Combining piano and drums in a duo setting is hardly a daring proposition, as the two instruments go together quite well. On the one hand, they seem to complement each other almost perfectly, with the piano’s potential for near-orchestral fullness counter-balancing the drums’ “skeletal” properties. On the other hand, there’s also some overlap between them, due to the fact that both generate sounds percussively. It’s a constellation that can yield great results when appropriately exploited, making, in such cases, for a tightly knit yet wide-ranging sonic union. That being established, it’s all the more surprising that the duo of Swedish pianist Sten Sandell and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love doesn’t quite succeed in producing that kind of instrumental union. Indeed, considering the duo’s unimpeachable musical pedigree, which includes incendiary outfits such as The Thing, Scorch Trio and Lean Left in Nilssen-Love’s case, and a history of performing works by New Music luminaries like Xenakis and Cage in Sandell’s, you’d expect nothing but a flawless success of them.
To be clear: Jacana is by no means a bad record. Its three improvised tracks, which were recorded live at the Kongsberg Jazz Festival in 2013, offer a fair share of good and even great moments. Sandell, in particular, provides some very fine pianistic moments, from seamlessly woven tapestries of notes to thundering chords that could shake the gates of heaven, and further on to the alien abstractions of extended technique (although that last element isn’t as prominent here as might be expected of a frequent performer of New Music). Moreover, he engages in some very deep and low vocalizing on the second track Kauri, which, in combination with his sinister chords and runs on the piano, resembles Varèse’s Nocturnal, and perhaps some Schönbergian ballads. But occasionally – and this is where we get to the downsides – the music fails to attract the listener’s attention, running on for minutes without producing anything substantial. Nilssen-Love’s contributions here might be part of the problem; he’s a drummer I hold in very high regard, but here, he’s often content to inhabit the supporting role, rarely stepping up with attention-grabbing ideas of his own. Besides, he doesn’t always respond in the ideal way to Sandell’s pianistic propositions, sometimes employing drum-kit-devouring rolls where a sparser, more disjointed approach might’ve been a more appropriate answer.
But then again, this is far from bad, and if this might appear to be a bit of a letdown, it’s only because of the very high standards these excellent musicians have set for themselves on previous records.