Saxophonist Rafael Garces and pianist Eric-Jan Harmsen, it seems, couldn’t be more different. In the case of their stellar new live jazz recording 52 Min & 52 Sec, that’s a good thing.
Garces opens the album with an extended saxophone interlude that is, by turns, lyrical and then assertive – a scene-setting moment that signals everything that will follow. His tone is warm but at the same time elaborate, like an old lover’s embrace. Harmsen soon joins in at the piano, playing a contemplative figure that fully reveals the composition at hand – Keith Jarrett’s “Memories of Tomorrow.” Together, they finish the tune like birds executing a daring flight above and then below the trade winds, ebbing and flowing with a symbiotic majesty and then darting out on their own.
Already this duo, reflecting their disparate backgrounds as a Cuban saxist and Dutch keyboardist, has illustrated a stirring command of virtually every jazz mood – from dark ruminations to breezy etherealism to this rough-hewn metallic gumption. While the songs might be familiar, it’s clear that Harmsen and Garces – as complicated as they are involving – don’t intend to approach things in a conventional manner.
Their rendition of Steve Kuhn’s “Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers” follows, taking the project into a deeper, smoke-filled quietude. Harmsen walks slightly further ahead on this one, playing with a lilting, circular logic that has become forever associated with Bill Evans. Garces is a willing partner, settling into longer, more expressive lines. The result is a gorgeous, almost beatific moment. That segues, quite interestingly, into “I’ll Be There,” a Berry Gordy-penned hit for the Jackson Five for the Motown label. It’s a real test, in the sense that the track challenges both our conceptions of what makes a jazz song, but also the abilities of Garces and Harmsen to convey something beyond the original theme – so memorably sung by an impossibly young Michael Jackson. Garces tracks parallel to the original lyric, while Harmsen explores further out into an otherworldly reverie, but without losing sight of the anchoring melody. Outwardly one of the least promising tracks on 52 Min & 52 Sec, “I’ll Be There” instead becomes another showcase for the sturdy versatility of this duo.
Their greasy, R&B-informed take on Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” while less stylistically challenging, then underscores Garces’ deep command of the blues. If anything, that makes a medley of jazz warhorses featuring “A Child is Born” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” into something of a disappointment. While the two songs fit together seamlessly, they resonate a little less after the flinty pop remakes found elsewhere. Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind,” definitively performed decades ago by Ray Charles, is similarly unexceptional.
Michael Legrand’s “The Windmills of Your Mind,” on the other hand, descends like a rumbling stormcloud. Harmsen and Garces open the track with a series of crepuscular trills, before approaching the theme in tandem. As the sax echoes a serpentine cry of anguish, the piano answers back like a reassuring friend. Together, they create a delicate allegory for the competing impulses that circle around in times of worry – and, once more, restate the broader theme of layered complexity found on 52 Min & 52 Sec. Richard Rodgers’ “My Funny Valentine” has become something of a worn-out cliché, too, in the years since Chet Baker turned the song into a cool-jazz paean to romantic detachment. Here, Garces’ way with a caramelized solo, so dark and yet at the same time so very sweet, adds another much-needed emotional lift. At the same time, Harmsen pushes against those bold sentiments with a piano figure that draws out a more nuanced sense of empathy.
The album ends with a pair of reminders of just what made 52 Min & 52 Sec such an intriguing journey in the first place – the rather modern “Manha de Carnaval,” which opens with a searching, at times very outside solo turn by Graces on the sax; and then “All in Love is Fair” by Stevie Wonder, yet another quietly romantic restructuring of a pop side. Once more blending hot and cold, light and dark, these two craftsmen leave us with a moment as intricate as it is completely satisfying.
The same could be said, by and large, for 52 Min & 52 Sec – on balance, a wonderful exercise in the magic that happens when opposites attract.
Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.