Joachim Kühn & Michael Wollny

Live at Schloss Elmau
ACT Music 9758-2

Satoko Fujii-Myra Melford

Under the Water

Libra Records 202-024

While for many the idea of dual piano duets may conjure up unfortunate visions of unchallenging background sounds from Ferrante and Teicher or alternately Billy Joel and Elton John camping it up, this communication among equals has a long history in so-called classical music and latterly in jazz. Neither of the duos here though could be confused with other well-known jazz twofers, such as those created by boogie-woogie stylists Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, mainstreamers Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan – or with each other. But each brings something characteristic and exceptional to the hoary concept.

Musical questing soloists, composers and bandleaders born within a year of one another, Satoko Fujii and Myra Melford initiated this session after meeting a couple of years ago and discovering common musical ground. If there are musical differences among the two, they are that the Japanese-born Fujii participates in a variety of configurations from duo to big band, while American Melford, who is now teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, has led mid-sized combos, but never a big band.

Born geographically closer, Germans Joachim Kühn and Michael Wollny are more widely separated chronologically with the former 64 and the latter 31. Kühn, who was one of the first musicians from then East Germany to make his mark on the international jazz scene, has played with everyone from fusion drummer Billy Cobham to alto saxophone visionary Ornette Coleman. Wollny, who wrote his diploma thesis on Kühn’s manner of improvisation, also gained the older pianist’ respect for his playing. This exceptional meeting, in fact, is one of the few situations that Kühn has shared with another pianist during his long career.

Centrepiece of their four duos and two solo pieces is “Hexentanz”, a Wollny composition written to showcase both men. Overall here, and during the other duos, interaction ranges from dynamic and lyrical to methodical and literal. Despite a variety of tempo changes throughout, the duo most impressively rises to the occasion when ponderousness is put aside for presto interface.

Strumming chords and cross handed pulsations enliven the sonic landscape. Yet as the two build a synchronous edifice of splayed note clusters, the internal architecture is too often on display. When staccato cadenzas are slowed down to andante, the gait turns processional, as one pianist occupies himself with low-frequency clicks and clanks – sometimes from the soundboard itself – while the other introduces soothing note clusters. Eventually the fantasia climaxes in a dynamic crescendo of note flurries.

Still something appears missing.

That fissure becomes more apparent during Kühn’s “Seawalk” and the duo’s subsequent encore. Consonant chords predominate, so that the feeling is more 19th Century than 21st. Baroque echoes are as often obvious as modal improvisations. Closely attuned enough so that any passing theme advanced by one player is immediately picked up on and amplified by the other pianist, this double-think has other drawbacks as well. Any wide sonic space left by one player is almost immediately plugged with kinetic cadenzas by another busy pair of hands as if any measure of silence is suspect.

Less closely attuned, Fujii and Melford benefit from preserving their own metaphorical breathing space during their three duos – the CD also includes a solo by each. On “The Migration of Fish” for instance, each takes a turn plucking sounds from within the piano, then alternate yanking strings – or what sounds like rolling a metal ball through the mechanism – with a legato keyboard fantasia that’s softer and more lyrical. Their polytonal exploration also involves passing chord formations from one to the other while simultaneously creating palindromes. Extending the dynamics by adding textures from temple bell and castanets, each is able to assert herself properly. You never doubt that two separate minds are at work.

This is unmistakable on the other Fujii-Melford duets as well, even though, like an old married couple finishing each other’s sentences, often one player begins a phrase and the other complete it. Still on the other hand, “Yadokari” is another illustration that simpatico doesn’t have to mean indistinguishable. Structurally, one pianist outputs a series of cumulative glissandi while the other produces abrasive string scrubs as if she was playing a guzheng. Able to move from staccato to languendo runs in an eyelid blink, theme variations from Fujii and Melford are appropriately syncopated as well as descriptive.

Those who admire other work of Wollny or especially Kühn, may rate Live at Schloss Elmau higher, and there’s no disputing that both men have commanding technique. But in the final analysis, that CD is fundamentally a record of exceptional piano playing. Under the Water on the other hand is a luminous session of outstanding piano improvising.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Under: 1. Yadokari 2. Trace a River 3. The Migration of Fish 4. Be Melting Snow 5. Utsubo

Personnel: Under: Satoko Fujii and Myra Melford (pianos)

Track Listing: Live: 1. The Colours of the Wind 2. Hexentanz 3. Elmau 4. Chaconne 5. Seawalk 6. Encore

Personnel: Live: Joachim Kühn and Michael Wollny (pianos)