LARRY WILLIS / PAUL MURPHY:
The Powers Of Two
Ever hear a duo create the impact of a symphony? Larry and Paul do just that. With only piano and drums, they break through to a breathtaking new place in music, a space where jazz and classical and improv become indistinguishable. I hear the haunting lyricism of Chopin and Bill Evans, the sweeping thunder of McCoy Tyner or Rachmaninoff, the exquisite harmonic surprises of Debussy or Miles. Above all, I hear two jazz masters sounding like a hundred and swinging like one. (#10232)
IF YOU ENJOYED THE POWERS OF TWO, BE SURE TO CHECK OUT:
The piano-drums duet is still enough
of a rare bird to draw our attention. The Powers of Two (Mapleshade)
brings together pianist Larry Willis and percussionist Paul Murphy
for an encounter marked by a lyrical yet explorative edge, replete
with drama and mystery. On eight spontaneously composed pieces,
the duo employs subtlety and carefully calibrated tonal shadings
to make their strongest points. Willis, one
Murphy's CV reveals his comfort with free jazz; he's worked with William Parker, Charles Gayle and Kidd Jordan, among others. Exhibiting admirable restraint, Murphy extracts shaded hues from his cymbals, shying away from a full force drum attack. Even when things heat up during "Interlock East" and "Hi-Jack," Murphy keeps himself advantageously in check.
These two are out to make affecting music together. By listening so intently to each other, they draw us near as well.
Over the years, Larry Willis has inspired a variety of comparisons -- sometimes McCoy Tyner, Kenny Barron, or Mulgrew Miller (on his straight-ahead post-bop); sometimes Cecil Taylor (on the avant-garde free jazz of his youth); and sometimes Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea (on his fusion recordings of the '70s). The veteran pianist isn't a huge name in the jazz world, but those who have closely followed Willis' career know that he is a flexible, broad-minded player who can handle a variety of musical situations. Recorded in August 2002, The Powers of Two finds a 61-year-old Willis performing a series of intimate duets with drummer Paul Murphy. The two of them enjoy a consistently strong rapport on this CD, which favors an inside/outside approach that is somewhere between Tyner's post-bop and Taylor's free jazz. The Powers of Two isn't as left-of-center as a typical Taylor album; this release is mildly avant-garde, whereas Taylor's boldly uncompromising work is radically avant-garde. And while Taylor's playing can be confrontational and in-your-face, The Powers of Two is more reflective than anything. But no one will mistake The Powers of Two for an album of Tin Pan Alley standards; Willis' encounter with Murphy is more inside than outside, but the outside element is definitely there. For all its abstraction and spontaneity, The Powers of Two never comes across as aimless or mindlessly chaotic; Willis' solos have a sense of sense of purpose and sound like they were meant to happen. The Powers of Two isn't the most essential album that Willis has recorded for Mapleshade; nonetheless, it is a solid and engaging demonstration of the pianist's ability to handle both the inside and the outside.
Larry Willis, for too long a time unjustly under-recorded as a leader, happily has found a home as Mapleshade Records music director for the past 12 years. The Maryland based label has afforded the veteran New Yorker a multitude of opportunities to demonstrate his imposing talents as a pianist, composer, arranger and producer, but Sanctuary is easily the best of these efforts to date. The album of spiritually motivated music captures Willis at the height of his powers in a variety of situations that graciously draw the listener into his brilliantly conceived music.
The opening The Maji, a cheerful composition for jazz quintet (featuring fellow Fort Apache members Joe Ford and Steve Berrios on saxophones and drums and DC veterans Ray Codrington and Steve Novosel on trumpet and bass) immediately makes clear the leaders considerable capability for creating memorable melodies in even the most conventional of settings. Sanctuary is a beautiful piece by Willis for trio and the ten-piece Rick Schmidt strings, adeptly arranged by Ford. The pianist masterfully arranged his own Good Friday for soprano sax with piano and strings to portray a mood that is mournful without being maudlin.
On Brother Ed, Willis creatively crafts a satisfying new melody, featuring Fords alto and Codringtons trumpet, utilizing the familiar chord changes from Wayne Shorters Speak No Evil. Sanctuarys centerpiece is the stirring orchestration by the leader of the traditional hymn There Is A Balm Gilead for piano, strings and the emotive tenor voice of Artie Sherman.
Codringtons Thank You Lord, a prayer without words, is another enjoyable outing for quintet, served well by Novosels relaxed bass line and Berrios compelling mallet on tom tom rhythm. Willis displays his skill as a solo pianist on his three-movement arrangement of a gospel song from his youth, Were You There. Fallen Hero, the pianists moving memorial to his late brother, featuring another of Fords sensitive string arrangements, is a fitting finale to this poignant and affecting date.
Powers of Two is an extraordinary undertaking by Willis (who is joined on the session by longtime Jimmy Lyons drummer Paul Murphy). Comprised of eight spontaneously improvised duets, the date showcases his imposing but unpretentious virtuoso technique, as well as an amazing ability to build marvelously musical structures without the benefit of prepared material.
While the beautiful sound Willis coaxes from his instrument at times recalls McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor and Herbie Hancock, the eight tracks are all uniquely personal - worthy of compositional refinement and future exploration. Murphy proves to be a fine foil and at times a convincing creative catalyst, helping to inspire facets of Willis talent that are all the more impressive considering their lack of prior documentation.