Evan Parker and Joe McPhee have played together in many different group settings over the years, but have recorded as a duo only once before, back in 2003. What/If/They Both Could Fly was recorded in the moment on-stage at the Konigsberg Jazz Festival in July of 2012. Parker plays tenor saxophone throughout, while McPhee plays both trumpet and soprano saxophone. The nearly 40-minute meeting is divided into three distinct pieces, two longer works over 18 and 13 minutes respectively, and the closer, a tad over six and a half. Rather than a confrontation, this concert is closer to an active conversation between two friends, who are very familiar with one another's "speaking" styles. Parker is content to explore a fairly narrow tonal range on the tenor, but he is far from short on ideas. His fits and starts punctuate, assert, investigate, and question and his wonderful multivalent use of circular breathing offers quick idiomatic moments. McPhee's playing on both instruments tends to a more lyrical side, as has been his wont since the 1960s. While smatterings of notes are common, they almost always exist in a give-and-take manner. Not call and response, exactly; more like assertion first, followed by elaboration, occasionally argument, and either resolve or retreat. What's most striking on opener "What" is that, after near symbiotic statements, Parker takes to poignant circular breathing solos three times. When McPhee responds, it is with elongated single notes, shifting ever so slightly in tone, leading Parker to follow in adding more textural dimension to the established dialogue. Speaking of texture, "If" commences as a study in breathy whispers through both tenor and soprano before it takes off. When it does, it is lively, strident, full of seeming debate, yet always focused. Parker takes more solo space, but it is McPhee's changes of direction that give the piece its weight. For fans of improvised music, What/If/They Both Could Fly has much to offer. For seasoned listeners, it will not likely reveal many hidden new doors, but it is enjoyable and engaging for its lively interplay, presented in a relaxed, open, and inquisitive fashion.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek