Duet acoustic bass albums aren’t without precedent in jazz, but they are rare, and they demand a lot from their performers. The bar was set very high by Dave Holland and Barre Phillips with their 1971 recording Music for Two Basses. Phillips has since recorded in this format this Joelle Leandre, who, in turn, has done a bass duet album with William Parker. Now bassists Mark Dresser and Mark Helias, the eponymous Marks Brothers, have put themselves in fast company, where they have predictably fared extremely well.
Both players have had long and varied careers, playing with a lot of the cream of the forward-thinking jazz crop. Each has the requisite full-bodied tone, the accurate intonation and time, and the kind of fluency with the bow that are now standard-issue requirements for first-tier working bassists. But they also have more than those things: Dresser and Helias are both exemplary group musicians, sympathetic and open-eared, as well as persuasive soloists. The Marks Brothers spend a lot of time with the Marx Brothers here, starting with “Zeppo,” a rubbery piece of part funk, part bowed bass concerto. Essentially a one-chord vamp, the bassists toss the solo spots back and forth. More serious is the dual arco of “Short.” Meticulously executed, stately in theme and richly voiced (often in open 6ths), it illustrates how a technically challenging piece, in the right hands, can be played without any visible effort, presenting just the music. “The Comb Over” brings to mind the solo bass work of Henry Grimes — Dresser and Helias have a similar capacity to dig their heels into the time, and both have woody, natural sounds — although Dresser and Helias focus a bit more on speed than Grimes. They trade phrases, each fast thinking, neither asking nor giving a quarter. A draw.
“Chico,” one of the more madcap Marx brothers, is given a surprisingly tender tribute. Ruminative to start, then increasingly probing, the bassists, through the use of the bows, glissandi and space, manage to sound like a string quartet. Chico Marx was himself a pianist of remarkable accomplishment; it’s possible that’s the aspect of his talent that Dresser and Helias were zeroing in on. “Pentahouve” shows that one bassist can solo over a foundation provided by another bassist without cluttering up the piece. The two exchange flurries of ideas, always entirely articulate. The program ends with the bluesy “Modern Pine.” Dresser bows on top, Helias walks underneath. It’s playing that is at once funky and elegant, straddling both sides of the cultural street.