A jazz duo is the improvisational experience at its most fundamental -- a musical dialogue with nothing to distract from a direct, spontaneous interchange. It's also music that -- if it truly is jazz and not a cocktail lounge distraction -- can make for a demanding listening experience.
All of which made the performance by alto saxophonist Bud Shank and pianist Bill Mays a somewhat surprising booking for a Sunday night at Spazio in Sherman Oaks. The restaurant's management deserves credit for scheduling such an intriguing combination on an evening when many patrons are more focused on the menu than on the music.
Shank, a significant Southland presence during the West Coast jazz era of the '50s and '60s, interacted with Mays in the sound and style that have characterized his work from the beginning. Despite the conversational foundation of the evening, however, most of the action flowed from soloing.
On such standards as "Laura," "Alone Together" and "Prelude to a Kiss," as well as a few originals, the 77-year-old saxophonist's improvisations were upfront and declamatory, his lines overflowing with the bebop licks he has played for decades.
At its best, his soloing was energized by a roiling rhythmic swing. More often, his efforts suffered from a long-present glitch in his work -- an almost complete lack of dynamic contrast that mutes emotional impact.
Fortunately, Mays' colorful, far-ranging piano playing added much-needed contrast and cohesion. As a soloist, the 59-year-old pianist turned in an exquisitely textured and shaded set of choruses on "Prelude to a Kiss." Even more important, Mays' use of counter lines and contrasting rhythmic accents ultimately gave the set its true jazz duo characteristics.