The piano is a strange beast. Born from machinery and industry, it perfected the equal-tempered tonal system. In the process, it made a huge sonic range available to the bourgeoisie all from the comfort of their living rooms and ushered in a new era of musical introspection. Despite this history, however, the piano is also full of its own myriad flaws and mysteries. The best pianists not only understand the piano’s strengths, they can utilize its quirks, like the diminished number of strings in the upper register, to full effect. As a result of this growing understanding, I believe we are truly in a renaissance moment for pianism, a reality demonstrated convincingly by these live recordings of Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn’s duo performance at the Liszt Academy, Budapest.
There are unfortunately few examples of great piano duets within the jazz idiom. Perhaps because the relationship between a performer and the instrument is already so complex, piano duets can often tend towards gimmicks or ego clashes, even between excellent musicians. Iyer and Taborn have both developed such mastery over their own approaches to the instrument, however, that the music they produce together is wonderfully cohesive. Though I can distinguish their distinct sounds because I have followed both of their careers extensively, I imagine a fresh pair of ears would only hear a complex, interlocking interplay of sound.
From the first notes of “Life Line (seven tensions)”, it is clear that we are listening to moving, insightful piano music. Simple gestures like chords, scales, and glissandi attain new levels of clarity, poise, and structural impact. “Luminous Brew” similarly explores the resonances and intricacies of the piano to great success.
Despite the music’s roots in potentially abstract gestures of pianism, it engages just as deeply with the polyrhythmic legacy of the African diaspora. In short, this is music that grooves relentlessly and grooves hard, even when no discernible tempo is present. I think we certainly can sense the impact of Cecil Taylor and his percussive approach of turning the piano into “88 tuned drums.” When a tempo is present, the level of rhythmic invention is also thrilling. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the end of ‘Kairòs” and try to keep still.
The Transitory Poems ends with a moving reinterpretation of “When Kabuya Dances”, which happens to be one of my favorite Geri Allen compositions off of her early album The Printmakers. I also had the pleasure of hearing Iyer and Taborn play this piece a few months ago at SFJazz in a tribute to Allen. I should note that, while The Transitory Poems is largely improvised, the jazz community should be careful not to omit these composed contributions or their accomplished female creator, by calling it “completely improvised” as other reviews have done. I think it is safe to say that, without Allen’s impact on the music and the piano, we would not be seeing collaborations like this one today.
If I had to give one criticism, it would be that the recording seems at times to struggle with the immense dynamic range of the original performance, but this opinion is subject to taste and may be a product of the sound system available to me while writing this review. Nonetheless, The Transitory Poems is an exciting and fresh perspective on improvised music and pianism, one I am sure to revisit over the coming years. Highly recommended.