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A good jazz duo record is hard to pull off, but Ben Monder and Bill McHenry are certainly up to the task with their recent release, Bloom. Their musical dialogue conjures the edgy spontaneity of great improvisation, whether sprawling through the drones of the title track or navigating the crunchy distortion of “Ice Fields.”
The record can be a bit challenging at times because of the lack of rhythmic drive, but the long phrasing and angular saxophone lines work because of the way that the two weave together larger melodic arcs.
Guitarist Ben Monder sets the tone of the songs with his intricate electric guitar wizardry, laying a foundation over which McHenry’s saxophone glides melodically. It’s not actually that different from what one would expect from a sax-and-guitar duo, only there seem to be no chord changes or functional harmony. Instead, the two dance within a more ambiguous framework of timbral and dynamic shifts that move subtly within each song and between tracks. McHenry takes the lead in a few places, such as the beginning of “Heliogabalus” (that was fun to type) where his aggressive chromatic passages and brash punctuations give way as Monder slides in quietly underneath him.
Taken together, these conversations provide a display of virtuosic and intimate improvised music. Although a clear departure from tonality and functional harmony, Monder and McHenry’s record is exciting, moving and oddly mystifying. I’ve had to find myself in the right mood to listen to it, but when I have really been able to dig in, it has taken my ear in some surprising new directions.