JAZZ pianists spend a lot of time alone with their craft, and often just as much in the context of a rhythm section. It’s less common for them to sit down and make music with each other, though it does happen every now and then. (It happened a lot in the 1930s among Harlem stride masters, behind closed doors, in clubby camaraderie.) The scarcity is enough to make you notice a good piano-duo album when it arrives. This fall, oddly enough, there are a few, two of them due out on Tuesday.
“Orvieto” (ECM) is the splashier and more casual of the two: a concert recording starring Chick Corea, the eminent American post-bop pianist who turned 70 this year, and Stefano Bollani, a quick-thinking Italian of similar effervescence, now 38. Recorded at last year’s Umbria Jazz Winter festival, it involved the barest preparation — loose set list, no rehearsals — but some favorable odds.
For one thing, Mr. Corea has an unusually productive track record in two-piano settings, going back to “An Evening With Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea: In Concert,” released on Columbia in 1978. And he has a few years of history with Mr. Bollani, on European stages. Their buoyant, bustling take on a standard like “If I Should Lose You” (or, for that matter, Dorival Caymmi’s “Doralice”) feels brisk, companionable and practically seamless. Mr. Bollani has compared their output to the work of one pianist with four hands, which sounds fanciful and self-serving until you absorb the results.
“Modern Music” (Nonesuch), featuring Brad Mehldau and Kevin Hays, is a less joyous album, perhaps because it carries the burden of an agenda. It’s also the greater achievement. Mr. Mehldau and Mr. Hays, both in their early 40s, don’t have to work to find common ground, so they focus instead on bringing a high sheen to some choice material: one repurposed original each; potent adaptations of works by Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Ornette Coleman; and four intricate pieces by Patrick Zimmerli.
That last name appears on the album cover, and for good reason: Mr. Zimmerli, a product of the same high school jazz program as Mr. Mehldau, is responsible for the album’s stern, ingenious arrangements, which reflect his foothold in contemporary classical music. Mr. Zimmerli’s writing is intricately plotted; where there’s space for improvisation he lays useful traps, seeking to thwart the reflexive fluency of his players.
Still, in the end what you notice isn’t Mr. Zimmerli’s invisible hand, or even the four belonging to Mr. Mehldau and Mr. Hays. What sticks out is the feverish concentration of the whole enterprise, along with an idea long espoused, convincingly, by Mr. Corea: that it’s all music, flowing heedlessly across the boundaries of style.
A New York Times article