|Antithetical object lessons in how to approach a piano-bass duo, these notable discs are each impressive in their own ways. Yet the difference in approach has less to do with the fact that the protagonist of One Eyed Jack is a male American pianist and of Signature a female French bassist, than its relationship to a host of dissimilar musical factors.
On the surface there are initially many similarities between the two CDs. Pianist Joseph Scianni and bassist Joëlle Léandre are both prodigiously classically trained, he with a doctorate in composition from Rochester's Eastman School of music, she with advanced degrees from the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris and the Center for Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo. Both are involved with notated music, Scianni having written Music for Quiet Listening and produced Glenn Gould's recordings of Arnold Schoenberg's piano concerto, and Léandre universally recognized as a paramount interpreter of the works of John Cage, Giacinto Scelsi, Aldo Clemeni and other New music composers. Both are also deeply allied to uncompromising improvised sounds. This commitment has been with the pianist since he worked with cornettist Don Cherry and, most notably, bassist David Izenzon in the early 1960s, and was intensified in the 1990s -- after years spent as a university music professor -- with players like bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen. Currently a visiting professor at California's Mills College, the bassist has collaborated with the cream of contemporary improvisers including guitarist Derek Bailey, saxophonist Steve Lacy and pianist Irène Schweizer among many others.
However careful listening to the discs reveals basic differences. No matter how they play, Scianni and his sidemen -- bassist Ken Filiano on all tracks but two; bassist Hal Onserud and saxman Blaise Siwula on the two longest -- create improvisations that are still informed by the ethos of traditional jazz and popular songs. That legacy is not a root language for Léandre and her pianist partners -- Masahiko Satoh on disc one and Yuji Takahashi on disc two. Want another indication? Besides the three standards he limns here, all of the pieces played on Scianni's CD have interpretive titles which give them a resonance and attachment beyond the music. The 14 tracks on Léandre's two-CD set merely use letters or numbers reflecting the concept of "pure music." The pieces exist on their own without external references.
Probably the clearest indication of this separation comes on Gordon & Warren's "Serenade in Blue," a much lesser known ballad than Ellington's "I Got It Bad" or the Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me," which are also covered. Playing in a hesitant, off-centre manner, sort of how Thelonious Monk would approach tunes like this, Scianni introduces frequently repeated cadenzas and a touch of stride, referencing Monk's background as well as the great American songbook. Still, no sooner does he get to the melody than he begins playing variations on it as a proper jazzman would.
Exercises in polyrhythm, as are Léandre's improvisations, the remaining tunes with Filiano, who has worked with partners as different as multi-woodwind master Vinny Golia and trombonist Steve Swell, highlight simultaneous contradictory textures that arise as much from his command of the keyboard as the bassman's arco buzzes. Scianni can express the melancholy feeling of a ballad merely by accenting certain octaves, sort of like a hip-modal Bill Evans. He can also create marauding high frequency fantasias that flash by as rapidly as Art Tatum's later work. Throughout, nothing fazes Filiano.
Recorded three years earlier, the other tunes on Scianni's CD feature bassist Onserud, who has played with saxophonist Mario Eneidi and saxman Siwula, another low profile musician who has pursued free jazz/improvised music for years out of the limelight. "Serengeti," the almost 18-minute showpiece for the trio, begins with extended breathy saxophone vibratos that expand into multiphonics for a few minutes before the pianist introduces speedy, piano roll-like comping. The bassist sounds as if he's scraping the wood from his instrument as Siwula constructs runs and trills ranging through the horn, but just missing interaction with the other instruments. When the pianist gathers his forces to produce what sounds like a summation crescendo, Onserud begins working away with his bow in those hard-to-reach spaces above the bridge, referencing both cello and double bass tones, while Siwula turns to tongue slapping mouth percussion. Ending with some squealing pig squeaks from the alto, Scianni's accompaniment turns out to be both a coda and the recapitulation of the
Don't look for carefully elaborated themes on Signature, however. Interestingly -- but not surprisingly -- Léandre, who often records in duo with pianists, including Japanese stylists Kumi Wakao and Ryoji Hojito, appears to have a stronger rapport with Takahashi than Satoh.
It may be because Takahashi first came to prominence as an avant-garde composer and studied with Iannis Xenakis in the early 1960s. Since then he has created orchestral, operatic and computer music, utilized traditional instruments, performed Asian protest songs and played with artists including Musica Elettronica Viva and saxophonist/composer John Zorn.
A Berklee College grad, Satoh, has won local Jazz magazine awards and worked as an arranger and pianist with such well known Americans as bassist Eddie Gomez, drummer Steve Gadd and singers Helen Merrill and Nancy Wilson. He has written for TV, movies and large orchestras as well as touring overseas.
Insisting that her music is made up of non-repeated gestures, Léandre, who recorded with these two pianists on subsequent days, wonders if the result should be called new new jazz music rather than attaching it to either side of the musical fence. Certainly there's enough going on in these accented exercises in polyrhythms to prompt a unique genre
With Takahashi, the two seem to delight in changing the tonal centre. Sounds can be excessively clamorous or nearly inaudible. Over time, moreover it become clear that the pianist can call up many approaches, from ornate 19th century impressionism to somber, frigid 20th century serialism. He can start off playing what appears at first hearing to be a beginner's piano exercise, only to open it up into fulsome improvisations. Then the bassist begins muddying the approach with lunges, snatches and constant bowing. If she stays at the bottom of her arco range, he creates high-pitched frequencies at the top of his. Should he play rubato, then she insists on being andante. If she bangs upon the bass strings with her bow, he produces counter motifs to frame her improvisations. All and all, though, the two often manage to connect, as he singles out the few perfect notes from his 88 keys that intersect with her fleet cello-like bowing.
Satoh's presence on the other hand, seems to bring out the technicians in both musicians. He can turn out a frenzied, multi-note near parody of Cecil Taylor's mature style as easily as she can bow more and more quickly and sometimes advance into full screech mode. Within their tunes there are spectacular examples of double and triple stopping, though most of the time she can hit the highest portion of the scale without causing ear discomfort. Léandre can also knit string buzzes into a coherent whole.
Despite his jazz background, however, it's the pianist who sometimes gets fussily classical here. Is that a snatch of Beethoven that sneaks out during one exchange? Still because they're in unison more often then in opposition, the performance between the two does flow. In fact, it flows enough so that at one point Satoh lets out a short yelp of excitement.
As all the tunes on both Léandre CDs are named signature it seems obvious that personal