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The pairing came about by accident, really. Both invited to play a jazz festival in Munich with their respective bands, Chick Corea and Gary Burton were the only roster artists to agree to play a jam session on the final night of the event. During a soundcheck, Corea taught Burton his song “La Fiesta,” and the duo played it on stage to a rapturous audience reaction. Among the audience members who fell in love with their spirited, stripped-down performance was ECM label chief Manfred Eicher, who urged them to make a record of what he had just witnessed. “And we said, ‘Oh, come on, who would want to hear piano and vibes for a whole hour without a rhythm section,” Burton recalled in a 2008 interview. “But he kept calling us up and bugging us about this, and finally we said, ‘Well, why not? It’ll be fun, and nobody will pay attention to it, it’ll go under the radar, but what the heck? We’ll do it.’”
Of course, the resulting album, 1973’s Crystal Silence, proved a landmark moment in the lives and discographies of Corea and Burton, who would continue to strike sparks in one another on stage and in the studio for decades to follow. Both reveled in the challenge and camaraderie of the duo, and displayed a preternatural ability to anticipate what the other was thinking, something Burton says was there from the beginning. Well, nearly from the beginning. In 1968, Burton had hired Corea for his quartet with Roy Haynes and Steve Swallow, but they “never really clicked.” After a few weeks, Burton went back to using guitar in his band and Corea joined Miles Davis’ band, the two not really sharing a stage until the Munich fest. “But in the duet setting,” Burton said, “it was instant magic.”
The magic between individual pairs of musicians, in a duo setting or within a larger ensemble, is evidenced throughout the history of jazz. Louis Armstrong enjoyed a resplendent rapport with partners including Earl “Fatha” Hines — as detailed in Larry Blumenfeld’s Blu Notes column — and Ella Fitzgerald. Duke Ellington’s legend was undoubtedly burnished by the contributions of Billy Strayhorn, and the Ellington songbook is unthinkable without compositions such as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Day Dream” and “Something To Live For.” And when a young jump-blues belter named Big Joe Turner joined forces with triphammer piano player Pete Johnson at saloons in Prohibition-era Kansas City, the seeds of rock and roll were sown.
Rock was also in the musical DNA of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, who met at the 1974 Wichita Jazz Festival. Their first recording together, 1977’s Watercolors, revealed a synergy of tones and sensibilities that would provide a blueprint for the fledgling Pat Metheny Group, as well as other projects, for nearly 30 years. Like the best jazz teams, each artist’s work was greatly enriched, if not influenced on a cellular level, by their experiences with the other.
In this issue of JAZZIZ, we celebrate teams and duos that continue to add to the canon with stellar musicianship and deep communication. Listeners might expect nearly telepathic connection between collaborators Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach, whose 50-year relationship is chronicled in conversations with Bill Milkowski. Or with pianist Bill Laurance and bassist Michael League, who have toured the world with Snarky Puppy and discuss their atmospheric new duo recording with Shaun Brady. But how does one explain the seemingly instantaneous combustion that happens between saxophonist Ivo Perelman and the guest reedists who join him, sometimes for the first time ever, on his sprawling 12-disc duo collection Reed Rapture? Ted Panken probes for answers, enjoying the task as much as we hope you will enjoy reading it. - Michael Fagien