How deep can two brass players’ collaboration run? And how much of that depth can they fit onto one album? With Plainsong, a postbop compendium and their first recording together, trumpeter John McNeil and trombonist Mike Fahie mean to find out. And on both counts, the answer is “an impressive amount.” The contributions of their rhythm section—pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Billy Hart—similarly impress.
McNeil and Fahie’s musical relationship has nuance. They can act as foils: On the improv vehicle “Can Do,” McNeil’s solo is a flow of melodies, while Fahie’s is about thrust. They can also be extensions of each other: Fahie emanates warmth and fondness on the elegy “Abercrombie,” and when McNeil follows him, the primary difference is that the trumpeter is warmer and fonder still. And they can do both at once: Fahie scatters streaks of notes under McNeil on “Green Chimneys,” something between fills and counterpoint. He pushes back playfully, but also seems to reach the harmonic nooks and crannies McNeil missed. Their dynamic is constantly in flux, and fun to listen to.
Yet it takes the full quintet to seal the deal. Iverson rarely hews this closely to conventional harmony, but his Silver-esque vamps on “Backseat Pedal” prove he’s more than up for it. Martin and Hart swing away, both providing gratifying solos (on “Abercrombie” and “Can Do,” respectively). But it’s when they work in trio formation, as they do behind Iverson’s solo on the lively “Get Out,” that they show the strongest empathy and make the most interesting choices. It strengthens the entire equation.
McNeil and Fahie should not only maintain the Plainsong quintet; next time, they should give Iverson, Martin and Hart equal billing.