Duende is a brief (34 minutes) but lovely collection of straightahead duets for piano and bass. One might expect the former instrument to dominate that setting, but it’s no accident that bassist Avishai Cohen gets main billing while pianist Nitai Hershkovits gets a sub-credit. Cohen completely dominates the album (released internationally in 2012 and in the U.S. last year).
No real surprise there: Since his arrival to American jazz in the early ’90s, Cohen has been one of the most distinctive, strongest personalities on his instrument. But it’s odd to hear him leading the charge even when comping for Hershkovits, playing one or two notes per bar (as in “Calm”) or an arco drone (“Four Verses/Continuation”). Given solo space, that’s the end of it: Cohen’s haunting, voice-like sound conquers everything it touches. He puts the swing into the chamber-waltz of “Signature,” injects active emotion into the twilit torpor of “Central Park West,” and all but undoes the stately ballet of “Ann’s Tune” with his nimble-fingered double-time—which pushes the pianist into jolly 6/8 (reminiscent of Vince Guaraldi on “Skating”) as well.
Hershkovits does his best not to be mere window dressing. He has a heavy but lyrical touch, and on Monk’s “Criss Cross” offers more than a hint of real playfulness. Likely Cohen can’t help overshadowing him, and indeed Duende is another tour de force for the bassist. He, however, deserves a pianist who can match and even challenge him, and 24-year-old Hershkovits deserves an opportunity to flex his own muscles. Neither musician gets what he deserves here.