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Joe Major

Troy, NY
Occtober 29, 2016

by Joe Major

We won’t be receiving any picture postcards from the far reaching regions where pianists Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn were headed Saturday night at EMPAC. Not because they weren’t unfailingly forthcoming, or their many backchannel arteries and tributaries didn’t promise interest, intrigue and adventure, but solely because, in the now familiar Steinian sense, “There was no there, there.” Their concept of a solid ground destination seemed invitingly negotiable.

These avowed improvisers were all about process. In program notes and interviews they’ve cleaved to the idea of adopting small degrees of notated thread, then, in performance, allowing enough free space, of the moment space, for the music to materialize around them. They first performed together in avant-gardist Roscoe Mitchell’s boundlessly pioneering Note Factory, a nonet with a double rhythm section. In preparation there, working out their composed segments, they had to acknowledge that, intuitively, a certain frisson was alive and sparking, extra-notationally! Tab for the future.

The future strode to center stage and, with an articulate clarity that would be present throughout their untitled three-number excursion, began trading solos and phasing in and out of unison passages. Their thorough tandem-ness was manifested in many ways. There were movements where one player would provide a rumbling undercurrent and the other respond with a flighty, spiky accent. There were primary themes played together, but with one player a nanosecond delayed. There were pedantic, stride piano gaits that dovetailed into, wait for it, a beat!

They could be fleeting and they could be thickly demonstrative. They pounced upon the keys, and they caressed. They modulated between darkness and light, density and space. They bridged atmospheres between contemplative depths and apogees so ethereal it could have rained crystals.

After the first segment the players ceremoniously switched sides, exchanging pianos. It was official halftime at the ballgame. Taborn announced to a chuckling audience that, “This is for balance!” And balance proved to be quite an appropriate term. There was visual stagecraft balance, with players right and left. There was the ever so slight aural balance of the frontsy-backsy piano positioning. There was subtle role balancing; muser and rouser; acrobatic flyer and catcher; caller and second line responder. They were confidants and conspirators. They engaged in frenetic cross-handed pyrotechnics that sped to the edge of reason, and they threw out bass anchors that bumped bottom looking for suitable mooring.

It was dramatic cinema, sans cinema. Out there on the distant perimeter, receiving faint signals from the jazz idiom, they were buddy system supporters tending to each other’s narrative life support.

No matter how tangentially certain deconstructed themes evolved, the players remained synched in the same dance, like astronomical proof of an unseen star’s existence by observing the orbit of a visible one. That becomes the uncharted zone. That’s where the binding music matter resides. And that’s where their improvisation pedigrees shone brightest.

Yoked together in this all hands on deck duo format, Iyer and Taborn successfully harnessed that barely measurable, but still identifiable, essence that occurred when their two emanations created yet a third voice. As with the Higgs boson particle search in physics, our willing compliance, our very presence, became an integral part of verifying their temporary musical coalescence.

Joe Major is an inveterate jazz pilgrim for whom the holy grail is always the evocative communion of impression meeting expression. Living over the border in Williamstown, MA, for thirty-plus years, he’s been the grateful beneficiary of countless Williams College performances that have arranged themselves on his ever shifting life list.