Not many performers can pull it off. Vibes and piano together. Two instruments so similar, yet so different, with so many demands and so much potential for disaster. If the players aren't in perfect sync with each other, working with the same mindset, the results can be chaotic, or worse, boring. When you think of vibes and piano duets, few names come to mind. The work of McCoy Tyner and Bobby Hutcherson as well as Chick Corea and Gary Burton serve as notable examples of this rare symbiosis. Recently, Dick Sisto and Fred Hersch tried their hand at the vibe/piano duet game in a concert at Clark-Todd hall in the Kentucky Center for the Arts. If you missed that concert, shame on you. Luckily, that was no ordinary concert, it was also a recording session for the newest jazz release on John Timmons' Ear X-tacy Records, Duo Live.
Sisto and Hersch go back a few years to when Sisto returned to playing after a ten-year hiatus. They met at one of Sisto's gigs where Hersch sat in for a few tunes. One of the musicians on the date, pianist Art Lande, remarked on how good the two sounded together. As Dick says, "It kind of sticks in the back of your mind when another musician says you sounded good with someone you think is great." Sisto later recorded American Love Song, his first album as a leader, with Fred Hersch behind the piano. They maintained contact for some time, then the opportunity arose for the two of them to record again and they decided to go for all the marbles as a duet.
A duet is a particularly intimate format, because you have to trust that your partner won't lead you down some path from which you can't return. Trust is the key, a quality with which Sisto and Hersch are well acquainted. Harry Pickens, another duet partner of Sisto's who is a welcome addition to the local music scene, characterized the concert as "elegant." "Intimacy can lend itself to be elegant," Dick agrees, "If you have a great piano player playing a lot of harmony underneath with rhythmic variation, you just have to fit in with that." Because of that rich harmonic base that Hersch provided, Sisto decided to perform most of the tunes on the album using two mallets instead of four, returning to the tradition of some of the great two-mallet vibists like Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson. This technique makes the vibes more of a melodic instrument- like a horn instead of a piano.
A risk that Sisto and Hersch took was to record the album in front of a studio audience; something that made Sisto somewhat nervous. However on that topic he quotes the 13th Century Zen master Dogen, who said "It's a good thing to do something well in front of a group of people." That's easy for him to say, but another thing entirely to live it out. But the great risk of a live recording also carries great rewards.
Sisto says, "Some of the loosest playing I've done (has been) with live audiences, because they stimulate something that a studio can never do. It's completely different. You play in the studio, the cuts tend to be more precision and you don't take as many chances."
Plus in a live recording, you can't go back and "fix" anything. You either use the track or leave it behind. Fortunately, and somewhat to their surprise, there were more usable tracks than they had anticipated.
The first half of the album consists of tunes by lesser known composers such as Fred Lacy, Toninho Horta and Jack Elliot, with the second half of the disc containing more standard fare. Each of players contributed a tune to the project. Sisto's tune, "Maurice," is dedicated to Maurice White of Earth Wind and Fire fame, with whom Sisto worked in Chicago. Hersch's composition, "The Chase," is a duo blues improvisation in which Hersch plays the head just behind Sisto and showcases their differing approaches to time. The way Dick describes it, "He's very classical. He's not known as a heavy swinger, and I came out of a heavy Chicago swing thing, which I think he likes. And the combination makes for an interesting juxtaposition."
It's an interesting juxtaposition indeed; not a studio recording, but not a traditional "live" concert recording either. It's the best of both worlds, with players whose personalities and musical tastes blend and contrast in just the right ways to provide a pleasing mixture. Fred Hersch is welcome in Louisville anytime, particularly if he's paired with Dick Sisto.
Live alert!!!! Word just came in that the Bill Barnes Trio (also with a new CD out called Zensibility - we'll try to get in the column soon) will host a benefit for the New York Disaster Relief Fund at the Comedy Caravan on December 10 at 7:30. Also on the bill will be Walker and Kays as well as Java Men. Hope to see you there. As always, if you have any news tidbits or general stuff, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com>.
And while you're at it, go out and hear some live music!!!