Double Portrait: Bill Charlap, Renee Rosnes

AKIE BERMISS: As an ardent jazz fan, I have but one dirty secret: I hate piano duos.  I know piano is like the mayonnaise on the sandwich of jazz… and being a piano player, you’d think I’d be all about piano duos.  The more pianos the merrier!  But the truth is, I’m not usually a big fan of huge piano sounds.  Its so easy to overpower all the other instruments with a piano (especially in a recording environment) and sometimes the unambiguous harmonic landscape can be musically frustrating.  Sometimes you just want the piano player to lay out and let the other instruments develop a dynamic.

And so there are few things I find less musically interesting than a dual pianos. All the precise notes, the percussion, the sustain pedals, the rampaging overtones.  It can turn into a real wash.

Still when we discovered that Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes (husband and wife) were doing a double piano record — I figured there might be something special in it.  And after listening, while it doesn’t make me take back what I’ve said about piano duos, I’m willing to admit that there are some upsides to the arrangement.

The record begins with a great romp in “Choriho” with anticipated bass-lines and completely syncopated harmonic strumming (which they keep up throughout!).  And it really works for the two-piano setup.  Instead of sounding like two musicians banging away at their instruments, this sounds like 10 musicians sitting and jamming with each other in the apartment underneath you.  Its a great time and made all my tension melt away after a few minutes.

And there are other great moments too: “My Man Is Gone Now”, “Dancing In The Dark”, and “Inner Urge” are some of my favorites.  In talking about the record, I comment to Howard that in MOST duos there is almost always a disparity of either skill or taste or invention.  Almost always there is one person who is the better of the two and the other one usually has some idiosyncratic talent or voice that complements the first.  And, come to think of it, you know the trouble is that if you have two GREAT piano players often you get that wash I was talking about before. Because piano players are trained to take care of every part of the song… the base line, the accompaniment, and the melody.  Two people going full-tilt boogie is problematic in that event.  But something that makes the Charlap-Rosnes connection unique is that both of them are monster piano players.  And both are playing so wonderfully in their own musical project right now.  Somehow they come together here, achieve equal footing, and play the living hell out of some of these songs.

There are a couple of tracks on the record I could stand to not listen to again.  I wasn’t a big fan of Ana Maria or Rosnes’ original composition “The Saros Cycle.” And in both situations its has almost nothing to do with the core material — I just can’t get by the boredom-of-sound that is the piano duet.  And it makes something as complex and rich as The Saros Cycle very difficult to appreciate.

But all is forgiven by the second cut on the record, “Double Rainbow”, which absolutely knocks my socks off.  I’m familiar with this song in other incarnations (at least I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it before) and this arrangement was simply lovely.  Like it was written not only for two pianos, but for Charlap and Rosnes explicitly.  And isn’t that the heart and high watermark of a jazz performance?  When the musicians and the material and the improvisations all come together to create a performance distilled from all the elements and yet organized as one independent organism.  One musical happening.

And I don’t want to make it seem like I hate ALL piano duos.  I actually swear by a few: Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea famously played a number of duos during the 70s and I’m usually pretty happy to hear those.  I also love the record Who’s On First which is a joint concert by Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough (though in that instance they only play a few selection together, and they are also singing together, and they also WROTE some of the material together, so…)

With a few more listens, I may add Charlap and Rosnes to that list.  Like any good suspenseful movie, its worth all the fear and worry and stress when it all comes out so wonderfully in the end.  So I can’t complain.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Unlike Akie, I have no objection to the double-piano setup. I tend to think of it as akin to the writing found on Perpetual Post-divergent viewpoints on the same theme or idea. And Double Portrait is a glorious example of the form- a true musical marriage, apparent in every track on the album.

Chorinho is a well-paced exploration that sets a theme that holds, I believe, for the entire album- the ideas are complementary, and it isn’t clear where one pianist ends and the other begins. It is possible to hear this couple finishing each other’s sentences, and there is something more than just technically impressive about it- it is romantic.

Double Rainbow, like Akie says, is wholly satisfying, though again, I believe it for the reason I mentioned above. If listening to Art Tatum seemed as if it must be two separate pianos, yet everything was linked, isn’t it in some ways more astounding to hear two separate people play in such an integrated way?

My favorite track is Dancing in the Dark, and that is saying something. It is the song my mother used to sing to me as a child, and as a result, I am awfully particular about what various artists do with it. But it could hardly be in more capable hands, and the minor strains that mark the song- more dark than dancing, to the close listen- are all on display here.

I loved the closing track as well- the puckishly-named “Never Will I Marry”. I must disagree with this sentiment vehemently as it applies to Charlap and Rosnes, who I have always enjoyed separately, but will certainly revel in together again. Let the skeptics of love go buy this album, and reconsider.

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