When it comes to improvised music, there’s something about duets with drummers. Ever since the 1974 release of John Coltrane’s landmark Interstellar Space session, on which the saxophonist was joined only by drummer Rashied Ali, countless musicians — from fellow saxists to trumpeters, pianists, guitarists and even double-bassists — have squared off with trap-set players, embracing the spontaneity and intensity of the stripped-down setting. New York drummer Donald Sturge Anthony McKenzie II is bringing a new energy to the format with his Silenced project, centering on first-take, unedited duets with a variety of stellar improvisers, including Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid (McKenzie’s collaborator in the band Masque) and Wilco’s Nels Cline.
McKenzie’s Silenced II — Views From the Auction Block, which is out today on Brooklyn’s 577 Records and follows last year’s first volume, kicks off with “Ramarley Graham,” an encounter between the drummer and veteran avant-garde guitarist Elliott Sharp. More than an update of vintage free jazz, the piece suggests an abstracted, metallic take on the gnarly psych-blues of Miles Davis’ 1971 LP A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Early in the track, McKenzie matches Sharp’s wailing, wavering drones and trills with a restless yet weighty groove, complete with punishing double-kick bursts. A few minutes in, the drummer suddenly breaks into a bare-bones shuffle beat, inspiring effects-bathed shred and what sounds like robotic birdsong from the guitarist. The minutes that follow are an engrossing collision of driving rhythm and unhinged noise, enhanced by the track’s loud, in-your-face production style.
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“Ramarley Graham” is one of many tracks on the two Silenced releases that takes its name from an African-American man or woman who died unjustly in recent years, either at the hands of police or private citizens, or by taking their own life. “The audio directed me to enhance visibility for Ramarley with its title,” McKenzie writes of his decision to name the Sharp duet after Graham, a Bronx teenager who was shot and killed by an NYPD officer in 2012. Other tracks on Silenced II include “Natasha McKenna,” a funk-and-dub-infused encounter with bassist Bill Laswell, and “Elektra Jagger McKenzie,” a spacey, poetic excursion with Vernon Reid, named after McKenzie’s daughter. Like the Coltrane/Ali duets before them, each of McKenzie’s Silenced improvisations finds the drummer and his respective partner establishing a compelling flow — and a coherent shared language — in the heat of the moment.