The ECM label takes some flak (and takes some of that flak from this critic) for producing too many recordings that are gorgeous but soothing, rich in slow and icily beautiful jazz that can sound a bit samey, as shimmeringly fine as it is.
But, of course, ECM has also been the home to music that lives far from some “new age” realm of peaceful jazz atmospherics. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, for example, made incisive and tart music for ECM between 1979 and 1984. Lester Bowie recorded for the label as a solo artist, always puckish, and Jack DeJohnette’s ECM recordings—with his Special Edition or with the Gateway Trio to name just two examples—were disruptive and rich in wild, dancing energy.
The new live recording by pianists Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn is on ECM, and it deserves to be heard as part of ECM’s more adventurous track. Although the two-piano sound is still sonically sterling and occasionally so atmospheric as to be, well, “pretty”, it is also wild and rhythmic, free and dissonant. Some listeners will wish it were more ECM—gentler or more melodic. But the best parts of The Transitory Poems are a riveting blend.
These eight performances were recorded at Lizst Academy in Budapest, and all appear to have been freely improvised with no preconceived themes or melodies. (For the record, this fits the ECM template established by Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert, the freely improvised solo piano ECM bestseller.) The tracks average nine or ten minutes in length, which is relatively terse by freely improvised standards, and while they all take their time finding a center, few overstay their welcome. A fine example is “Kairos” (clocking in at 8:59), which begins in beautiful fragments, like sunbeams sneaking through a narrow skylight or a fine mist of rain falling on a roof. By its midpoint, however, the performance is a full-fledged conversation, and the accompaniment has developed a signature rhythm, Morse-code-like grunts of chords in the lower register that punch the soloist into action. The performance ends just as the two pianists develop a descending pattern of two-note repetitions that they can play in climatic harmony.
Some four-handed jazz piano is like a clash of personalities. As a fan currently in his 50s, I well remember the excitement of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea playing two acoustic pianos, facing each other, at a time when they were recently matured players seeking refuge from their fusion projects. They played standards or their own well-known tunes (“Maiden Voyage”, “La Fiesta”) and there was rarely any doubt about who was whom. They swirled around each other, one cutting the other playfully, signature stylistic tics on full display. It was exciting but, artistically, limited. It always felt too much like a stunt, like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson playing one-on-one rather than a real basketball game.
Iyer and Taborn did not approach this concert as brand name jazz pianists, ready to set each other in contrast, playing their hits. For most of this program, all but the biggest aficionados will be hard-pressed to say which pianist is which—and that seems by design. They work very much together, creating a seamless flow of musical development. On something like “Luminous Brew”, they cooperate in assembling an atmosphere of trembling tension. One is high, one is low, out of each other’s way but close in purpose, and then lines from each intersect and twist around each other. On “Shake Down” there is a distinct melodic line created at the start that persists and is passed back and forth between the pianists as they seem to careen down the rapids of the performance, but it sounds very much like a jazz improvisation that is following the top rule of improv comedy: always say “yes”. The two players are in a lively agreement throughout.
Some of The Transitory Poems has that quality of searching, seeking a place that is elusive, a quality that free improvisation is prone to. This may be why some listeners love it so—it is the sound of discovery, to steal a line from somewhere. Others may feel that it is like listening to a composer improvise his way toward something great rather than hearing a performer work with something that has already been honed to excellence. A performance such as “Sensorium” has a busy, chattering quality that seems almost static rather than dynamic, Iyer and Taborn feverishly engaging in a conversation you seem to have dropped in on. How interesting you find it will depend on your tolerance for a kind of indeterminacy. Few of these performances provide the certain pleasures of, say, a crafted 32-bar song.
Another way of thinking about these duets is to compare them to the ECM recordings made by the pianists on their own. Iyer has released a wide range of music on the label—highly composed music, daring music for his long-standing trio, and his 2017 sextet recording, which scanned as a voracious jazz recording that took in early fusion as well as new jazz models and made them individual. Taborn debuted on ECM with a solo piano set, then followed it with a trio record and then 2017’s quartet recording, Daylight Ghosts. His work has also crossed over several styles and sonorities, each drawing on his distinctive blend of mainstream chops and a modern vocabulary that reflects Kenny Kirkland at one moment and Cecil Taylor at another, Andrew Hill and Don Pullen.
The two pianists together, composing “in the moment”, feeling each other out, both seem less distinctive than they do alone, even with the “personality” of the ECM label applied as another influence. Iyer’s own project are always—at least in a slanted way—drawing a bit from hip-hop and the early funk daring of band’s such as Herbie Hancock’s early ’70s sextet, so there are moments here when the improvisations veer into rhythmic groove that I attribute to him, though these moments are few. Taborn’s individual projects have knack for longer-form lyricism, compelling lines of melody that dance between tonality and more freedom. You can hear that on The Transitory Poems too, but it never sounds as compelling as when Taborn does it with greater deliberation. These duets, then, can sometimes feel like a compromise rather than a vision—each personality lost a bit in the collaboration.
But there is something gained too, in that friction, even if it sands down the individual identities in this case. We get to hear a bit of a negotiation between two leading pianists, both expert improvisers whose ideas about this music matter in 2019. ECM is there again, in the room where it happens, as some adventurous conversation is taking place. The results are fascinating if not an instant classic.