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Red Mitchell and George Cables: Live at Port Townsend

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The final two decades of Red Mitchell’s career might be dubbed “the duo years.” From the start of the ’70s to his death in 1992, the incomparable bassist’s preferred instrumental setting was an intimate get-together with one other player; memorable encounters can be heard with, among others, Jimmy Rowles, Warne Marsh, Jim Hall and Clark Terry. On his final recording, made just four months before he passed, Mitchell hooked up with pianist George Cables for an informal session that, despite its ad hoc nature, produced splendid results.

Sticking to core material (“Autumn Leaves,” “Stella by Starlight,” “Body and Soul”) that reflects the spontaneous nature of the event, these two quick-witted improvisers rely on wide-open ears and hair-trigger reflexes to carry the day. Cables paces himself beautifully, impressing by way of his ringing tone and no-nonsense approach rather than by grandiosity of technique. Nonetheless, this is ultimately Mitchell’s show, confirming that, even near the end, he remained at the peak of his awesome powers.

Possessed of an utterly distinctive sound, thanks to the cello tuning he relied on, Mitchell pledged unswaying allegiance to two jazz principles: swing and lyricism. Often taking purely unaccompanied solos, Mitchell swaths his listeners in considered melody. Yet when it comes time to drive the duo, he’s single-minded in his buoying rhythmic force. Port Townsend is a casual masterwork.