When pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Gerry Hemingway recorded the live album Affinities in 2009, they already been playing together as a duo for nearly 15 years, mostly as the rhythm section (with the bassist Mark Dresser) for saxophonist Anthony Braxton. But playing alone together was something new to them, and the subtle communication they share is immediately apparent. Experienced in going long, the players here opt for seven midrange-length pieces, collaborations that range from dynamic explosions of color to more extensively developed investigations.
Crispell and Hemingway are protean players, able to shift from foreground to background (or to maintain completely equal footing) with admirable dexterity without a sense that one is leading the other. “Shear Shift” appropriates some of the call-and-response playing of 1960s Cecil Taylor-Andrew Cyrille, with the piano establishing and reestablishing motifs, then amplifying them with quick outbursts. Hemingway provides sometimes-jagged, sometimes-assenting commentary. The drummer moves onto vibes for “Axial Flowers,” a carefully repetitive meditation that sounds like a combination Japanese folk music and a music box. “Air” is seven and a half minutes of almost utter stillness, its success is determined by the degree of sustained concentration and communication the players can maintain. They are unflagging here, and the piece is a joy throughout.
However complimentary their playing together, Crispell and Hemingway are very different stylistically. The pianist is quick to exhibit virtuosity; her training is immediately apparent. Hemingway seems less concerned with facility for its own sake, establishing pulse and color by whatever means are available to him. They are joined by their mutual reticence, however, by their allergy to the obvious payoff, and Crispell and Hemingway draw listeners into a deeply personal communication, letting them share what seems like the most private of conversations.