Connie Crothers and Jessica Jones – Live At the Freight (2013)

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Pianist Connie Crothers and tenor saxophonist Jessica Jones color outside the lines on Live At the Freight, a duo recording taken from a session in August of 2011 at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley.

Through the course of seven tracks, Crothers and Jones mesh their improvisational instincts with their practical talents and turn in a set of free-flowing music. The quality of the partnership is apparent from the outset; these two artists listen as well as they play, fusing elegant and sharp lines to the underpinnings of some of the American Songbook’s finest entries.

“Musically speaking and on a life level, we feel areas of enormous affinity,” Crothers says of her relationship with the saxophonist. “Jessica is a great friend and we have talked about how we were shaped by growing up in Northern California and making our way as improvising musicians in New York. There’s a freedom that comes from the recognition of this affinity.”

This sense of freedom is apparent at the outset of Live At the Freight, with an almost eccentric rendering of “All the Things You Are” by Kern and Hammerstein leading off the record. The familiarity of the melody is present but elusive, with Crothers’ ivories tapping around the core and Jones’ reed exploring the contours of the music rather than the basis of it.

There’s also “In a Sentimental Mood.” Once again, the ideological path through this Duke Ellington joint isn’t so much about playing a standard as it is playing with a standard. Crothers builds tension with various piano flourishes and a spacious, intelligent solo, while Jones pushes through with muscled tones and emotional purpose.

Crothers has indeed been busy as of late, with five albums — including a four-CD box set — released last year alone. TranceFormation, a bracing and clever record featuring Andrea Wolper and Ken Filiano, seems to have at least in part laid some of the groundwork for the Freight session.

Jones’ background in the Berkeley public school system, with its renowned jazz education program, comes almost full circle with this live recording. She initially studied on alto saxophone but moved to tenor with the guidance of Phil Hardyman. The transition pushed her to study at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz before an eventual move to New York planted Jones in new soil.

As though with that rich grounding in mind, Jones’ original composition “Family” closes out the recording. It fits beautifully in the mix of improvisational and standard passages, with tremendously flowing arcs and quieter moments providing balance.

Even the most cursory listens of Live At the Freight reveals the friendship and skill of Crothers and Jones. Deeper sittings reveal its many hidden delights, of course, and the conversation between the two artists proves as clever as it is entertaining.

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