Kris Davis/Craig Taborn

Pyroclastic Records PR 03


Refined Pieces for Two Pianos

Pépin & Plume No #

176 (Chris Abrahams and Anthony Pateras)

Music in Eight Octaves

Immediata IMMO 11

Eve Risser/Kaja Draksler

To Pianos

Clean Feed CF 448 CD

Scott Walton/Tim Perkis

Applied Cryptography

pfMentum CD 106

Something In The Air: Updating the Conventional Keyboard Duo

By Ken Waxman

Although there were vogues at points from the 1930s to the 1960s for Stride and Boogie Woogie keyboard teams, piano duos have never been as prevalent in jazz as in so-called classical music. Starting in the late 18th Century these programs consisted of performances of works, by among others, Brahms, Schubert, Bartok and Ravel. More recently however with keyboardists cognizant of both notated and improvised music and standard performance configurations liberated, duo piano pieces have become more common in exploratory jazz as these sessions attest.

The closest link to the classic (al) duo concept is Pétrole’s Refined Pieces for Two Pianos (Pépin & Plume P&P 005). The stated aim of French pianists Nathalie Darche and Carine Llobet is to renew the duo piano repertoire by playing pieces by younger jazz composers. Germane to their interpretations is that Darche is known as a jazz player, while Llobet specializes in chamber music. Tilts in varied directions enliven the interpretations, with the duo sporadically skirting a tendency to follow the title adjective. This is most obvious on “Les pensées offshore d’Arthur”, the first and longest piece. Relaxed romanticism, the adagio sequences are only slightly transformed by quick jazz-like modulations at the end. The obverse is evident on “Pétrole Interlude”, mostly concerned with vibrating the darkest parts of the instruments’ action and soundboard. Tremolo torque spreads the interpretation so that it’s mesmerizing as well as kinetic, with echoes created by four hands pumping at once. These are the CD’s parameters; the players’ high level of coordination allows them to slide nearly effortlessly from neo-classical, almost sugary passages that match crystalline fingering with front-parlor-like sentimentality, to bright, modernist sequences, where theme depiction is both lively and agitated. Overlapping cadenzas constantly move the melody delineation and tune decoration from one to another.

Meanwhile tremolo syncopation and overlapping piano percussiveness is taken to extremes without swing on Music in Eight Octaves (Immediata IMMO 11) by two Australians as the duo 176. Chris Abrahams is a member of The Necks trio, and Anthony Pateras is involved with electro-acoustic and multi-disciplinary projects. If the preceding disc could be compared to a volume of tasteful poetry, than this one is a novel, whose colorful melodrama is reflected on every page. One super fast and aggressive 50-minute track, “Music in Eight Octaves” is the result of the two recording four takes in each octave of the piano, which Pateras then multi-tracked and superimposed over each other. Overwrought and almost opaque textures call to mind Conlon Nancarrow player piano studies and George Antheil original “Ballet Mécanique” for synchronized player pianos. Besides the sinewy speed of this performance, which rattles through pan-tonality and double counterpoint, higher pitches suggest marimba timbres. Plus transitions are only obvious when both pianists cease playing in either the higher or lower-pitched keys, leaving some breathing room, which quickly upsurges again to almost unyielding friction. Consistently pulse-quickening the effects mash together Cecil Taylor-like kinetics and Oscar Peterson-like comprehension so that the combination of tempo changes and thickened discord become exhausting as well as exhilarating. Following its own logic the session never climaxes, it just stops.

More expected dual piano meetings emerge on two CDs recorded in concert, To Pianos (Clean Feed CF 448 CD) with Paris-based Eve Risser and her Slovenian associate Kaja Draksler and Octopus (Pyroclastic Records PR 03), featuring Canadian Kris Davis and American Craig Taborn. Interestingly enough the eight tracks on the first disc and six on the other are split between compositions and improvisations, except for one different Carla Bley tunes on each, with Davis and Taborn also assaying Sun Ra’s “Love in Outer Space”. Back to inner space, the Riser-Draksler duo begins the concert with ringing bell-like reflections and diffuses the program in double counterpoint with ambulatory or more settled creations. Among the improvisations, To Pianists is notable since inner-string plucks and e-bow vibrations play up the instruments’ percussiveness with inchoate drones and wood-echoing thumps taking the metaphor of piano keys as 88 tuned drums to its logical conclusion. Unlike the inconclusive scene setting of that track however, “To Women” shows that key rattling and stopped strings filtered through changing tempos can move a hushed interaction from stiff to swinging. Additionally, the duo’s mash-up of Bley’s “Walking Woman” and “Batterie” brings out more playful instincts, with swelling variations on the theme(s) adding a springy sheen to the proceedings. Putting aside the detours into funereal pacing and key slapping that affect some other tunes, “To You”, the concert encore, finds the two synthesizing their balanced approach with this moderated, meditative piece becoming expressive and energetic, with sympathy as well as strength in evidence.

Similar adjectives could be applied to Davis and Taborn as they work through material recorded at three concerts. Emphasizing the equivalent of Riser/Draksler’s supportive phrase making and Abrahams/Pateras’ keyboard fluctuations, the mid-course involves as many instances of adaptation as advances. Prone to Bill Evans-like meditations elsewhere, they demonstrate on tracks like the Davis-composed “Ossining” and “Chatterbox” their capacity for popping and plucking sequences where by the tunes’ completion, harder voicing takes its place alongside a connective tonal blanket. Especially telling is the second composition, since the syncopation shifts between the two until singular paths evolve into unison tremolo and finally a dual crescendo. Bley’s “Sing Me Softly of the Blues” mixed with Taborn’s “Interruptions Two” is supple and effervescent, with the piece becoming brighter as it evolves and the counter melody slyly appears in a darker tempo then transitions without interruption into a more genteel theme. As contrasting expositions are joined, the tune backs into a simple ending. Playing with more sweetness than the original with tolling arpeggios and line extensions, the Sun Ra composition almost become a lullaby. Once the melody is delineated however, key-clipping returns the dynamic upsurge.

A variant of Ra’s cosmic explorations are taken as a starting point on Applied Cryptography (pfMentum CD 106) since Tim Perkis’ electronics are the foil to the piano of Scott Walton. During the 11 tracks, ranging in length from 90 seconds to almost six minutes, the strategy of the California-based players involves the pianist pinpointing a formalist theme and Perkis’ processed whooshes and burbles advancing it in unexpected directions. That’s advancing not accompanying though. So while the Perkis/Walton concept may appear to relate to the celestial sphere compared to the other duos’ terrestrial expositions, both players’ creativity is as evenly matched as the duo work on the other discs. On a track such as Naked Egg, for instance, what begins with Walton’s precise narrative meeting unruly buzzes and signal-processed flanges from the electronics soon change to treble frequencies from the piano that elaborates the theme in the bass clef as Perkis’ twangs and chirps expand the sound palate. Conversely Perkis’ elaboration of pressurized sound envelopes on Subliminal Channel and other tracks is framed with key rattles and modulated glissandi from Walton. With the pianist predisposed to concentre on the instrument’s lyre in order to either pluck harpsichord-like tones (as on “Possible Objects B”) or bellicose scratches and stops (as on “Normal Form”), the subsequent musical drama is evoked as much from Walton’s dynamic movements as the blurry textures from Perkis’ laptop-directed machine. By the climatic “Blind Signature”, as electronic drones fluctuate, kinetic key flourishes allow Walton to interject timbres with the same intensity, adding up to a process where it’s impossible to imagine the incisive tune expressed without droning oscillations or without the clear linear process from the piano.

To be memorable each keyboard duo must blend exploratory concepts so that they’re nearly indistinguishable, as well as maintain individual identification. Each of these sets demonstrates that this can be done.

-For The Whole Note April 2018