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A Spontaneously Rapturous Duo Album by Jane Ira Bloom and Mark Helias

A low-key duo album with Jane Ira Bloom on it might seem like the last thing you’d ever expect to hear, considering that she’s arguably this era’s great master of spine-tingling soprano sax pyrotechnics. Desperate times, desperate measures. Beginning in the terrorized early days of the lockdown, she and bassist Mark Helias began jamming over the web. The two quickly realized they were on to something. By September, they’d recorded enough material for an album, Some Kind of Tomorrow, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s two veterans with huge bags of riffs and spontaneous tunesmithing ability at the peak of their game.

“The thought of a world without a live, spontaneous musical connection was too hard to imagine,” Bloom confirms. Obviously, we can’t let lockdowner totalitarianism dictate how, when, where or even if recordings are made. But just the fact that Bloom and Helias were able to create such deeply conversational, moving interludes as these under the circumstances portends even more amazing things for these two as more and more musicians return from the virtual world to reality again.

In the album’s title track, Bloom weaves bits and pieces of a ballad – some of them distant echoes of My Favorite Things – as Helias keeps a dancing pulse going and pulls together a catchy, riff-driven groove that you will be humming to yourself afterward. Keep in mind that this was completely improvised.

Bloom treats us to sprightly spirals over Helias’ suspenseful, muted rumble as Magic Carpet takes flight. Then a spacious, similarly suspenseful dialogue ensues, Helias subtly introducing a Middle Eastern-tinged mode that Bloom picks up on immediately. Bloom flits around and induces some goosebumps with her trills, Helias jabbing and then sinking an anchor of stygian sustain to the river floor.

The two pursue a similar dichotomy in the sepulchral flickers of Early Rites: Bloom throws a flourish at Helias, then he bends it back with just enough of a different spin to keep the music slowly shifting.

The bassist pursues more of a shadowy response, then takes a tantalizing, stairstepping solo in the album’s fourth number, Willing, as Bloom plays sage, wee-hours blues phrases before following him into modal mystery again.

The two switch roles in Traveling Deep, Bloom’s broodingly liquid, clarinet-like phrasing in response to Helias’ jaunty harmonics. Their big, almost ten-minute epic is titled Roughing It, the closest thing to a spontaneous, lithely swinging ballad here before the two spin and drift into the ether again before triumphantly reconvening.

Spare, spacious contemplation returns and shifts into more tentative angst in Far Satellites: Helias’ high harmonics versus Bloom’s moody trils create one of the album’s most quietly riveting moments. Listening to Bloom develop one of the more lengthy themes and variations in Pros and Cons, from wistfulness to desolate blues is a treat. Again, Helias’ chromatics are the icing on the cake.

Drift is a master class in angst-fueled melismas and sheets of sustain. Helias takes the lead with his slides and chromatics as Bloom floats and flickers in Star Talk, one of the quietest and most haunting number here. First Canvas, a miniature, closes the album on a benedictory note.

Whirlwind Improvisation and Smashing Tunefulness from Jane Ira Bloom at NYU

This past week, NYU held a little jazz festival of their own, featuring some top-tier talent. Saxophonist Tom Scott and the Rich Shemaria Big Band recorded a live album at the cozy Provincetown Playhouse amphitheatre on Saturday night. Pianist Shemaria’s colorful, hefty new charts brought some welcome gravitas to some of Scott’s biggest solo and LA Express hits, notably a rather torchy take of the love theme from Taxi Driver and a bustling, surprisingly un-dixielandish reinvention of the Paul McCartney single Listen to What the Man Says. Among his many wry between-song anecdotes, Scott revealed that McCartney had summoned him to an afternoon session, on no notice, to play soprano on that one – and that the scratch track, which Scott had no idea was being recorded, was what eventually ended up in the song. You’ll be able to hear all of that and more sooner than later.

Much as it would have been fun to catch another individualist saxophonist, Dave Pietro and his group in that same space later in the week, soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom turned in a spectacular, whirlwind set a couple of days beween those shows, leading a trio with bassist Mark Helias and drummer Bobby Previte. It was a great way to cap off a week of listening on loop to that newly discovered 1963 John Coltrane session that everybody’s been talking about.

While it wouldn’t be accurate to make any close comparison between this rhythm section and Coltrane’s, there were similarities between how both Helias and Jimmy Garrison would hold the center as Previte or Elvin Jones chewed the scenery. The three veterans onstage sandwiched volley after volley of inspired camaraderie and conversation between Bloom’s signature, fiercely tuneful, acerbic riffs. Helias started a game of whiffle ball, Previte flicking back his responses harder and harder until he hit on an altered clave. Likewise, the bassist’s looming, low-register bowing gave Previte a comfortable launching pad for his pummeling toms and pinballing romps along his hardware.

Stage right, Bloom was a spring-loaded presence, weaving and pouncing, whipping her horn in a semicircle for a flange effect, spiraling through achingly intense, rapidfire trills and Coltrane-esque glissandos. The winner of the 2018 DownBeat Critics Poll for soprano sax aired out a lot of recent material from her trio album, Early Americans, with these guys. Several of the numbers looked to Emily Dickinson’s work for inspiration: Bloom seems committed to helping rescue the poet from the posthumous branding which cast her as a wallflower when in fact she was puckish and engaging.

Was the best song of the set Dangerous Times, Helias’ brooding bowing giving way to the bandleader’s uneasy bustle and eventually a turbulently thrashing coda? Maybe. Previte’s coy pointillisms and then a pretty successful attempt at getting a simple triangle to evoke epic majesty were some of the night’s funniest moments, as Singing the Triangle got underway. And Bloom painted a Van Gogh wheatfield of sound in Cornets of Paradise, a more triumphantly crescendoing tableau.

The NYU festival may be over, and Bloom doesn’t seem to have any other gigs coming up at the moment, but there is a brass festival with a program TBA at the Provincetown Playhouse – on Washington Square South west of W 3rd St – at 7 PM on July 27.