If there’s one truism about jazz duos, it’s that their sparse instrumentation often makes for some moody music. And while that is true for some of Duet, a live album by pianist Satoko Fujii and bassist Joe Fonda, there are also moments on this concert collection where this free-form jazz is anything but moody.
Recorded in November of 2015, at the Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland, Maine, Duet starts with Fujii and Fonda freely improvising for a thirty-seven-minute stretch they call “Paul Bley.” It’s a rather epic piece, one where things do get quiet or somber, though it’s dominated by after long stretches when the two come across as playful or combative or like two cats playing soccer in a small box, simultaneously frantic and working in tandem. But while the audible “whoa” from someone in the audience says more than I ever could, I will note that while this wildly improvised piece veers through a variety of tones and atmospheres, it’s beauty is constant and flowing.
Well, assuming you enjoy freely improvised music. While “Paul Bley” doesn’t get as wild as, say, the nearly hour long version of “My Favorite Things” on John Coltrane’s Live In Japan, or as noisily dissonant as anything on such Charles Gayle albums as Translations or Raining Fire, it’s also not a three-minute ditty driven by a simple melody.
There’s a similar vibe to the other track on Duet, “JSN,” which contradicts this album’s title by adding trumpeter Natsuki Tamura to the proceedings. Though not as long or as wild as “Paul Bley,” this track is also freely improvised, though it mostly goes from high to low as opposed to from aggressive to passive. It also has more layers, thanks to Tamura, who gets as atmospheric and unconventional on his trumpet as Fujii does on her piano and Fonda does on his bass.
It’s a great compliment to “Paul Bley,” but “JSN” also points out the big problem I had with Duet: it left me longing for more. Not just because, between these two tracks, the album is only forty-nine minutes long. Or because I want to hear more improvisations between Fujii and Fonda, and also between Fujii, Fonda, and Tamura. Though both are true.
No, it’s also because it’s obvious that the show they played that November night in Portland is much longer than what we get from Duet. As the press materials for Duet say, Tamura joined Fujii and Fonda, “for the second set.” Which implies that somewhere there’s probably another forty-nine minutes of music from this night, if not more.
Still, if Duet is all we get, then I’ll take it. For now. Because it’s clear that Fujii and Fonda are on to something here, and that they’re on to something with Tamura as well. Sure, it may not all be moody music, but it is quite good. I just hope we get to hear more of it.