THE PARIS SESSIONS, Vol. 1: MIMESIS / SIKORA-CULPO: Paris XI. Tendrils. Cornerwoman Blues/ Diffraction Grating. Mindweaving. Mimesis. Minor Victories. Smoketrails / Catherine Sikora, s-sax; Christopher Culpo, pno / private issue, available at Bandcamp
Catherine Sikora, the hugely talented Irish-American saxist, made this recording with pianist Christopher Culpo, with whom she had collaborated for five years, in February 2020, just before the dreaded Covid-19 virus hit the world like a sledgehammer. In previous collaborations with Culpo she played her alto sax, but on this session she switched to soprano.
Culpo introduces Paris XI with a moody, bitonal piano intro before Sikora enters. I’ve noted her exceptional sound several times before; whereas other alto and soprano saxists get a sort of generic sound, Sikora somehow manages to make her instruments sound warm and sensual. Her playing has a very human touch that I find exceptionally appealing quite beyond the imagination of her playing. Here, as in so much of her work, she creates unusual lines that follow the tonal ambiguity of Culpo’s piano while still managing to make those lines sound appealing and natural. Everything she plays makes perfect musical sense; none of it sounds forced or artificial in any way, even when the duo doubles the tempo. It all fits together as if the music had been composed beforehand, whereas these are spontaneous compositions.
Tendrils opens with Sikora playing an almost Arabian-sounding musical line. Culpo enters quietly behind her playing the strings of his piano at first, then combining that with single notes on the keyboard. They create a truly strange ambience in this one, one in which the snaky soprano lines lead the pianist rather than the other way round. Culpo fills in the cracks with little flurries of his own, moving away from playing the strings to playing a repeated series of single Ds in the left hand while the right ruminates along with the saxist, sometimes in contrasting lines and sometimes echoing what she plays. The music reaches a peak of excitement around the 3:53 mark, then falls back to simpler, more lyrical lines in the instrument’s lower register. A piano strings chord ends it.
Cornerwoman Blues is an even further-out piece using what sounds like a modal harmony and fast, circular figures on the saxophone while Culpo tentatively picks his way through a single-note sequence, first with her and then solo. His playing then becomes gradually busier and more complex while still staying within one basic modal harmony. The rest of the track seems to consist of Sikora’s snakelike improvisations with staccato, single-note interjections by Culpo with occasional right-hand chords. Towards the end Sikora plays alone.
Since it might well be a distraction rather than a help to describe each track in such detail, I will only comment on the fact that although Culpo is a more than worthy partner for her, he seems to defer to Sikora in nearly every piece, even in those where he is the one who opens the track. His subtlety as an accompanist, then, matches her subtlety as a soloist. Perhaps realizing that she can only produce one note at a time, he only supplies harmonic underpinning in the way of chords when he feels it necessary; otherwise, he seems quite content to play single lines along with her or against hers. This subtler kind of interplay draws the listener inward. Even in the busiest passages, neither musician appears to be in any hurry to rush the music but, rather, allow things to develop gradually and, I would add, organically. It is like the creation of an extended line drawing in which the lines are the music.
Many of the pieces are in a slow or medium tempo, albeit sometimes with faster passages in the middle, but even in a basically fast piece like Mindweaving this holistic approach to creation holds true. Sometimes I do wonder if such sessions are preceded by a warm-up off the microphone where the musicians can feel out a few lines before proceeding to the recording, or if the tape is just set rolling and they play a continuous sequence of works, some of which are selected for release and some of which are rejected. Either way, what exists on this recording is fascinating and inventive from start to finish. In Minor Victories we have a rare example of Culpo taking charge with an aggressive boogie type of rhythm, but Sikora is fully up to the challenge, pushing her saxophone to a harder, higher sound, matching his aggressiveness with her own. In the final track, Smoketrails, Culpo plays solo for the first 2:01, with Sikora entering on a long-held note, and in this one instance she seems to be following his lead rather than the other way around.
With the exception of one early session by Lennie Tristano and a notable extended session by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet in the 1960s, most free jazz prior to the late 1990s consisted, in my view, of a chaotic splattering of notes up against the wall to see which ones might stick. There is still a great deal of free jazz like that nowadays, particularly from the Evan Parker school, but there are also free jazz musicians, particularly reed-and-piano duos, that seem to understand that no matter how completely spontaneous music is, it must still be music. The duo of Ivo Perelman and Matthew Shipp is one of these, and here the duo of Catherine Sikora and Christopher Culpo stake their claim to join them in the free jazz hierarchy. Open your mind and listen!
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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