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With 'Some Kind Of Tomorrow' 2 Jazz Musicians Improvise Together Over Zoom

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. When the COVID lockdown came last spring, improvising musicians sheltering in place instantly missed jamming with their colleagues. Soon after the lockdown, a couple of New York musicians - one in Manhattan, one a little ways upstate - started improvising together on Zoom. Now, soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom and bassist Mark Helias have issued an album of these remotely recorded duets. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has this review.

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KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: One term collaborative musicians use nowadays is the latency, meaning the time-lag between both ends of a live Internet connection. On a Zoom call, that lag might amount to a quarter of a second, all but undetectable in conversation. But when musicians try playing fast music and strict rhythm over the Internet, things can quickly go haywire. If you slow the music down to a conversational pace, however, and make the rhythm more flexible, things jazz musicians do anyway, then it can work.

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WHITEHEAD: Improvised music from soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom and bassist Mark Helias from their album "Some Kind Of Tomorrow."

Playing together over the Internet, it took them a little while to adjust. But once they got comfortable with the format, things fell into place somehow. After recording, when Helias synchronized both their streams from the exact same starting point, their downbeats lined up just right.

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WHITEHEAD: Jane Ira Bloom and Mark Helias have recorded together before, playing her compositions in quartets. In a way, this all-improvised duo project involved learning to interact all over again. Seasoned improvisers usually avoid echoing one another too directly, a strategy that can seem too obvious. But here, a little direct imitation signifies the other musician is truly listening. It's a musical analog to a dial-up modem handshake signal, audible confirmation that you're connected.

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WHITEHEAD: These players are well-matched. Saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom is a melodist with a distinctive, bittersweet sound and vibrato, and Mark Helias brings out the woody resonance of the bass with a precise percussive attack. He's nimble with a bow and knows plenty of practical strategies for backing another player's ever-mutating improvisation, something that can be tricky even when they're in the same room. Those strategies include leisurely call and response, a steady walking bass line and repeating or recurring background figures.

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WHITEHEAD: They can also reverse roles, when bowed bass does the singing as saxophone picks up a rhythm pattern.

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WHITEHEAD: In addition, Jane Ira Bloom and Mark Helias can always play a spontaneous blues. In the end, this music is notable less for how it was made than for how it sounds, chamber music that brings a little calm to the chaos in their lives and ours. It's somehow fitting that the cyberspace album "Some Kind Of Tomorrow" exists only as a digital release, not a physical object. And also, given how things are at the U.S. Postal Service, you wouldn't want to wait for it to arrive in the mail.

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GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Some Kind Of Tomorrow," the new digital release by saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom and bassist Mark Helias.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview about recently declassified documents that reveal more about how the FBI spied on Martin Luther King and tried to undermine and discredit him, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.