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Laurie Antonioli & Richie Beirach: Varuna

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Perhaps least known among contemporary jazz’s great voice-piano duos, with 25 years of shared history, Laurie Antonioli and Richie Beirach are also masters of delayed gratification. The Duo Session, their first album as coleaders, was recorded in 1992 but not released until 13 years later. This overdue reunion was recorded in Beirach’s adopted hometown of Leipzig a decade ago, completed in California in 2012, and at last released in September.

According to Hindu mythology, Varuna is the god of the celestial ocean, a nocturnal deity. He is an ideal overseer of this outré pastiche, an exquisitely daring journey into heart and soul. The co-written opening title track finds Antonioli several million light years away, Beirach twinkling behind her, floating atop that vast, heaven-bound sea. The alchemy continues through “You’re an Angel Now,” an ode, featuring Antonioli’s lyrics and John Patitucci’s music, to a deceased love who remains an ever-present source of comfort, and into a jagged, dark-skied reading of “Summer Night” and a chillingly transcendent “Over the Rainbow.”

The balance of their bizarrely intoxicating playlist alternates between reimagined standards and boldly realized originals. Its apex is the mid-album Resolution Suite, entirely improvised, with bassist Pepe Berns joining the session. The multi-part work progresses from the dawning optimism of the tone poem “Revelation” to the wordless self-evolvement of “Transformation” to the cacophonous climax of “Exaltation.”

Originally Published