Gary Peacock and Marilyn Crispell made outstanding music together in her trio with the late Paul Motian, the three kindred spirits recording the ECM albums Nothing ever was, anyway (1997) and Amaryllis (2001) – each a modern classic. The New York Times called the pair “two of the most beautiful piano-trio records in recent memory.” The Peacock-Crispell duo project also has a history, albeit one undocumented on disc – until now, with Azure. This extraordinary new album proves that these two musicians’ shared sense of lyricism, their distinctive compositional styles and their profound backgrounds in free improvisation make them exceptional musical partners in the most intimate of settings.
The album’s highlights range from the sublimely melodic (the Peacock-penned “Lullaby”) and lyrically pensive (Crispell’s “Goodbye”) to the athletically bracing (Crispell’s “Patterns”) and folksong-like (Peacock’s moving “The Lea”). Then there are the duo’s freely improvised pieces of astonishing cohesiveness (including “Blue” and the entrancing title track), as well as utterly absorbing solo features for each instrument. The album’s title, Azure, came from Crispell, from “the sense of spaciousness I felt with the music,” she says. “The image of an open blue sea or sky came to me.”
The duo conjured the aura of Azure at Nevessa Production, just outside Woodstock – the town in Upstate New York that Crispell has called home for nearly 36 years. (Nevessa is also the studio where Crispell recorded her 2010 ECM duo album with clarinetist David Rothenberg, One Dark Night I Left My Silent House.) Peacock lives not far away, in more rural environs. Along with their shared geography and longstanding musical ties, Crispell and Peacock have in common a certain life rhythm. “We have a connection via meditation and Buddhism,” the pianist points out. “We have even meditated together while on tour.”
The two musicians have substantial histories playing in ensemble settings, of course – including Crispell with formative years in the Anthony Braxton Quartet and Peacock with his ongoing association in the ever-popular trio with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette. But Crispell and Peacock are consummate duo players, with the bassist having made acclaimed duo albums for ECM with guitarist Ralph Towner and pianist Paul Bley, not to mention other studio pairings with the likes of guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist Marc Copland. Crispell not only has the ECM album with Rothenberg to her credit but many other tête-á-tête recordings with the likes of drummer Gerry Hemingway, drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, saxophonist Tim Berne, saxophonist Joseph Jarman and multi-instrumentalist Stefano Maltese and pianist Georg Gräwe, among others.
“I’ve looked forward to making this album with Gary for years,” Crispell says. “He and I have played a lot of duo tours, and we’ve always wanted to document our partnership – but it just never came to pass. It was so great to finally have the chance to do it.” Reflecting on Peacock’s qualities as a musician, she adds: “Gary plays with huge spirit and soul – he’s a very strong player, but he’s able to be both strong and sensitive. He has been a widely influential musician, of course, and to me, he’s such an integral part of the ECM sound. I have definitely been able to explore the more lyrical side of music with Gary, and I’m more conscious of space and form with him.”
After years as a highly kinetic energy player in a post-Cecil Taylor mode, Crispell has been “moving in a more lyrical direction over the past decade or so, which is nice – it has opened up another dimension in her playing,” Peacock says. “Marilyn has this deep experience as a player in free, unstructured music, different from my long history of playing standards. When I first met her, she really played with a reckless abandon. But I soon found that she has a serious command of the instrument. There is a high level of craft in what she does that is very alluring.”
On Azure, Peacock’s lyrically grooving, deeply substantive “Bass Solo” improvisation leads into Crispell’s melody-rich composition “Waltz After David M,” the album’s most expansive piece. Crispell’s own solo improvisation, “Piano Solo,” is a brief play of shadow and light, with clouds of dark chords pierced by percussive stabs of silver – the ideal introduction to Peacock’s off-kilter piece “Puppets,” which features his arco playing.
Crispell’s favorite moments on the album are the “call-and-response” pieces, the freely improvised “Leapfrog,” “Blue” and “Azure.” She says: “When Gary and I improvise together, there is a lot of trust and close listening, which is very special. And when he goes into a groove or a blues feeling, like on `Blue,’ it’s just incredible to play over. I love it.” For his part, Peacock says: “There is nothing premeditated about those call-and-response pieces – they are very much in the moment. It requires a lot of listening, as I make a statement and she responds and vice versa. You have to have an open mind – even no mind, a clear mind – in order to play music of worth in that way.”
In March, a tribute concert in memory of Paul Motian at Symphony Space in New York City included a duo performance by Peacock and Crispell that was one of the evening’s highlights – a turn on Motian’s “Etude”/“Cosmology” that was an instance of communion at a deep level. On June 14, Peacock and Crispell will perform a duo concert at the Rubin Museum in New York to celebrate the release of Azure.