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Friday, May 26, 2023

Petra Haller & Meg Morley - Shoulders I Stand On (self, 2023)

By Sammy Stein

Petra Haller is a tap dancer based in London. She studied at Escola Luthier in Barcelona, and at workshops under Jason Samuels Smith, Derick Grant, and Andrew Nemr. Haller became the first tap dancer named in Jazzwise Magazine’s ‘Rising Jazz Artists: Who to look out for in 2020’. She has performed with artists including Cleveland Watkiss, Xhosa Cole, Mark Sanders, Loz Speyer, and more. Meg Morley is a classically trained musician. Melbourne-born, London-based, Morley was awarded Distinctions by the Australian Music Examination Board for its Associate and Licentiate diplomas in piano and completed a Master of Music in classical performance, and a Postgraduate Certificate in composition. She studied jazz improvisation at the Victorian College of the Arts. Together Haller and Morley have recorded an album that is as extraordinary as it is fascinating.

Haller told me “We recorded the Album, which is our debut album as a duo, at Ocean Sound Studios in Giske, Norway. My focus is to use tap dance as a percussive instrument in jazz and improvised music and perform my music in concert settings and recordings.

Meg and I have been working together since 2019 and have played improvised concerts, this project, however, is a suite featuring both composed and improvised music.”

Because both the obvious percussive elements of tap dancing and the subtler percussive elements of the hammers on the strings of the piano blend impressively, they allow the listener a vastly different listening experience.

Jazz and tap dance, of course, go together, jazz being the original street music and tap dancing being the obvious street-ready accompaniment. I have seen tap dancers perform with jazz players in venues including Ronnie Scott’s in London.

The clarity of the tap alongside the melodies of the piano provides an intricacy and pinpoint counterpoint it is difficult to achieve were it two standard instruments rather than keys and taps (the taps being the metal parts of the tap shoes’ heel and toes).

The opening track, ‘The Call of The Birds’ is evocative, with mesmeric piano melodies creating a sense of peace and calm, interspersed halfway with tap passages from Haller whose rhythms contradict the delicacy of the piano line. ‘Thicker Than Blood’ is a crazy, multi-rhythmed conversation between the percussion of the keys and the taps. Initially, a call and response, the piece develops into a duet and then a conversation as each musician inserts rhythms, the piano able to alter notation, while the tap dancing adds changes of volume, pace, and rhythm patterns. The closing section has the tap keeping metronomic time while the piano explores melody lines, evolving into a blues pattern before the emphasis changes again into improvised, free exploration of both keys and counter-reacting tap. The final phrases are repeated patterns in a return to call and response that gradually slows from the manic to the calm. Crazily good.

‘Ascendant’ begins with fast-paced taps, which continue while the piano issues forth deep, guttural phrases, before withdrawing into quietude. The extended breaks between phrases are filled by the tap’s rhythm, at this point feeling like it has a life of its own. The strings of the piano are brought into play to create a change of atmosphere with the piano now leading, with tap following on a series of repeated rhythms, chord lines packed with changes, and rhythm patterns that seem to evolve from the ether.

‘Fearless’ is a wonderfully timed duet, with the taps creating percussive elements to accompany the piano melodies. With its waltz rhythms, this track sees both tap and piano following tuneful melodies, their interaction timed to perfection. This feels more like drums and piano. The second half then becomes something else – a journey through rhythms, chord patterns, melodies, and counterrhythms provided by the tap shoes of Haller.

‘Together We Are Stream’ is a sonic torrent of percussive elements from the taps and repeated phrases from the piano that change and develop into chord progressions and melodies. The tap is relentless and rapid, and the music tugs the listener one way and then another as each musician takes the lead.

‘Forever and A Day’ is atmospheric and there are sweeping, arcing phrases, counteracted by the clickety-clack of the tap and the almost seamless transition of rhythmic pattern changes while ‘Atlantic’ sees a change of mood with a lighter touch from both piano and tap shoes, the piano responding to the rhythms set up by the taps, before it retakes the lead, offering riffles of delicate sound, into which the taps drop intricate, sometimes forceful replies.

‘Giske’ is dark, loud, and moody, with deep piano chords, topped by gentle soft riffs of melody and shuffling, frictional taps. ‘The Sound of The Birds’ is atmospheric, at times a return to the first track but more of a development on the theme and essence.

This album is an insight into how two musicians combine to create music to complement each other. The taps here prove that there is an infinite variation in how metal can strike wood – and it depends on who is wearing the taps. Haller propagates a multitude of different sounds, from soft, delicate taps to hard thunking wallops, and finds so many variations in between. Her shift of emphasis, weight, pressure and changes, shuffles, drops, and kicks, combine to create variety and change.

The piano meantime has a greater range of notes and more control over volume and of course, there is the sustain pedal, but here are two musicians who each use the sounds at their disposal to create something special.