The instruments begin as distant members of a single, brewing conversation.
On one side, we hear studied, melodic phrasings on trombone. It's contemplative and funereal. On the other is the chatter of cymbals. The percussive rattling is lighter in tone, but more tense and textured in design. The sound seems eager to engage.
And engage they do, first through subtle sweeps that suggest swing and blues, and later through a pronounced, lyrical groove. After 12 minutes, the discussion ends as the instruments disengage to make unassuming, separate exits.
Such is the course that Jeb Bishop and Tim Daisy — two of the finer stylists to emerge from Chicago's improvisatory music scene over the past two decades — follow on House Sounds. The makeshift tune is one of the intriguing dialogues from the duo's new album, Old Shoulders.
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Bishop and Daisy are longtime pals and frequent bandmates. On Lexington turf alone, they have performed for the Outside the Spotlight Series in the free jazz ensembles Engines and The Vandermark 5. But those are fully armed groups (or at least they were; The Vandermark 5 has disbanded). When Bishop and Daisy return for an OTS performance Friday night at the new Mecca studio on Manchester Street, they will have only each other's intuition, musical cunning and technical chops to work off of.
The performance will feature only trombone and drums. It's a combination so unlikely that even these two practiced improvisers were hard pressed to name another duo with the same musical makeup.
"It's certainly not a common instrumentation to find," trombonist Bishop said. "But this kind of a duo offers me complete liberty to go anywhere I want to go. And with Tim, I know that means we can cover a lot of ground and all kinds of grooves and rhythms as well as a lot of territory that doesn't fall into a regular groove — territory where the music becomes a more textural thing."
"This might sound a bit odd, but in a trombone-drum duo, the actual sound brings me back to a more trad jazz kind of space," said drummer/percussionist Daisy, who has been a mainstay member of nearly a dozen ensembles that have played OTS concerts in Lexington over the past decade. "When I'm thinking trombone, I'm thinking traditional. What is interesting about that is I'm not a traditional jazz drummer in any sense of the term. I love that vocabulary, but that's not who I am as a player. But to have that kind of traditional sound floating around in my head really informs my free playing. It puts me in a different space."
Forming a trombone-drums duo was an idea that presented itself once Daisy was approached in 2010 by a Chicago Web site, Coachhousesounds.com. The site invites local and touring bands to record an impromptu session in their home studio for posting online ahead of their live Chicago-area performances.
"The idea is that the artists come in, set up and play as if they were performing a concert," Bishop said. "But the audience is basically just the guys setting up the session."
"Once they contacted me, I knew what I wanted to do. Jeb and I had worked together in so many different ensembles, but never did anything that was just the two of us. So we did a recording at the Coach House."
Two years and some modest post-production touches later, the Coach House session is getting a limited release as Old Shoulders. Ironically, the record is surfacing just as Bishop is planning to move from Chicago to his native North Carolina, where his wife has accepted a job.
"It's a very good move for her," Bishop said. "That's going to mean some changes in my working methods. But I still have some commitments for projects here in Chicago that will keep me going back and forth for awhile."
"The thing that strikes me so much about working with Jeb is his versatility," Daisy said. "He is comfortable soloing over my most low-dynamic, textural playing. But he is also super comfortable playing really loud, in-your-face free jazz. And if I go into a groove, he is comfortable with that, too.
Does that mean Friday night's duo performance could delve into any or all of these areas?
Daisy's reply was as concise as his playing is expansive: "Let's hope so."