When considering the possibilities for a musical duet, the interaction between saxophone and acoustic bass doesn’t leap to the forefront of the imagination. That’s one of many reasons why “Weights and Measures,” a series of magical improvisations conjured by bassist Chris Bates and Nathan Hanson on tenor and soprano saxophones, is such a pleasant surprise. Their eight duets are piquant sonic conversations, as delicate and tensile and sophisticated as a spider’s web.
On Sunday at 4 p.m., Bates and Hanson will celebrate the release of “Weights and Measures” with a performance in the space where it was recorded: Christ Lutheran Church on Capitol Hill, at 105 University Ave. W. in St. Paul. Drummer Davu Seru will play an opening set, followed duets from Bates on bass and Hanson on saxophones. The suggested donation is $20, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds.
“Weights and Measures” was recorded on March 29, 2021, a fraught time in the Twin Cities. Masking and distancing were still in effect as the first doses of the COVID vaccines were gradually making their way into the general population. The court trial that would officially determine that George Floyd was murdered was two weeks old and a month away from a verdict.
Like most working musicians, Bates and Hanson had suffered a dramatic reduction in their schedules, be it gigs, teaching jobs or interactive practices and rehearsals. On that Monday in March, they and sound engineer Caleb Anderson arrived at Christ Lutheran Church, where Hanson had played (and now continues to play) in a trio along with the organist for at least one Sunday service each month. As usual at that time, the church was empty: A secretary was there to let them in and to register their appearance in lieu of any need for COVID contact tracing.
From setup to teardown, they occupied the church for less than four hours. For about half the album, Bates played from the choir loft, with Hanson near the altar, about 75-feet away. For the other half, they were beneath the lower arches at either end of the sanctuary, again at a safe distance.
There was no set program. Hanson had hatched the idea after trading some music files with Bates online. But when Bates asked, “Are we playing tunes?” Hanson answered, “Nah, let’s just see what happens.” Bates responded with a thumbs-up emoji. Sitting beside Hanson in a coffee shop last weekend, he added, “I just looked at my phone and realized I didn’t even have to type a word back. (At the church), all the direction we had was, ‘Let’s start with the bass,’ or ‘Let’s start with the saxophone.’ Not even, ‘Let’s play this in E.’”
Afterward, when they first heard the rough mixes of these spontaneous compositions, both musicians were disappointed. They had thought they were really in sync with each other’s cues and suggestions, but that’s not what the audio portrayed. Maybe the lack of opportunities to play had robbed them of enough context to properly discern the actual caliber of the performance.
But then Anderson, the engineer, boosted the bass in the mix beyond its typical setting of a rhythm instrument playing “underneath.” Suddenly the performances blossomed, revealing new depths.
The result is eight extended improvisations that amount to 40 minutes. There is precious little dissonance or other chaotic disruption, but this is not mind-numbing “massage music” either. Whereas the bass frequently undergirds the saxophone in an ensemble, Hanson flips the switch and frequently unfurls arching, ethereal notes on both tenor and soprano horns that give Bates plenty to work with. It activates his total command of the instrument, from bowing his own arcs that share bandwidth with the sax, to rapid pizzicato, to slapped strings that throb with vibration. Both players also compare and contrast quieter, sustained notes.
“I think it is a reflection of where we were at that moment in human history,” Hanson said. “And also in being in that room, which prefers those kinds of sustained sounds. The saxophone sounds linger in that space a long time.”
Anderson captured it by placing microphones 25 feet into the air. The ethereality was further enhanced by the keen acoustics that enabled an intimate connection even when the musicians were relatively far apart, as on what Hanson calls “the balcony songs.”
“The design of the building is such that the voices carry from the altar and from the choir space. So even though we were really separated, we could hear as though we were standing next to each other,” Hanson said.
Because Bates had been part of Hanson’s church-service ensemble for two or three years of its now-decade long residence, he was familiar with the space. He also believes the physical isolation and emotional dislocation of COVID and Floyd’s murder influenced the performance.
Practicing by himself, “you are sort of rediscovering things in terms of chops and technique,” he said. “I went deeper on the basics than just maintenance. I would be playing long notes and there was a resonance to the way I wanted to hear what I was playing and how it would interact. If I had been gigging a lot more actively and working in a bunch of contexts, I would come into that situation with a different attitude. Ultimately there was a great amount of patience.”
A long musical friendship
A final, crucial, element in the extraordinary synergy of “Weights and Measures” is the deep, durable friendship between the two participants. It goes back more than 30 years, to 1990. Hanson had just moved from teaching middle school in Mankato to becoming a serious musician in Minneapolis. He wound up in the Bates household for a band rehearsal after answering an ad in City Pages for a saxophonist. The drummer in the band was Chris Bates’ younger brother, JT, then 15. Chris was 19 and in college at the time, but was in his parents’ kitchen after the rehearsal when Hanson came down for a glass of water.
An initially offhand conversation about what records they loved morphed into a passionate discussion full of mutual discoveries. “I distinctly remember the energy, and the feeling that I had finally met one of my own people. That feeling continues today,” Hanson said.
They began playing together off and on. Over the decades Hanson has relocated a few times — to Kentucky to participate in an ill-fated business, to New York to raise the ante on his commitment to music — but has been in the Twin Cities since 2006. While they have shared the stage many times — most frequently with a group called The House of Usher, and most memorably for a St. Paul performance of the “Hymn Project” by Dallas-based trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez, who died last March and has a song dedicated to him on “Weights and Measures” — they have not been involved in the other’s most high-profile bands and projects. Until these duets.
In the coffee shop, I asked them if the closeness and unique aspects of their friendship made a difference in the music. “One hundred percent,” Bates said immediately.
Hanson nodded his head and added, “This kind of music requires a certain level of generosity. And Chris is a super generous person. There is a willingness to suggest ways to do things and a willingness to be suggestible. All of that stuff is why he is my friend but also the reason why the music works as well as it does.”
Bates returned the goodwill in kind. “There are people that I play with where I think about how I am going to react — ‘this is their thing and I can do this with it.’ But I never think that way with Nathan — I don’t think, it is intuition. There is a surrender, which is trust. We just react so clearly to each other.
“I was just listening to ‘Weights and Measures,’ on my way over — it has been a couple of months since I heard it. And we sound like we are just paying attention and letting it happen. And songs are happening. That is a rare energy, a rare gift, for collaborators,” Bates said.