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Seamus Blake/Chris Cheek With Reeds Ramble: Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

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Two-tenor frontlines are thin on the ground, but there is a small tradition. Back in the day, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis/Johnny Griffin and Al Cohn/Zoot Sims had good runs. Of the “Top 50 Tenor Sax Albums of All Time” (according to the June 2012 issue of this magazine), five were two-tenor collaborations.

Seamus Blake and Chris Cheek are so skilled and natural in the genre they should run clinics on the subject. In this, their second project together, they explore a wide range of double-tenor possibilities: melodic and harmonic entanglements; conversational depth; occasional fruitful competition.

But if they ran a clinic, it would have room for fun. The opening title track, the Gershwins’ goofiest song, starts with deadpan, slow, ironic solemnity. Then quick solos by Blake, Cheek, pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Matt Penman distort the melody with wry displacements. “Limehouse Blues” is also droll: 1922 party music to wail on.

Blake and Cheek are among the most in-demand sidemen in jazz because of their musicianship and versatility. As co-leaders they are in full control of their own creativity. They like beauty even more than wit. Cheek’s “Lunar,” loosely related to Miles Davis’ “Solar,” is first blocked out, haltingly, by Iverson. Then, to this mysterious song Blake and Cheek offer responses of graceful, convoluted lyricism. They both possess clean, classic tenor tones-Blake’s more rounded and nuanced, Cheek’s somewhat brighter and edgier.

Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings” is another whimsical song choice, but Blake and Cheek portray its emotion with deep, reflective sincerity. Iverson and Penman also light up this track. Iverson’s day gig is the piano chair in the Bad Plus, but he moonlights as a bold, intuitive sideman who always improves his surroundings. Penman has quietly become one of the premier bassists in jazz.

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