Connie Crothers/Bill Payne

The Stone Set/Conversations
New Artists NA 1044 CD

Experience playing in cruise ship ensembles; gigs in Broadway pit bands; periods of time as a Las Vegas and Los Angeles sideman backing Swing Era singers and comedians; plus many years as music director for Ringling Bros. Circus and in tent bands under other big tops aren’t standard credentials for cerebral improvisers. Yet these two CDs showcase just that: the sophisticated and free-form reed intonations of now Las Vegas-based, former jack-of-all-musical-trades clarinetist Bill Payne, in the company of Brooklyn-based pianist Connie Crothers, with whom he first studied in1981 “to play the music that was in my heart”.

Consisting of a reissue of the duo’s Conversations from 2006 and new selections recorded at New York’s the Stone in 2009, this two-CD program is the epitome of first-class Chamber Jazz, But unlike many of those efforts which wear their impressionistic hearts on their sleeves – or on their music stands – The Stone Set/Conversations consists of 26 brief or mid-length originals whose genesis is exploratory Jazz improvisation and whose performances are as unpretentious as they are significant.

Often unfairly characterized as a clone of her piano teacher Lennie Tristano – he did, after all present her solo Carnegie Recital Hall concerts in the 1970s – Crothers’ talent is such that she has comfortably worked with non-Tristanoites such as trumpeter Roy Campbell, alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc and drummer Max Roach, besides the usual suspects.

On this set abstractions take the place of contrafacts, with her piano tessitura expanded to take in the widest possible allusions. A piece such as “ Conversation #7” on the second CD for instance, finds her riffing keyboard lines become more staccato, kinetic and note-crammed as she exposes pedal-pushed, low-pitched chords. Meanwhile Payne’s tongue vibrations and glissandi become more strident and intense as they meet in a broken-octave concordance.

Crothers’ cunning asides and technical strength hadn’t lessened three years later as proven on such tracks as “Your Dream” and “Revolt of the Birds” from The Stone Set. On the former her playing ping-pongs from near equal temperament to rolling textures from the piano’s lowest keys plus key-slapping. Meantime the clarinetist trills gently and distinctively, moderato and mid-tempo, as he lets her define the theme. More staccato, “Revolt of the Birds” is enlivened with Crothers’ cascading chords and fortissimo friction, and is completed by her pressurized pumps as Payne asserts himself with altissimo screeches and nasal reed bites.

The collection of high-frequency jabs, key pops, full-force splashes and note clusters that Crothers uses on Conversations, as well as Payne’s unique blending of mellow serpentine lines, gorgeous harmonized trills plus agitated snorts, honks and vamps are merely given a finer point two years later. In fact there’s a direct line from how the duo perceives and performs a track such as “Conversation #10” and the concluding “Jubilation” on The Stone Set. This is related to the reedist’s stuttering, repetitive phrasing which is also invested with a certain lyricism in both pieces. At the same time the pianist’s muscular syncopation, studded with unexpected key flicks and jabs on “Conversation #10” becomes more challenging on “Jubilation”. By 2009 Crothers is ranging all over the keys with cross-handed pounding and contrapuntal variations, causing Payne initially to express himself in reed bites and aviary chirps. This lively interface is first moderated by the clarinetist and when Crothers downshifts to meet his contralto lines he caricatures her still fervent high-frequency lines with Woody Woodpecker-like chuckles.

As unheralded as they are excellent, Payne and Crothers aren’t part of any currently fashionable Jazz trends. With Crothers having some prominence residing in the so-called Centre of the Jazz World, it’s the reed man who would need a higher profile – or at least some at all. This exemplary two-CD set that focuses on telepathic improvisation should do that, since whatever the duo attempts here, they succeed at superbly.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Disc 1: 1. Stone Opener 2. Night on Avenue C 3. Bill’s Dream 4. The World is Completely Mad 5. Revolt of the Birds 6. Connie’s Dream 7. Downtown Sparkle 8. East Second St. Reverie 9. Momentum Times Two 10. Your Dream 11. Fun and Dreams 12. Jubilation Disc 2: 1. The Desert & The City 2. Conversation #1 3. Conversation #2 4. Conversation #3 5. Conversation #4 6. Conversation #5 7. Conversation #6 8. Conversation #7 9. Conversation #8 10. Conversation #9 11. Conversation #10 12. Conversation #11 13. Conversation #12 14. To Be Continued...

Personnel: Bill Payne (clarinet) and Connie Crothers (piano)