Pianist Marilyn Crispell and bassist Gary Peacock have performed often as a duo and played together in other settings, including the trio with Paul Motian responsible for the ECM gems Amaryllis and Nothing Ever Was, Anyway. But Azure is their first duo album. While there’s nothing surprising about how gracefully attuned to each other they are here, the intuitive power they achieve in this intimate setting is still striking. So is the range of moods and emotions that eloquently unfold.
Like Amaryllis, Azure combines composed works and songs improvised in the studio. Crispell’s edgy “Patterns,” essentially a piano solo with double-bass framing, strongly contrasts with her tender, openly melodic “Waltz After David M.” On “Blue,” Crispell improvises impulsive, blues-tinged phrases over Peacock’s alternately skipping and bluntly assertive tones, whereas the duo engages in thoughtful dialogue-like exchanges on “Leapfrog.” On his composition “Puppets,” Peacock plays an extended arco solo. Each artist performs one piece unaccompanied.
The duo’s multi-angle attack lends a nice sense of movement to Azure, the latest chapter in Crispell’s emergence as a reflective, lyrically driven pianist following her years on the free-jazz vanguard with Anthony Braxton. Like Peacock, whose calling card is his special combination of sensitivity and strength, she never settles for easy sentimentality in her pursuit of beauty. In the end, Motian’s presence hovers over the proceedings (though the album was recorded in early 2011, months before his death, it’s difficult not to hear Crispell’s tender “Goodbye” as a tribute to him), inspiring the music’s seductive ebbs and flows and subtle strength.