Graded on a Curve:
Carol Liebowitz/Nick Lyons, First Set

In the mainstream, jazz is too often shouldered with retrogressive attempts to capture and recalibrate the syncopation and swing of bygone ages, but a sure sign of the form’s continued health lies in its persistent looking ahead. On their new release First Set, pianist Carol Liebowitz and alto saxophonist Nick Lyons offer eight consistently forward moving improvisations as the duo engage with the past but never fetishize it. It’s out now on CD and digital through Line Art.

There is no shortage of high quality jazz duo recordings, although it also seems true that the intimacy of these dialogues, whether firmly conventional or more outward-bound, tend to be valued primarily by aficionados of the style. As evidence, consider that Interstellar Space, the sublime pairing of saxophonist John Coltrane and drummer Rashied Ali, remains one of the lauded saxophonist’s less celebrated recordings, and that many listeners amass a considerable shelf of Max Roach before getting to Birth and Rebirth, the drummer’s terrific meeting with saxophonist Anthony Braxton.

Some will counter that the above albums belong to jazz’s fertile fringe, but then what about Undercurrent and Intermodulation, two magnificent LPs which if rightly assessed as masterful are infrequently celebrated as highpoints in the careers of pianist Bill Evans and guitarist Jim Hall? No, in eluding the common attributes of ensemble jazz, the art of the improvising duo regularly acquires increased abstraction and depth of feeling that results in intensely personal affairs, effectively making them the antithesis of casual listening.

This is true of First Set, though if abstract and demanding the rapport of Liebowitz and Lyons lacks a forbidding nature and is ultimately quite rewarding. The pianist is the veteran half of the team, having regularly performed solo in addition to extensive collaborating with a wide range of players including multi-reed man Daniel Carter, drummer Andrew Drury, guitarist Adam Caine, and prolific bassist Ken Filiano.

Integral to Liebowitz’s art and is the tutelage of Connie Crothers, a terribly undersung and sadly recently departed (August 13, 1916) pianist who emerged on the scene in the mid-’70s as a student of Lennie Tristano, with the influence discernible on Perception, her enjoyable ’74 debut for Steeplechase. By extension, traces of Crothers’ mature style can be found in Liebowitz’s work, but the bigger impact appears to be a shared desire for solo and especially duo playing.

Crothers has numerous pairings in her discography including Swish with Max Roach, Duo Dimension with alto saxophonist Richard Tabnik, Session at 475 Kent with bassist Michael Bisio, Live at the Freight with the tenor sax of Jessica Jones, and Two with the great alto man Jemeel Moondoc, while First Set is Liebowitz’s third duo recording after Waves of Blue Intensities with tenor Bob Field and Time on My Hands with guitarist Andy Fite.

If the above reads as undue emphasis on the teacher rather than the student, please consider: both of Liebowitz’s prior duo CDs were issued on the Crothers-run label New Artists; all the participants on the younger pianist’s recordings have studied/ played with the older (including clarinetist Bill Payne and violinist Eva Lindal, both figuring on Line Art’s excellent 2015 CD Payne Lindal Liebowitz); First Set documents a performance given in Crothers’ Brooklyn loft on May 20th, 2012; and Liebowitz and Lyons chose to bookend the set with two of Crothers’ compositions.

The connection is undeniably deep, and yet the pianist and saxophonist very comfortably establish their own sonic terrain right from the outset on “Carol’s Dream,” combining the lyricism of Crothers’ piece with a powerful yet unperturbed exchange of ideas; that Liebowitz’s skill and confidence are matched by the acumen and verve of Lyons is essential to the disc’s success, establishing a dialogue of equality rather than hierarchy, which is simply a necessity in the shaping of a successful jazz duo.

This is apparently Lyons’ second recording (following vocalist Cheryl Richards’ If Not for You from 2015), but his utter lack of tentativeness derives from a steady performance schedule in a variety of configurations. Most notably, his 2009 solo performance at NYC’s august music space The Stone drew recommendations and raves; his contribution to First Set makes it easy to understand why.

While a percentage of post-Fire Music improv (duo and otherwise) goes for glorious broke in a manner that can be off-putting to traditionalists, Liebowitz and Lyons’ interactions in “Carol’s Dream” allow the listener to keep its basis as an actual tune in mind. This isn’t to suggest conservatism at hand; instead, it makes sense to reinforce the comparison All About Jazz’s Roger Farbey made to the rich duo achievements of Steve Lacy and pianist Mal Waldron.

There are differences of course. Much of Lacy and Waldron’s joint endeavors concerned rescuing standards from the cocktail heap, but apart from Crothers’ pieces the remainder of First Set belongs to Liebowitz and Lyons as they lean nearer to free improvisation. That’s the case with the concise “Turquoise Echo,” though as she momentarily brings the foom and he traverses the range of his axe, the whole is still recognizably jazzy.

“Twain Shall Meet” finds Liebowitz initially dishing out sturdy note clusters as Lyons wiggles and zags. Having worked up a combined head of steam she briefly redirects into a lyrical passage as he blows in fine counterpoint; their intertwined descent to the finale is one of First Set’s highlights. “The Very Thing” spreads out, with Lyons loaning toward the tuneful, the pair launching from a somewhat balladic place deepened by the horn’s intimate recording. But any “romantic” angles are sharpened as Lyon’s loose, edgy flow surrounds a substantial and captivating solo passage by Liebowitz.

“Ephemera” tightens the duration and gradually builds up a perceptively higher level of energy, key rumble, and horn fluidity; fans of Cecil Taylor-esque ivory thunder are likely to appreciate, but it’s worth emphasizing how Liebowitz and Lyons are both refreshingly unburdened by influence, if by association to Crothers they each reside under the progressively expanding tent of the long-departed Tristano.

To elaborate, Lyons has been compared to Tristano-ite and duo specialist Lee Konitz, and as the disc unwinds the observation feels right-on. “Reverie on a Sunday Afternoon” offers their most meditative exchanges as it leads to an assertive crescendo and placid finish. This makes way for the splendidly songlike flights of the live set’s proper closer “Roy’s Joy,” their delicious cerebral groove underscoring the need for a recording of Liebowitz’s Quintet (of which Lyons is a member).

Following the audience’s appreciative exclamation and applause, First Set concludes with an additional studio track recorded on August 10, 2007. Due to its origin, the back and forth in “Another Time” is a bit more vibrant, and it’s clear Liebowitz and Lyons had their duo bearings totally together five years prior to communicating so deftly in Crothers’ loft. Nearly five years have elapsed since, but their meeting has lost none of its creative spark.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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