictory, but it's very, very true — to full-on activity.
"One thing that's different about Paal and I when we improvise is how a lot of the music really works with grooves as opposed to free time. There is a pulse. There are phrases that happen in a groove, whether it's a jazz kind of thing or a funk thing or a rock thing. Paal and I really enjoy working with that kind of time playing. Then there are instances when the music is completely open and there is no pulse, and we work that way, too."
Especially curious is the fact that this week's duo performance follows OTS shows that had the two artists leading large ensemble groups: Vandermark's Audio One in August 2014 and Nilssen-Love's Large Unit as recently as May.
"The way I think when I'm playing with Paal is that we're an orchestra, that the two of us carry equal amounts of melodic weight," Vandermark says. "In a totally improvised situation like the duo, it's not that the circumstances are completely different from the larger groups. It's just that it all has to happen in real time. That means the compositional process, the editing process, the structural process all have to happen immediately.
"To me, that's the most exhilarating thing you can do when playing. There's this sense of surprise in having to solve problems suddenly that you didn't expect. To work like that with a person you have trusted for so many years is just an incredible gift."