This may spark argument, but here goes: the duo format leads to the most adventurous jazz, especially when it comes to free-form, creative music.
Now, the defense. Solo jazz, while interesting, ultimately is left up to the creativity of the individual. For someone as inventive as John Coltrane, his horn alone makes for a compelling listen. But for most musicians, even our best soloists, the well of ideas runs dry long before most songs end.
The performance of larger groups, from trios and quartets to octets and big bands, often center around a revolving cast of soloists playing over the repeated chord progressions of the rest of the combo. Some larger free jazz groups do conjure some inspiring sounds, but the best bits often get lost amid the whole.
But the duo, which finds two musicians playing off of one another, bouncing ideas back and forth, can be make for an exhilirating listen. There is nowhere to hide inadequacy, which works at the same time to allow plenty or room for both voices to be heard fully.
On two recent releases, the exhiliration comes in part from a violin, an odd choice for jazz, but one that works well in both cases. The third is no more traditional, pairing accordion with clarinet.
First up are Dominic Duval and Jason Kao Kwang, on bass and violin, respectively. The Experiment is a fitting title for the duo’s first-ever pairing, for this certainly sounds like a bold new thing. Duval, a long-time bassist and a fixture on the New York jazz scene, and young player Kwang, himself no stranger to free jazz listeners, join their instruments together here in a tapestry of sound that is at once cacophonous and melodious. In the liner notes, the image of birds in flight and of Dorothy’s wind-bound trip to Kansas are cited as themes for the music, and both explanations go a long way toward capturing the feel of sonic excursions like “A Double Stop” and “Passing Through.”
Mat Maneri works his own magic on the violin, joined by guitarist Joe Morris on the duo’s Soul Search CD. The two are no strangers; Maneri, in fact, stole the show from Morris on last year’s Cloud of Black Birds (AUM Fidelity) from Morris’s quartet.
Here, the ease the two display in playing together results in clean, muscular lines from each weave in and amongst each other in ways that belie the improvisational approach. Over the course of 10 tracks, these two old hands push and pull at each other, each challenging the other to greater heights and more far out sounds, the result at times more satisfying than their previous outing in the more traditional setting with bass and drums.
The third of our duo discs is most structured, yet improvisation still plays a part. The pairing of Gianluigi Trovesi on clarinet and Gianni Coscia on accordion on In Cerca Di Cibo finds the two exploring Italian folk music, jazz and blues.
Umberto Eco writes in his liner notes (yes, THAT Umberto Eco) that the music on this disc shows a “new transversality where distinctions of genre are vanishing.” Exactly what I would say, albeit a bit less literately. In fact, I might go so far as to say that this would make a terrific soundtrack for an episode of The Sopranos were I looking for a more common denominator with which to sing this disc’s praises.
That feeling is fitting, much of this music is very cinematic, as a wash of melancholy gives way to an aural jaunty bounce through the countryside. That comes thanks the source of some of the tracks, like “Pinocchio: in Groppa al Tonna,” which began life as film score fragments.
Coscia is the star here, his multiple accordion lines both pushing the melody and supporting it with his lilting chording. Trovesi provides ample support, his clarinet lines flowing through each piece, dipping in and out of Coscia’s lines to illuminate a particular passage or float above in an ethereal solo.
Though he is only writing about this last disc, Eco could be talking about all three when he describes why this particular bit of improvisation works, why the changing of rules that is endemic to improvisation does not undermine the work: This “is one of the characteristics of experiments, a characteristic assumed in this case without forgoing something that experimental music often forgoes, that is to say pleasure.”
All three discs offer that, in varying degrees, making for three very different, very challenging listens. And all are proof positive that a duo, especially these duos, can truly be dynamic.