More spectral improvisations from the piano-saxophone partnership. MacGregor and Sheppard are both footloose souls, and this set is distinguished by some wonderfully eclectic choices, from Johnny Cash’s Spiritual to Bob Dylan’s Ring Them Bells and Tom Waits’s Georgia Lee. At its best, MacGregor’s playing has something of the stateliness of that South African master Abdullah Ibrahim.
Joanna MacGregor, the pianist who injects free-jazz into Bach, applies the same intensity to Django Bates as Pierre Boulez, and has almost made John Cage’s nuts and bolts standard piano currency, has gone back to her childhood for her latest venture, with jazz saxist Andy Sheppard. MacGregor was an evangelical church pianist before she emerged in the 1980s as one of the world’s foremost modern-music recitalists, and for the project Deep River she has returned to the gospel songs and blues she first learned on the piano, more or less.
Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory and the avant-jazz drummer Seb Rochford contribute to the Deep River CD this gig launched, but they only appeared in the background sounds in this single-set dialogue for MacGregor and Sheppard as a duo. Sheppard didn’t know the songs before MacGregor initiated the project, and over the years the pianist has added a wealth of technical and expressive resources to the fundamentals she needed to play them as a child. So neither musician was disposed to play them as covers or museum pieces. That was evident from the opener, the classic Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.
MacGregor ushered it in with caressing piano chords, and Sheppard began with a high, fluting sound on the tenor sax, descending into dark whispers and noteless puffs of air. Then the pianist began rippling fast treble lines and a steadily boogieing left hand, so eventually the piece turned into a looping, Steve Reichian trance. A delicate soprano-sax line then unfurled over a banging bass-note, and a spinechilling multiphonic tenor wail erupted against a stomping gospel piano-walk on Josh Haden’s haunting Spiritual, a song recorded by Johnny Cash. The two then explored a favourite MacGregor piece of Japanese minimalism and an ecstatic, fraught-with-danger Astor Piazzolla tango.
Tom Waits’s Georgia Lee was a highlight, a tender soprano saxophone reverie over soft chords. The saxophonist’s bugged soprano, issuing a Joe Zawinul-like keyboard sound, was also a triumph, and Nick Cave’s Mercy Seat(reflections on the electric chair) a terrifying free-blast. This freewheeling partnership, now over a decade old, shows no signs of repeating itself.
John Fordham, The Guardian