Detroit-based pianist Michael Malis has long been a part of his troubled city's fabled resurgence, and that legacy puts him in an ideal position to address the emotional polarities intrinsic to 2020. That unique mixture of despair and hope, anger and resilience, grief and joy, that so many have experienced in whipsaw fashion, seems ideally suited to musical engagement and, fortunately, Malis has provided just that with his latest release, Dualisms
. But it is not just a compelling musical statement that Malis offers; it is also an extraordinary multimedia project which illustrates some of the remarkable ways artists in the age of COVID-19 found new approaches to displaying their craft and connecting with their audience.
Comprising four pieces, each of which involves Malis in dialogue with another musician, Dualisms
' most obvious connotation stems from these duet performances. But the album refers to emotional dualities also, hence the second and third pieces, inspired by poet Mary Oliver's resonant "We Shake With Joy," are particularly significant. Along with Kaleigh Wilder
's earthy baritone saxophone, Malis' prepared piano establishes a haunting soundscape in "We Shake With Grief," as Wilder's repeated phrases build in anticipation of a more spirited culmination, accelerated when Malis begins a torrent of lower-register rumblings and Wilder moves into a mode of desperate yearning, her upper-register peals crying out for resolution, as the tumult finally ends with Malis' mournful whistling into the piano's soundboard. "We Shake With Joy" then offers the emotional counterweight, with a jubilant undercurrent driven by percussive chordal patterns from Malis (and some flamenco-inspired handclapping) as Wilder becomes increasingly untethered and unbound. The pieces together delve into the core of Oliver's vision: We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.
Just as impressive are the album's other two pieces. On "Five Card Draw," Malis joins percussionist Thom Monks for a rhythmically rich improvisation keyed on a random selection of playing cards. And last, but certainly not least, "We've Got to Find a Way" features the powerful tenor vocals of Denzel Donald in a re-imagining of Marvin Gaye
's "What's Going On." With a huge range of samples culled from the original song, and Malis' jazz-inflected electronic keyboard surging over the top, Donald's robust, impassioned delivery dovetails with Gaye's own gentle cadences in another juxtaposition which lends additional emotional heft to a song that is one of the truly iconic portrayals of frustration, longing and beleaguered optimism.
While the music is certainly capable of standing on its own, it is the additional aspects of Malis' project which give it its distinctive character. Malis made four videos, filmed in his living room, documenting the creation of each piece. This brings more intimacy to the recording, something that became increasingly essential during an era in which live performances were suspended. It is the next best thing to the actual event, and the fine quality of the videos captures much of the intricacy of the music, especially during "Five Card Draw," as the cards selected from the deck essentially determine the trajectory of the piece. In addition, a beautifully crafted booklet "zine" not only includes the musical scores of the pieces but provides vivid artwork from Zara Teicher, whose contributions add an almost devotional aspect to the project. Separate posters of Teicher's images are also available.
With 20% of the proceeds going to the Detroit Justice Center, an organization dedicated to combatting economic inequities and racial injustice, many listeners may want to invest in this music in its multiple forms, taking advantage of a terrific opportunity to support a worthy cause and an irrepressibly creative artist.
Five Card Draw; We Shake With Grief; We Shake With Joy; We’ve Got to Find a Way.