Saxophonist Steve Wilson and drummer Lewis Nash are used to sharing the spotlight. Wilson was featured in a 1996 New York Times profile entitled “A Sideman’s Life” and has spent time in the bands of Dave Holland and Chick Corea; Nash has sat behind Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Lovano, and McCoy Tyner.
But the pair of supporting actors will share their music this Saturday at The Jazz Gallery in celebration of their joint début, Duologue (MCG Jazz).
The album came out in August and features just these two musicians at their collaborative best, expounding on each other’s themes and exploring rhythmic outer regions. It’s hard to make a sax-and-drums album without it sounding empty, but the pair uses the lack of clutter to their advantage, forcing the listener to pay even more attention to every squawk or soft tom roll.
“It’s a very direct way of playing,” Nash said in an interview. “It’s like you and me speaking right now—our focus is solely on one person. That leads to some real honest improvising.”
Successful duos can be found throughout jazz history. Nash cites Philly Joe Jones and Sonny Rollins’s “Surrey With the Fringe On Top” from Newk’s Time and John Coltrane and Rashied Ali’s collaborations (notably Interstellar Space) as particularly inspirational. Duologue is notable for its complete commitment to reinventing and stripping bare classic standards like “Caravan” and “Woody ‘n’ You.”
Nash and Wilson have an exceedingly long rapport: they first recorded together on Wilson’s 1993 quintet album Blues For Marcus (Criss Cross), and they played their first duo show in 2001. They’ve been exceedingly busy the decade plus since then, both involved in a whirlwind of teaching, touring, and recording. However, they found themselves coming back together to their duo project more and more often.
“It seemed to morph into something that took on a life of its own,” Nash said. “It took on more and more importance to the point that at least we should document where it’s at now.”
That document is mostly standards, with a few originals tossed in. There are two medleys of tunes by Thelonious Monk, who, despite his harmonic innovations at the piano, provides an excellent canvas for this chordless setup. “His melodies are so distinct, and with the witty way he uses rhythm, you still know his music without the harmonic framework,” Nash said.
And while Nash and Wilson may not have a harmonic instrument with them for clarity or embellishment, they’re standing on the shoulders of giants who, over the years, have pushed and elevated their work.
“We have so many different experiences that if things happen that create a challenge as to how to resolve or what direction to go in, we know our decision-making will be rooted in all of our experiences we’ve had with great musicians,” Nash said. “So we’re more than likely gonna make some really good musical choices.”
Steve Wilson & Lewis Nash perform duo this Saturday, November 22nd, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. The performance will feature Wilson on saxophone and Nash on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m., $22 general admission ($12 for Members). Purchase tickets here.