REVIEW: Allison Miller and Carmen Staaf, ‘Nearness’ (Sunnyside)

Allison Miller and Carmen Staaf share an affinity for incorporating unexpected elements within familiar forms. That was obvious on their previous collaboration, the 2018 album Science Fair, recorded with a trio and quintet. Here, they use it to great effect on a set of piano and drum duets.

Staaf’s deep blues phrasing on “Blue Thrush” would be compelling enough, but the pre-recorded birdsong used as an otherworldly countermelody and Miller’s impressionistic work on cymbals turn it into something simultaneously delicate and earthy. Their approach can even lead to delayed gratification. Hoagy Carmichael’s “Nearness of You” at first seems like an abstract interpretation, with Miller and Staaf establishing a Middle Eastern-inspired groove. Turns out that Staaf’s left-hand rhythmic patterns are so compelling that you almost miss how casually she’s been playing the melody with her right hand, as if she had been hiding it in plain sight all along.

The sprightly, angular rhythm of Miller’s “Beans and Rice” is a showcase for her “melodic drumming” technique, with her accompaniment as well as the end of her solo responding to the tune’s melodic twists and turns initially laid down by Staaf. It’s also the perfect setup for the next piece, their take on Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now.” Miller’s stick work — employing various cymbal techniques and striking the sides of the kit for effect — add an edge to Staaf’s lyrically straightforward reading.

The pair also demonstrates a strong sense of narrative structure. Suggesting a journey in flight, “Birds” builds momentum gradually. Staaf repeats various block chord phrases while Miller occasionally mirrors her melodic patterns, and the piece glides to a close with Staaf’s fluttering lines. After all the varied tales they tell across these 10 tracks, the album concludes with the quiet, contemplative “Chant,” proof that they know how to bring a compelling story to a satisfying end. — John Frederick Moore

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