On the sleeve of this live gig recording by pianist Uli Lenz and saxophonist Johannes Barthelmes, a German disc jockey describes this as "one of the best German jazz productions of the past 50 years." Hefty praise coming from one of those persons known to be cynical and hard to please, and who accepts only the finest music for performance on his program. But it's not such an overstatement or exaggeration. In fact, it's pretty much dead-on. This is the duo as art, high art. Inimitable art. This program, recorded in Berlin in 1992, features three Barthelmes compositions, "Soul Eyes" by Mal Waldron, and Steve Grossman's "New Moon." The selection of covers is enough to make one prick up one's ears. But in the hearing, there is only astonishment at how torqued the level of functioning is between these two. From the opening moments of Bathelmes' "Blues for G.," with its long, simply stated 4/4 line and chorus extension by Barthelmes on tenor, it is obvious from the long chords laid down by Lenz that something special is happening. He is doing intuitive vamping here, and not to prescribed changes but according to the playing of his companion. The track strolls easily, but it moves in shadows and shades coming in underneath the blues and singing them instead of shouting them. The dissonant 11th and flatted fifths Lenz tosses in during his piano break are nearly nail-bitingly tense, but they flow right back into the big vamp for Barthelmes to take it out. While Grossman's "New Moon" is also known as a thematic extension of the blues, it's denser, knottier, and more complex harmonically, with Lenz filling the empty intervals with striking ninths and thirds that are slightly off-kilter harmonically but dead-on rhythmically, making the tune a puzzle piece for Barthelmes -- who is undaunted -- to make sing. And he does in a deeply emotional and tough tenor solo. And while "Soul Eyes" is worth writing an entire review about, it would be remiss not to speak of Barthelmes' own compositions, especially the strangely beautiful romantic angularity of the title track, which is nothing short of a musical miracle. Its modal beginnings shift into intervallic high gear, investigating the tonal reaches of unified harmonics and dissonant extended passages where the lyric line collides with edgy improvisation and decides not to resolve itself, without showing a seam for over 20 minutes. This is as great as it gets in piano and saxophone duos; it must be heard to be believed.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek