Five Piano Duos

Ken Dryden By

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Chick Corea & Hiromi

Joachim Kühn & Michael Wollny
Live at Schloss Elmau
ACT Music

Aki Takase & Alexander Von Schlippenbach
Iron Wedding: Piano Duets

Stan Tracey & Keith Tippett

Willie the Lion Smith & Don Ewell
Stride Piano Duets: Live in Toronto, 1966

Tommy Flanagan once told me that he thought duo piano was "a gimmick," even though he excelled in such a setting playing with other masters like Hank Jones and Kenny Barron. When the pairing of players is compatible and great songs are chosen, fireworks often can happen, though when pianists don't cooperate, it can be a train wreck like the ill-fated meeting of Mary Lou Williams and Cecil Taylor.

The pairing of Chick Corea and Hiromi actually has distant roots. Corea, a seasoned veteran who has explored a wide swath of jazz styles during his long career and played with many fellow greats, is nearly 38 years older than Hiromi. But the two pianists first met and played together during his 1996 tour of Japan when she was only 17. When they reconnected in 2006, he recalled how talented the young artist was and how much she had blossomed, so he invited her to record a live date with him. Hiromi is a promising virtuoso who, like Corea, casts her musical net wide, though like many younger players, she has occasionally overplayed her chops on her own CDs.

All goes well in these selections from their 2007 duo appearance at the Blue Note in Tokyo, aside from some thoughtless patrons rattling their dishes during some of the soft passages. Chick and Hiromi are on the same wavelength throughout both discs, seamlessly shifting the lead back and forth while providing excellent support for one another. Their playful mid-tempo approach to Bill Evans' "Very Early" is more lighthearted than the composer's, while their strident treatment of Monk's "Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are" elicits chuckles from the audience and several funny vocal expressions by Corea. There are plenty of pyrotechnics from both pianists in Corea's "Windows," while Hiromi's brilliant "Old Castle, by the River, in the Middle of a Forest," is not a ballad, but a piece far more adventurous than its title suggests. Any fan of either player will be delighted with this lively joint concert.

Joachim Kuhn is over a generation older than Michael Wollny, with an extensive discography containing many valuable releases. But Wollny is a promising young pianist who dug deeply into Kühn's music and made his improvisations the focus of his diploma thesis in 2001. Since then, Wollny has caught the fancy of European jazz fans and when it was

suggested to Kühn that he and Wollny join forces for a duo concert, he quickly accepted and it was scheduled for a festival in September 2008, resulting in Live at Schloss Elmau.

What becomes immediately apparent is that the difference in age and level of experience is of no consequence. This meeting of minds consistently turns out provocative music, beginning with Kühn's eerie "The Colours of the Wind," followed by Wollny's equally compelling "Hexentanz," which incorporates some work inside the piano. There is also a solo feature for each pianist. Wollny's spotlight is his bittersweet "Elmau," a lush ballad with classical overtones that indicates why he merits being on the same stage with Kühn. "Chaconne" is a piece by Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach that Kühn previously recorded on the ACT CD Allegro Vivace. This version is comparable, opening with a stunning, spacious introduction before he evolves into a more traditional tempo, though putting his unique stamp on this centuries-old work. They wrap up their remarkable concert with their improvised "Encore".

Japanese pianist Aki Takase and German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach are no strangers to each other or to European jazz fans. The senior von Schlippenbach has been on the jazz scene a good bit longer, having led two orchestras, with Takase replacing Misha Mengelberg as second pianist in his Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra. Their earlier duo piano CD, Live in Berlin, displayed a sense of humor and an incredible range of musical interests, while they have also worked together in other settings.

Iron Wedding consists of just over an hour of duo improvisations, recorded over two days in the studio. While the pianist spouses are not identified by individual channel, these performances sound as if they have come from one mind, as both Takase and von Schlippenbach quickly react to each other's sudden changes in direction, tempo or mood. At one point, in the haunting "Twelve Tone Blues," a celeste is briefly heard (though not mentioned in the credits nor in the liner notes), then just as rapidly disappears for good. This is music without boundaries that demands total attention, but the rewards of listening to it are immense.

British pianists Stan Tracey and Keith Tippett both have extensive individual discographies, though neither musician has had much exposure in record stores outside of Europe. This is unfortunate, as both men are compelling pianists with plenty of chops. They worked together maybe a dozen times during the '70s, though only one album of their duets was ever issued, the critically acclaimed TNT. The master tapes of their 1977 London concert at the ICA have been in Tracey's possession for decades and their surprise appearance on Supernova after such a long time should respark interest in both men.

The five duets from this performance are all improvisations, inspired by various celestial bodies. Each piece intermingles lyricism, frenetic energy, drama and tension without ever losing the listener's attention. Although each pianist is identified by channel, one quickly becomes wrapped up in the music as a whole rather than singling out either player. By the end of the concert, the listener is likely to be exhausted, though dazzled by their amazing musical chemistry. The audience is so entranced that they are inaudible until the very end, when they finally explode with their approval.

Fans of stride piano may already own the LP featuring Harlem stride piano great Willie "The Lion" Smith with Don Ewell issued on both Exclusive and Sackville, but this meeting comes from later tapes made during a live engagement at the Golden Nugget in Toronto. The tapes were given to Ewell and provided to Delmark for release by his widow shortly prior to her death in 2007. The Lion was nearing the end of his long career, having been rediscovered and getting a few more opportunities to record during the mid '60s, while the unassuming Ewell was not as widely known, though he was appreciated by his fellow musicians.

Like many vintage live recordings, it is unlikely that this one was made with the intention of making a commercial release. The sound is quite good, with audience noise at a minimum, though the cash register is audible in spots. Smith is very chatty with the audience and sings along with several of the pieces, while Ewell seems happy to let Smith do the talking, though he is obviously no slouch as a stride interpreter. There is plenty of give and take between the men, whether tackling Smith's theme song "Relaxin,'" James P. Johnson's demanding "Charleston" or an old warhorse like "Tea For Two". Smith tromps through his "Here Comes the Band" as a solo. Stride piano fans will devour this live session.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Very Early; How Insensitive; Déja Vu; Fool on the Hill; Humpty Dumpty; Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are; Windows; Old Castle, by the River, in the Middle of a Forest; Summertime; Place to Be; Do Mo (Children's Song #12); Concierto de Aranjuez/Spain.

Personnel: Chick Corea: piano; Hiromi: piano

Piano Works IX: Live at Schloss Elmau

Tracks: The Colours of the Wind; Hexentanz; Elmau; Chaconne; Seawalk; Encore.

Personnel: Joachim Kühn: piano; Michael Wollny: piano

Iron Wedding - Piano Duets

Tracks: Early Light; Circuit; Suite in Five Parts; Steinblock; Twelve Tone Tales; RTP; Gold Inside; Eight; Zankapfel; Thrown In; Off Hand; Dwarna's Late Light; Iron Wedding; Passacaglia 1, 2, 3; Yui's Dance; Rain; Far On.

Personnel: Aki Takase: piano; Alexander Von Schlippenbach: piano.


Tracks: Veil Nebula; Vela Pulsar; Parallax; Supernova; Conjunction.

Personnel: Stan Tracey: piano; Keith Tippett: piano

Stride Piano Duets: Live in Toronto, 1966

Tracks: Relaxin'; Blue Skies; I Found a New Baby; Tea For Two; Charleston; You're Driving Me Crazy; Here Comes the Band; Sweet Georgia Brown; Georgia on My Mind; Linger Awhile/Shine; If I Could Be With You; Just You, Just Me; Squeeze Me; Twelfth Street Rag.

Personnel: Willie the Lion Smith: piano; Don Ewell: piano

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