Deuces Wild!

When it comes to improv, two's a charm

Likewise, former Braxton Quartet affiliate Crispell rolls and tumbles throughout Connecting Spirits with saxist Joseph Jarman. But the spikes and plummets of her great intervallic leaps somehow always stay within the context of a particular tune. She remains deeply in the pocket on the punchy "Structure I," and offers crushing bass-chord clusters as a striking but sympathetic contrast to Jarman's trance meditations on the Coltrane homage "Dear Lord."

The rapport of both Abrams and Ehrlich and Crispell and Jarman shows that balance is often the key to a successful duet, which ideally comes across as a private conversation that a third party (the attentive listener) gains total access to. Abrams and Ehrlich best demonstrate their skills as evenhanded interlocutors on "Bright Canto," a blazing track that moves on and on like a caffeinated confab, with no single motif sustained for more than a few bars at a time. Crispell and Jarman are most communicative on "Connectivity," the rowdiest tune on Spirits. But even when Crispell presses the saxophonist toward full-tilt blowing, he manages a Zen-like serenity amid the uproar, and remarkably, the pianist responds in kind.

Despite the outwardly diminutive nature of the duet, master players can raise a symphonic ruckus, and at the same time bring an intimacy to the music-making that eludes larger combos. The format's compulsory give-and-take process serves as a model for all types of collective improv. And for players and fans alike, the duet's an essential part of consummate music appreciation.

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