Interstellar Space, John Coltrane’s fiery, harmonically dense set of duets with Rashied Ali, has been something of a paradigm for improvisations for saxophone and drums. This set by percussionist Ben Bennett and alto and soprano saxophonist Jack Wright represents a different kind of paradigm, one that posits color and texture as primary elements. The conventional relationship between pitch and timbre is reversed here in that in Bennett and Wright’s hands, the former becomes a carrier for the latter—when indeed it surfaces at all. For all its potentially broad applicability, Bennett and Wright’s embodiment of reed and percussion interaction nevertheless manages to remain sui generis.
Over the course of his career, Wright has embraced an especially kinetic variety of free jazz—such as would be licensed by Interstellar Space—only to turn around to explore a more austere, sonically constrained type of improvisation. At this stage he seems inclined to gather in and refine elements drawn from the entirety of his personal history, in the process producing a creative synthesis that, while rooted in each tendency he explored, is in the end neither one nor the other. Instead it consists in a unique sound and sense of continuity instantly identifiable as his own.
Throughout the three lengthy pieces Wright sets out timbres or techniques as motifs to delineate and vary, beginning with a long, slow tone that splits into overtones and then dissolves into energetic, bop-like phrases employing a limited set of pitches. From there, Wright draws on the wide-ranging vocabulary he’s developed over the years. He constructs long lines out of air notes or uses register jumps to create the illusion of a jagged melody counterpointed by an independent bassline. More introspective passages find him building phrases out of open spaces as well as sounds, which effectively contrast with frenetic moments sounding like rapid bits of broken birdsong.
Bennett’s sensibility perfectly complements Wright’s. Bennett’s starting point is a severely pared down drumkit—actually a single drum and no cymbals—out of which he creates a variegated texture of timbres using friction as well as percussive strikes. Bennett’s playing eschews rhythm or pulse in favor of pure color. He often mutes the drum to get a closed sound, scrapes brushes against any available surface, bounces objects off the drumhead, and plays on the metal as much as on the membrane. This allows him to play with dynamic as well as timbral contrasts, something that Wright does as well.
It isn’t surprising to find out that Bennett and Wright have been collaborating in different contexts for nearly ten years now. As this recording shows, during that time they’ve forged a uniquely sympathetic relationship in sound.