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According to its critics, the ECM label is a soft-focus New Age venture, yet from its inception it has powerfully advocated the most radical free jazz/improvisation, including albums by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Roscoe Mitchell. Conservative and radical streams converged in Keith Jarrett’s best-selling Köln Concert, but Jarrett is the most lyrical of free improvisers.

This new recording by Iyer and Taborn offers a more challenging kind of free improv. It also has a Chicago connection – the two pianists began duo performance with Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory, and key influences include Chicago pianist Muhal Richard Abrams.

Transitory Poems was recorded live at the Liszt Academy, Budapest. In a Downbeat interview, Iyer recalls asking his partner, ‘How does one think about form… when you’re starting from scratch?’ Taborn responds that when using an existing structure – as jazz mostly does – you have ‘a sort of armature around which you can improvise… But with what we’re doing… you have to discover what the armature is’.

Taborn comments jokingly that when people ask, ‘How do you negotiate [two pianos]?’, the real challenge is negotiating two pianists. Iyer responds that ‘the two-piano problem has basically been solved [by] Stravinsky and Stockhausen’ – that is, the problem of how two pianists can avoid getting in each other’s way.

In light of their latest album, these are fair comments. ‘Kairos’, one of the most effective tracks, begins tentatively, but builds to a gripping rolling climax. ‘Life Line’ offers bluesy probings against a walking bass, evolving into spiky turbulence and then a forbidding vamp. In the final track, ‘Meshwork/Libation/When Kabuya Dances’, intense exchanges push the two-piano format to its limits in a beautifully paced, eventful exhibition of free improvisation as compositional method.

As one reviewer notes, the two pianists together seem less distinctive than they do alone. But I think this shows they are searching together, throwing off their distinctive stylistic mannerisms in a keen-eared, mutually empathetic musical collaboration.

ANDY HAMILTON Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2019 - ©Rhinegold Publishing