Chris Abrahams/Magda Mayas

Relative Pitch RPR 1011

Irène Schweizer/Pierre Favre

Live in Zürich

Intakt CD 228

Angelica Sanchez/Wadada Leo Smith

Twine Forest

Clean Feed CF 287 CD

By Ken Waxman

With the piano a mini-orchestra, instrumentalists who partner pianists in a duo must bring prodigious chops as well as lightening quick reflexes to the program. Luckily the talents of each set of improvisers here isn’t in question. But the capacity of the other instrument is crucial in measuring the session’s achievement.

Piano-trumpet duets have been part of jazz since Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines waxed “Weather Bird” in 1928, and pianist Angelica Sanchez and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith add to this distinguished lineage. Although Sanchez, who plays in the brass man’s Golden Quartet, is decades younger than Smith, ironically it’s the older player’s extended techniques that stretch sounds into unexpected tangents, while Sanchez depends on more chromatic lines to keep the program flowing. Still, her pointed comping nudges rather than pushes.

Twine Forest’s most common scenario is expressed on selections such as “Echolocation” and “Light Black Birds”. During his resolute march up the scale, Smith wrenches tough phrases from his horn which are subtly woven back into those compositions’ fabrics by a combination of two-handed syncopation and romantic harmonies from Sanchez. Highlighting the divide between self-indulgence and self-expression, the trumpeter’s brassy sprints and half-valve actions may be spectacular, yet maintain a connection with the underlying narrative. Similarly, while the pianist’s relaxed keyboard sweeps provide continuum, that doesn’t mean that she can’t forcefully propel her ideas with a kinetic sprawl as on “Veinular Rub” or layer percussive timbres alongside Smith’s radical timbre deconstruction on “Retinal Sand”. Sanchez expresses rushing excitement most audaciously during the several false climaxes on the title track. As brass motifs range from alphorn-like resonations to bellicose spits, her multi-note responses modify his parts, leading to a relaxed, yet still electrifying finale.

Over the years piano duos often surfaced, probably reaching their zenith of popularity during the boogie-woogie craze of the late ’30. Berliner Magda Mayas and Australian Chris Abrahams would never be confused with Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons. In fact the cerebral tone investigation they bring to Gardener is even far removed from modern duos like Howard Riley and Keith Tippett’s.

Exchanging the instrument’s history of interpreting the song form to utilize it as an unaffiliated sound source, the two avoid forthright, linear work plus play passages on harpsichord and harmonium. However the resonances and sharpness available from those essentially parlor keyboards is limited. The harmonium’s smeared continuum or the harpsichord’s plucked pointillism arise from among other textures from time-to-time, but never with enough force to make a substantial showing. Overall, the most satisfying use of the older keyboards lies in blending their limited timbres with piano sounds. Two-piano interface as expressed on pieces such as “Ash Canopy” is enervated as well. Almost as formal as the sounds created by a so-called classical piano duo, phrasing can be near-inaudible and the narrative excessively repetative.

There is hope though. On “The Changes Wrought by the Recurring Use of Tools”, pianos are extended with internal preparation and the resulting interface is much clearer. Using the squeaking, plucking and rubbing of internal strings as unusual leitmotifs opens up the track. Working up to a finale that mates staccato pounding with a tough-minded narrative, decorating the theme with rococo patterns from the harpsichord and smeared harmonium pulses suddenly makes more sense.

In complete contrast pianist Irène Schweizer and drummer Pierre Favre, who have been improvising together on-and-off since 1966, offer pure exuberance. Drums and piano pairing are common in jazz – as doyen Schweizer has demonstrated on many duo discs over the years. Plus as experimental as the playing gets, the two aren’t afraid to expose earlier jazz forms.

As two of the first European free jazz players, the pianist, 72, and the percussionist, 76, mastered those forms as a matter of course. That means the two can create vibrant blues à la Ray Bryant and Jo Jones, while on “Gemini Constellation” Schweizer raps out a prototypical bebop line with the aplomb of a Bud Powell, while Favre’s vigorous kinetics add a free-jazz overlay. Furthermore, Favre, who has recorded with atypical partners like a pipa player and a vocal ensemble, is fundamentally a melodic stylist. In perfect symmetry, Schweizer improvises with kick-ass power. From the first notes of “Black Mirror” the two set up the narrative that informs the CD: percussive keyboard runs that also outline the melody; plus supple and sinuous comments from the drummer.

Schweizer who demonstrates on “Up and Down” that’s she can effortlessly keep two separate lines running simultaneously, swirls and slithers her way through the program adding other motifs from march tempos to silent-movie accompaniment menace to Viennese school digressions to basic jazz forms. Ditto for Favre. His steady swing is punctuated with decidedly non-Yank timed wood block and cymbal raps, plus galloping clip-clops. “Night Flights” is the culmination of their skill. A decidedly non-bluesy blues, the squirming narrative never stops swinging, but taut line adds unforeseen extras. After the pianist attains a sophisticated plateau during a double-timed solo, the drummer’s wooden thumps prolong the tune’s now-toughened excitement, without losing his relaxed tastefulness.

Each of these piano duos has created an original take on the form. But the most notable set up involves two veterans who have long perfected the concept.

Tracks: Twine: Cones Of Chrome; Veinular Rub; Retinal Sand; Echolocation; Light Black Birds; Twine Forest; In The Falls Of…; Ultimate Causes.

Personnel: Twine: Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Angelica Sanchez: piano

Tracks: Live: Black Mirror; Gemini Constellation; Bird of Paradise; Ice Green Blue Broken Notes; Hüben wie drüben; Painted Face; Night Flights; Open Star Clusters; All Alone; Up and Down; Blues for Crelier

Personnel: Live: Irène Schweizer: piano; Pierre Favre: drums, percussion

Tracks: Gardener: Song Of The Pylons; The Changes Wrought by the Recurring Use of Tools; Lichens; Surroundings; Ash Canopy; Remnant

Personnel: Gardener: Magda Mayas and Chris Abrahams: pianos, harpsichords and harmoniums

—For The New York City Jazz Record March 2014