Trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr., who died of heart disease in January 2014, was a fixture on New York City’s out-jazz scene for decades. He recorded as a leader and alongside the likes of Peter Brötzmann, Matthew Shipp, Marc Ribot and Jemeel Moondoc. Considering his immense popularity among musicians and his relatively early passing at age 61, Campbell’s peers were eager to honor him. And on To Roy’s closing title track, alto saxophonist Oliver Lake and bassist William Parker do just that, digging deep into the blues, then using it as a springboard for somersaulting free-jazz lines and harsh, reed-biting phrases that alternately evoke sorrow and joy.
Yet the album commemorates more than one fallen comrade. The 11 duets between Lake and Parker take inspiration from a variety of sources. For instance, they offer a “Variation on a Theme of Marvin Gaye” — hopefully one that’s sufficiently different to avoid any lawsuit by the late soul singer’s children. The pair also include tunes dedicated to noted jazz photographer Jacques Bisceglia, Chilean political martyr Victor Jara and jazz legend Eric Dolphy (“Bonu”), among others.
Parker explores the full range of his instrument’s expressive capabilities. He sets up deep funk grooves; swings as forcefully as anyone since the hard-bop era; creates harsh, discordant squeals with the bow; and strums the strings in a manner that recalls North African instruments such as the guimbri. Lake’s tone is bluesy, with a sharp, biting edge. At times, he flutters and claps the horn’s valves in a puffing, percussive manner, making the most of an extremely close microphone. His phrases are frequently repetitive and forceful, chewing on small clumps of notes until they come apart, or singing a melody over and over again like a child alone in his room.
On “Victor Jara,” Lake matches Parker’s desolate throb with a piercing, reedy tone that resembles an ululation. The pristine, ultraclose recording makes it sound as if Lake and Parker were standing on either side of the listener. This makes the intensity of their focused interaction all the more compelling and overpowering. These duets are never placid or subdued; they’re roaringly alive, and deeply exciting. —Phil Freeman