Assuming they’re coming from an idiom of improvisation that’s at least marginally derived from jazz, it’s very easy to approach piano and bass duets with some predetermined notions. The piano will sound a certain way, the bass a certain way. There will be a readily identifiable division between the two instruments, regardless of the degree of empathy between the players. Bassist Mark Dresser and pianist Denman Maroney have moved radically away from these identifiable sounds and distances; you often hear what appears to be a single hybrid instrument being played by someone of supernatural technique. The duet moves easily between this kind of dialogue and more standard approaches, the sum effect being to construct an extended working palette.
Live in Concert consists of three lengthy pieces. “Starmelodics” runs over a half hour — a dark and challenging tour de force. It’s fascinating to hear a piece where the piano is bowed more often than the bass. Maroney sets up a skittering, jagged backdrop using bow, piano strings that are loaded with metallic sounding objects and ostinato phrases over which Dresser builds a solo of granite sized blocks. The balance subtly changes partway through; at one point, you become aware that the bass has moved toward an accompanying role as the piano “solos.” These figure/ground shifts are made so seamlessly they never interrupt the flow of the performance. Despite its length, “Starmelodics” doesn’t flag, a remarkable achievement when you take into account the players’ refusal to lapse into dramatic effect. “Bozcaada” features Maroney’s fleet piano, its strings at times muffled to create sounds similar to those played on the ieta, ngombi and limbindi — instruments found in Mbuti Pygmy music. Maroney also steers toward guitar-like or banjo-like sounds, using objects places on the piano strings to bend notes much like a slide guitarist. This approach shows up during “Edifice,” and it allows Dresser to solo in a more jazz-like fashion than elsewhere in the program.
But nothing about Live in Concert is left unscrutinized by the duet; ideas suggest new ideas, directions shift as Dresser and Maroney expatiate freely. “Edifice” becomes a sort of film noirish dance piece at one point, a Charlie Haden-ish bass solo at another, a virtuosic piano solo at yet another, and ends in what almost sounds like a jazz performance. Kind of. Ultimately, it’s indefinable, but “Live in Concert” is never less than compelling.