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Tom Varner: The Swiss Duos

French horn virtuoso Varner has distinguished himself as a prolific and daring composer-arranger through his deep, vibrant work in recent years on the OmniTone, Soul Note and New Note labels. This project, a series of encounters with four of Switzerland’s most individual pianists, focuses more on Varner’s gorgeous tone and uncanny facility on that unwieldy instrument rather than his writing chops. It also highlights his uncommon interaction with George Gruntz, Christoph Baumann, Hans Feigenwinter and Gabriela Friedli in this sparse setting.

On his wonderful Bird-like original “What Is This Thing Called First Strike Capability?” Varner mind-melds with Feigenwinter on a blistering obstacle course of challenging unison lines. Together they toss a musical hot potato back and forth on “Just Call Me Hans” before getting suitably quirky on Monk’s “Think of One.” The terrain is wide-open on Varner’s “Matisse,” which has the dynamic Baumann alternating between ECMish spaciousness and rampaging two-fisted explosions on the keyboard. On the percussive romp “Alien Bug,” Baumann plays a prepared piano to good effect. And on the aptly named “Play” the two affect the animated chemistry of Chick Corea and Bobby McFerrin having some fun in the moment.

Gruntz proves a mercurial spirit on Varner’s “Big George Blues” and underscores Gershwin’s “Summertime” with a bit of spring in his step, then delivers a perfectly bittersweet reading of Jimmy Van Husen’s “It Could Happen To You.” Friedli, the most adventurous of the four pianists, provides a freewheeling aesthetic on three sound explorations, playing it sparse and fragile on “Soft, ” spiky and pointillistic on “Big Fall” and with Cecilesque tumult on “Circuits.”

The whole thing is cleverly tied together by variations of Hans Hassler’s old hymn from the 1500s, one that J.S. Bach did a take on in the St. Matthew Passion. The other unifying thread is the sound of the French horn, an instrument pioneered in jazz by Julius Watkins and taken a few steps further here by Varner.

Originally Published