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Jazz Review Dynamic duo in marvellous Monkish mode

CHRIS SEARLE reviews Criss Cross by Alcyona Mick and Tori Freestone

Alcyona Mick and Tori Freestone
Criss Cross
(Whirlwind Recordings)

I WONDER if, when the sublime pianist Thelonious Monk recorded his tune Criss Cross on his eponymous album in February 1963, he would have imagined over half a century later that two Englishwomen would be playing it as a duo on the island of Tenerife.

“On rainy days we'd just pull out another Monk tune,” says south London saxophonist Tori Freestone about the genesis of this, her third album, on which she carves her notes on an exceptional instrument, the Fazioli Concert Grand.

Her pianist partner Alcyona Mick is from Dorset and has played alongside Arabic musicians like the English-Egyptian singer Natacha Atlas, violinist Samy Bishai and the French-Lebanese arch-trumpeter, Ibrahim Maalouf. “We like to accept the challenge of whatever is put in front of us,” says Freestone, “finding a new way of getting inside the music.”

The duo's long personal and musical friendship, performing side by side in many different formations, including frequently with the London Jazz Orchestra, means that their empathy with each other's musical worlds is close and binding.

On this album, they're a long way from the relaxed and casual sessions in Tenerife where the album was truly born. Opener Hermetica is a Brazilian-inspired romp with the additional timbre of Brigitte Beraha's high and flying wordless vocals meshing with Freestone's fluttering flute, creating an uncanny sound of mid-Atlantic birdsong.

This is Freestone's tune, as is Charmed Life, which begins with some beautifully melodic work from Mick before the entry of Freestone's mellow tenor saxophone. Here are two musical minds as one, as if a unified human soul is creating improvising lines of rare warmth and invention.

You can recognise some “Monkisms” in Mick's piano playing on her composition Strange Behaviour, with its sudden changes of pace and instantaneous cadences, and the duo's performance sets you wondering how many hours of playing together has created such musical union.

The clue for the next track — all the album's titles are prompted by crossword questions — is “a short conversation with folk roots.” Alcyona's galloping ride across the keys of the Fazioli Grand leads into Exchange and her sound of exhilaration is intense and rampaging as Freestone's saxophone chases her.

The latter's cybernetic dreams come tumbling from her horn in Goodnight Computer, on which the duo's thought processes are almost tangible. The clue is “sweet dreams tech lovers” and this is a new kind of love song, radiantly reflecting the creative immediacy between two people who love each other.

How much the next track Mrs P.C. reflects the John Coltrane original, named after his bass genius confrere Paul Chambers in 1960 on his album Giant Steps, only composer Freestone knows — but she gives an enigmatic clue: “a female constable who won't speak her mind.” But it's a proud strut with Freestone's notes touching the top of her register and Alcyona's solo is one of surprise. This is no routine patrol.

Then it's Monk and the familiar angular theme of Criss Cross, with both musicians turning his sudden corners with skill and original stride. Mick, loving the special piano's fullness of pitch, plays it like a Monk sister with Freestone matching her at every intersection. It's a tremendous rendition of a classic jazz theme, faithful and universal yet full of originality and joy.

Freestone's London riverside roots come to the fore as the duo becomes a trio, testifying with Beraha's vocal on the east London folk blues Press Gang. It made me wish that they would make an entire album of Thameside tunes, so compelling is the performance — songs like Outward Bound, Ratcliff Highway, My Jolly Sailor Bold and Ewan McColl's Sweet Thames Flow Softly or the 1889 anthem of the striking dockers Strike for Better Wages. There's marvellous jazz potential in those tunes.

Get hold of Criss Cross — it's full of Monk's living spirit on a long journey of beautiful sound.

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