Playing in duo might be one hardest tasks in jazz. With so much empty space to fill and only so many people at work, everything is on display and out in the open. There is nowhere to hide, particularly rhythmically. A strong drummer can provide the pulse upon which an entire band depends, but in a band without a drummer each member needs to have the pulse internalized while remaining in sync. I tried to think of some great duo albums and I don’t think it’s an accident that some of the first things that came to mind were outings with strong, rhythmically centered bassists – Ron Carter playing with Jim Hall or Charlie Haden with a series of musicians on his incredible album The Golden Number – who could provide the necessary foundation for the album.
This recent duo outing with soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome and pianist Jean-Michel Pilc never quite overcomes the challenges of the format. In a set list of mostly standards, the two dance around each other with frequently very sparse playing. Lost in the negative space is a solid feel for time. A rendition of ”Giant Steps” aggravatingly floats around without anchor, variably rushing and dragging. Call it an exploration in tempo, without much else: Newsome’s performance on the track mostly takes the form of an ornamented phrase from the melody played over and over at different speeds.
To their credit, Newsome and Pilc are constantly seeking ways to insert some creativity into the affair, book ending “In a Sentimental Mood” with an arpeggiated interlude out of modernist classical music or inserting sly references to other Monk tunes into “Misterioso” (although, that one’s common enough), and there are times when the album seems full of promise. Newsome’s solo in “Out of Nowhere” is stunning, and Pilc backs him up with strong comping and even a few bars swinging walking bass. Yet, getting to that point requires wading through three and a half minutes of piano mess accompanied by plaintive squeaks from the saxophone. The payoff might not be worth it.