The first thing that strikes you about Signaling, an exceptional duo effort by alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella and cellist Tomeka Reid, is its remarkable tonality—not just the sonic depth and richness of the notes but the gravitational pull of the spaces between them as well. Its free expression cuts you loose in space, like the Sandra Bullock character in Gravity, while the tensile strength and solidity of the playing tethers you to a rewarding place.
All of the tunes on the album are co-writes by these acclaimed Chicago artists. As explicitly conveyed by the title of the gorgeous, spiritually charged opening track, “Blues for Julius and Abdul,” the great saxophone and cello collaborations of Julius Hemphill and Abdul Wadud figure into their approach. But the free and easy feel of Mazzarella and Reid’s exchanges, and the ease with which they continually shift strategies in embossing and deconstructing melodies, tells you how lightly they wear that influence.
On the title track, which finds Mazzarella in a staccato mode, sculpting and spurting notes, Reid’s machine-gun flurry may put you in mind of electric guitar hero Sonny Sharrock in Last Exit. On “Rediscovery of an Age,” Reid props up the playful, intensifying clusters of her partner with plucked notes and lively walking figures. “Topographies,” at seven-and-a-half minutes the longest track, grabs you with its high-low melodic attack (Reid climbs the register to play airy, violin-like notes) and its closeknit harmonies. The ghostly sustained tones with which the song concludes take your breath away—even in outer space.