Larry Willis is the more widely known quantity on Alter Ego, a piano duo recording with Italian Tony Pancella, who will be new to most American listeners despite his growing reputation throughout Europe. Pancella studied with Willis 15 years ago in New York City before returning to his native land, and the two remained in contact, beginning their two-piano partnership in Europe during 2003.
Like many piano collaborations, the music can be delicate and lovely, and it can be intensely swinging. After opening with the title track, a James Williams tune, the keyboardists move on to “Annika’s Lullabye” and “To Wisdom, the Prize,” compositions by Willis, and “Just Wait and See” by Pancella, then settle into three standards before closing with the Miles Davis-Bill Evans classic “Blue in Green.” While the original tunes tend to be pianistically busy and dense (not quite enough space for musical breathing room), “Don’t Blame Me” and Duke Ellington’s always beautiful “Single Petal of a Rose,” in particular, and “Alone Together,” offer the relaxed openness that is needed. The bookend pieces, “Alter Ego” and “Blue in Green,” as well as “Single Petal of a Rose,” are enough to recommend this collection, but there are plenty of other moments that will bring joy to jazz piano fans.