Although Craig Taborn is a name most readers of this blog are quite familiar with, Diego Barber is likely more of an unknown—at least, he was to this reviewer before sitting down with this intriguing duo record. Barber is a very accomplished classical guitarist, but he’s recorded a couple of classically-influenced jazz records on Sunnyside prior to this one, so he’s been exploring ways of bringing improvisation into his playing for some time now. Since Taborn is himself rather adept at straddling genres, and at times has a distinctly classical sensibility to his playing, this pairing makes a lot of sense. And for the most part, it’s a very satisfying and successful encounter.
One thing that is immediately apparent: Barber has some fantastic chops as a guitarist. He brings a virtuosity that is channeled with great discipline. He’s capable of jaw-dropping runs and complex passages which sound like there have to be two guitarists playing them—but his compositions are also very melodic in nature, with subtly beautiful phrases galore, especially on the 27-minute opener, “Kilian’s Mountains.” And as we’ve come to expect from Taborn as well, his sympathetic skill at playing alongside his counterparts, rather than overshadowing them, is always evident. (Taborn of course does have some really impressive moments here, however; see for instance the brilliant improvisation he offers on the second track, “Cipres.”)
I have just a few quibbles. Although the recording quality is generally very good, it would have been nice to have better instrument separation. Since Taborn does a fair amount of playing in the middle register, his overlapping parts with Barber (and there are a lot of these, particularly on “Kilian’s Mountains”) tended to blur the instruments together. I eventually got used to this, but it took some effort. And while this is certainly a duo record in most respects (with Taborn collaborating closely with Barber on his compositions), there are some rather lengthy solo stretches where only one of the two is playing. The most interesting moments on the record are definitely the ones in which Taborn and Barber are listening to and responding to each other. Along these lines, the mutual interplay on “Cipres” is really one of the highlights of the disc. (Not that I can complain too much about this, though, as some of those solo moments are pretty stunning—take Taborn’s gorgeous performance on the first half of “Im Park,” for instance, the record’s last track.) And while this is more of a personal preference, at times I found the classical orientation of Barber’s playing a bit staid and uninvolving; while his performances are consistently exceptional, there were moments when I wanted him to cut it loose a bit more—to bring a bit more fire to the proceedings, basically. The collaborative improvisational power of “Cipres” is a terrific but somewhat isolated moment on the record.
Slight reservations aside, this remains an excellent collaboration between two superb musicians who will hopefully work together again in the future.