Bass/piano duets in a telepathic chamber jazz mode: free and spiky and beautiful.
Pianist Marilyn Crispell and bassist Gary Peacock have a lovely history as recording partners, having made two glowing discs for ECM with Paul Motian on drums. These two previous dates (from 1997 and 2001) were absolutely riveting: mysterious, lyrical, daring while still romantic, adventurous in an effortless way. To follow this history while down a man—and no less a creative spirit than Paul Motian? Interesting move. (For the record, Azure was recorded in early 2011, well before Motian’s death late last year.)
But Azure, a duo between Crispell and Peacock, is another gem, a delicate but insistently thorny recording that resists being limited by expectations or options.
Every song on this recording proceeds with a steely logic but a gently loving execution. There are three compositions each by Peacock and Crispell and three, credited jointly, which sound like spontaneous improvisations. (Additionally, each player adds a purely improvised solo piece.) Each works like a curtain being pulled back on something interesting and beautiful—a slow revelation of a story, a picture, or a scene. This is music with drama to it, even as it is played with a careful and delicate touch.
Both Peacock and Crispell—as players, composers, and improvisers—bridge the worlds of so-called “free jazz” and beautiful, tonal jazz of the highest order. Though Peacock is best known for playing with Keith Jarrett and Crispell is best known for playing with Anthony Braxton, their ranges of association are broad and their artistic identities are beyond category. Crispell is one of the most melodic and surprising improvisers in jazz, whether she is following set tonal harmonic patterns or improvising without a net. Peacock has a tone on upright bass that is full yet winsome, and he plays with a freedom that is equally likely to result in a strange interval or a legato triad.
The composed songs, as you might imagine, head in many different directions. “Waltz After David M” by Crispell could not be more sensitive and singing. After a brief and ringing introduction on piano, Peacock enters with low tones and harmonics as Crispell outlines a simple and elegiac melody that sounds like a sunset after a long day. It is relaxed and resigned but with phrases that turn major then back to minor again, suggesting a cautious kind of hope. Similarly lyrical is the pianist’s elegiac “Goodbye”, which etches a simple melody over ringing, impressionistic harmonies. The heart of this tune is a really a joint improvisation in which both players compose in tandem over the song’s chords. Peacock’s “Lullaby” begins in a similar vein, but it also contains a set of unison arpeggio patterns that sets beautifully vocalized solos over the song’s simple whole-note chordal pattern.
In contrast, Peacock’s “Puppets” skips along with an almost silly demeanor, a set of playful piano chords leading to an arco bass line, unaccompanied, that waddles and tumbles and rips into quick repetitions and trills. Crispell’s “Patterns” has the sound of a crazy schematic lines played by two unison hands on piano while Peacock plays crazy-wide intervals below—leading to the two players spinning the song’s basic melodic ideas into wilder and more complex examples of improvised counterpoint.
The improvised tunes are just as satisfying. “Blue” begins as a pair of solo statements on piano and bass—one abstract, the next more grounded—that then move into a pulsing duet that takes off as Peacock plays repeated notes like a heartbeat. Organically, the improvising becomes more and swinging and rhythmic, as Peacock’s heartbeat becomes more of a call-and-response pattern over which Crispell starts swinging like an older and more conventional player. And it’s a joy.
The closing improvisation is the title track, “Azure”, and it is a textural and dynamic pleasure, letting the rolling chords that Crispell plays rise and fall as Peacock rolls through the harmonies. This song—like much of the recording as a whole—surges and ebbs, flows and then turns back on itself. You can’t fall asleep on this kind of music, for it requires your attention and care as a listener. That is, put in the background, this music is just lovely enough to drift into a kind of passive enjoyment. But it’s also sufficiently spikey and singular that it only makes sense if you’re following drama that it, quite quietly, plays out for your ears.
I recommend the kind of active listening that makes a release like this—a slice of sparkling jazz magic—come alive.