It was obvious by the third piece. Wayne Horvitz and Sara Schoenbeck’s onstage rapport at January’s Winter Jazzfest hushed the audience and commanded all eyes forward. It wasn’t because their piano/bassoon duet was quieter than the music preceding it; more like the bittersweet ruminations they were essaying had a distinct poetic authority. That cryptic yet charming tone defines their debut disc as well, a well-planned excursion that arrives with the casual feel of an impromptu stroll.
An air of mystery has distinguished the Horvitz palette from the ’80s on, and during the last four decades the 64-year-old composer has nurtured it enough to insightfully tint experiments in classical, jazz, and prog-funk situations. On paper, this new duo is a subset of his Gravitas Quartet, a brass/strings/reeds ensemble with a penchant for making modest maneuvers seem plush. Schoenbeck is key to that inspired foursome, but here her accord with the pianist resonates deeper.
Much of the record’s allure is owed to muted expression. Horvitz’s chamber songs often have a way of declaring themselves with a whisper. The central phrase of “American Bandstand” feels like it’s been floating through the air forever. “Ironbound” is both gothic and spectral, with a stealth drama at its core. Schoenbeck’s pair of tunes are comparatively abstract—I had to check to see if “Marcuselle” was one of the program’s five fully improvised works. Six performances use minimalist electronics for textural options, enhancing the music’s fabric. But Cell Walk’s real attraction is the way these disparate elements are aligned. The bassoonist growls a bit; her partner often relies on silence. “Tin Palace” and “For Lou Harrison” move quickly; “Sleeper Ship” and “Sutter St.” exude calm. Most of the 17 tracks clock in at under four minutes. As they reveal their relationship to each other, each evocative miniature reminds that a sketch can have the emotional impact of a symphony.