Piano Duets: Raw Materials, Critical Mass, Crevulations

Jeff Stockton By

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Vijay Iyer & Rudresh Mahanthappa
Raw Materials
Savoy Jazz

Agusti Fernandez & Mats Gustafsson
Critical Mass

Stan Tracey & Evan Parker

Though the piano-saxophone duo might not be as common as its one matching keys against bass, there is no shortage of original takes on the format. Three new releases show how varied the approaches can be.

Pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa have known each other for over ten years and since each musician has a reputation for a clearly defined sense of purpose, it would be hard for the Raw Materials session to be anything other than engrossing. Each composition is a suite of emotions unto itself, covering several moods and tricky tempo changes in four to five minute bursts. Mahanthappa's alto tone is tart on "Stronger Than Itself , full-bodied and trilling on the aptly named "Hope and stabbing as he runs up and down the scale on "Frontlash . On "Forgotten System Mahanthappa and Iyer jockey for position as each instrument accelerates to the fore, then slows in retreat in a complex back-and-forth. For his part, Iyer is in complete command of the keyboard and never at a rhythmic or melodic loss.

Recorded in Barcelona in 2004, Critical Mass pairs avant-garde pianist Agusti Fernandez with paint- peeling saxophonist Mats Gustafsson on ten sonically varied abstract improvisations. Fernandez' 'prepared piano' sounds like warm static, or like a small child bouncing on musical bedsprings. When Gustafsson opens up with his horns, both the tenor and baritone saxophones are just a bit deeper and louder than everyone else's, seemingly on the verge of exploding. But he mostly whispers, pops, snuffles and snorts, sounding out computer blips on one piece and producing ghostly overtones on another. His heavy breathing at the CD's midpoint is the sound of a defective respirator. When it stops, the song is over.

British jazz legend Stan Tracey was 77 when the concert with Evan Parker (then 60) documented on Crevulations was recorded in Appleby, England in 2004. The veteran straight ahead pianist has a beautifying effect on Parker's usual skronking avant gardism (a precedent set on the duo's 2003 disc Suspensions and Anticipations as well as Tracey's '70s duets with other British reedmen like John Surman and Mike Osborne). The saxophonist sticks to tenor (rather than soprano) and reveals himself to be a deftly lyrical player with a sensitive tone. The 20-minute opener "Bendalingo's Dream lays out the agenda, with the two musicians keying off each other effortlessly. Tracey brings a mainstream touch to free improvisation and Parker reigns in his masterly breathing and fingering techniques in the name of melodicism. On "The Streatham Walk , Parker unspools circular breaths that get longer and longer until reaching its peak on "Babazuf , where Tracey weighs in with a low visceral rumble. Never pretentious or boring in the least, this makes for a magnificent point of entry for those curious about Evan Parker. These guys make it sound easy.

Tracks and Personnel

Raw Materials

Tracks: The Shape of Things; All the Names; Forgotten System; Remembrance; Frontlash; Five Fingers Make a Fist; Inside the Machine; Stronger Than Itself; Come Back; Fly Higher; Common Ground; Rataplan; Hope

Personnel: Vijay Iyer: piano; Rudresh Mahanthappa: alto saxophone

Critical Mass

Tracks: Critical Mass 1-10

Personnel: Agusti Fernandez: piano, prepared piano; Mats Gustafsson: tenor and baritone saxophones


Tracks: Bendalingo's Dream; Crevulation; The Streatham Walk; Babazuf

Personnel: Stan Tracey: piano; Evan Parker: tenor saxophone


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