It’s clichéd to say, perhaps, but after hearing this show one could simply not avoid the conclusion that this duo concert (at The Jazz Gallery) was an inevitable “meeting of the minds.” There was of course the auspice of this prior to even hearing them play together- however even the facts could not have predicted the transcendent creativity of this evening.
Going into it, the facts were that we knew that James Hurt and Marc Cary were coming from similar places aesthetically in the music and in their approach to playing the piano. They are both pushing the agenda for, in generic terms, a more patently percussive, earthier (for lack of a better word), and unabashedly piano-centric music. Moreover, they are alike in that they both take as much influence from traditional music forms like African drums or Middle Eastern music as from the Jazz tradition itself. Compare Hurt's Dark Grooves, Mystical Rhythms and Cary’s The Antidote to see where the conceptual kinship between these cats comes clearly into play. These recorded statements are both quite unique but one will not mistake how conceptually, Hurt and Cary are drawing water from the same rich source. The emphasis on rhythm that is meted out by percussively-styled piano in the foreground, the incorporation of “ethnic” instruments, and not to mention the cosmic/universal type themes, all go to demonstrate this...
Hurt and Cary strive for similar kinds of effects and sounds at the keys as well, but the generic kinship is not as relevant here as in the broader context of conception, of their musical vision. Of course their approach to piano is embedded in their conception, and vice versa, but the differences and unique qualities of Hurt and Cary came forth in their soloing this night and revealed the truest individuality of them both.
James Hurt opened a set with a solo number and it immediately set the terms for his approach; explorative, but tense in a dramatic way. Hurt is absorbing in the sense that his approach seems very deliberate but strikes one as being richly creative at the same time. One doesn’t wait for him to make his next “bold” move as much as one senses the natural progression of a conceptual mind unfold by moment. Hurt drew on all manner of devices at the keyboard: intervallic rhythmic patterns, Tyneresque chordal crescendos, impressionistic single note suspense, and much more, but all while keeping his conception firmly intact. Hurt was eclectic in his use of the piano, but not in the way he expressed his conception through it.
In contrast to Hurt, Marc Cary showed a slightly more stylized approach to playing piano that no less betrayed invention and a keen musical vision, however. Cary was a bit less broad in his use of the piano but rhythmically was more assertive, and as proof in their duo playing it was Cary who frequently set rhythmic motifs for them to play off of. In fact, Marc Cary tended to lead in the duo situation even if this was not intended; his playing was in the foreground more often than Hurt’s, although it should be pointed out that when Hurt “raised his voice” it was typically to say something quite dramatic; indeed one of the hippest moments of this show was when Hurt began playing cascading arpeggiated chords up the whole of the keyboard with ever-rising volume over Cary’s very solid comping and groove. Hurt seemed to genuinely “hurt” the keyboard at a point, and the sheer forcefulness of this was compelling.
Not lost in this unfurling of individuality and the relative nature of each soloist was a most creative level of interaction. It wasn’t quite telepathy but this was the first ever meeting between these two and as such the communication was stronger than one should really expect. These two, as forceful and dynamic as both can be at the piano, never got in each other’s way and did their damnedest it seemed to play contrasting things that still complemented the other. There was no passive comping here- in the best duos it’s not spoonfed to the listener who’s soloing and who’s comping, and that was surely in effect here, as there was plenty of intriguing counterpoint and rhythmic variations going on.
The material Hurt and Cary played was mostly their original compositions but a couple of standards as well. For a glimpse into the state of modern Jazz piano in the 21st century, the way these two rendered “All The Things You Are” was totally revealing; the melody was abstracted, but not to a modernist’s extreme, and it was moreover totally contemporary in light of the way it seemed to negotiate the ancient with the future; it was rhythmically very DEEP, and yet it employed a full range of harmonic vocabulary including some pointed dissonance amid the generally cosmic overtones.