Today I stumbled across a great album that I’m surprised I’ve snoozed on until now, For Phineas by Harold Mabern and Geoffrey Keezer. As such it made me reflect on the art of duo playing and gave me the impetus to revisit this top 10 list. Without any further ado:
1. Clark Terry and Red Mitchell: For Duke and Basie
These are two of the most joyful musicians in jazz history, and Mitchell’s bass style is particularly well-suited to filling in all this space. There are many tracks here (including “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” “Shiny Stockings,” “Moten Swing” and the infectious vocal duet “Hey Mr. Mumbles, What Did You Say?”) that make me smile, no matter what. Note to self, bring to hospital next time I have a medical crisis . . .
2. Jim Hall and Ron Carter: Alone Together
Ron Carter has recorded a number of excellent duo albums with artists ranging from saxophonist Houston Person to accordionist Richard Galliano (and a great one with singer Helen Merrill which technically doesn’t fit into the “instrumental duo” category). This album with Jim Hall, though, is not only my favorite of these but one of my favorite jazz albums, period. It is stunningly lyrical without being the slightest bit wimpy.
3. Max Roach and Anthony Braxton: One in Two-Two in One
If you doubt Braxton’s ability to be melodic and swinging in a more traditional sense or if you doubt Roach’s ability to play cutting-edge drums, then you need this album. If you don’t doubt these things, you probably already have this album.
4. Stan Getz and Kenny Barron: People Time
These are Getz’s last recordings, and Kenny Barron proves to be an ideal duo partner for a 2-album set of melodic and often quite swinging readings of some great tunes, mostly standards. Personal favorites of mine include “I Remember Clifford” and “Hush-A-Bye.”
5. Bill Evans and Jim Hall: Undercurrent.
This album is a perfect match-up of two of the most sensitive, interactive musicians in jazz. It’s almost a toss-up between this one and Intermodulation, their other duo album, but this one wins out due to the emotional weight and the groundbreaking version of “My Funny Valentine.”
6. George Coleman and Tete Montoliu: Duo
I’ll admit to being less hip to European jazz musicians than I probably should be. Tete Montoliu is an exception, though – ever since I heard him on a Dexter Gordon record when I was in high school (Bouncin’ With Dex, which I remember borrowing on cassette from Jimmy Greene) I’ve been a big fan. He and George Coleman made this great, energetic duo record (which I’ve seen under the alternate titles of Dynamic Duo and Meditation) in the Netherlands in 1977. Coleman’s “First Time Down” is a highlight.
7. Charlie Haden and Kenny Barron: Night and the City
Charlie Haden. Kenny Barron. Mostly ballads, with almost superhuman lyricism. This is the way ballads should be played. A case could be made that the world doesn’t need more recordings of “Body and Soul,” but this album presents a compelling counter-argument.
8. Larry Young and Joe Chambers: Double Exposure
With all the Muse albums that have been reissued (in the 90s by 32 Jazz, more recently on ITunes, etc.), why not this one? It is unique (drummer Chambers plays drums, percussion and piano on different tracks) and quite beautiful. The piano-organ duet on “After the Rain” is to die for.
9. Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan: Our Delights
Detroit piano, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Tommy, Hank, Hank, Tommy (okay, there’s also Barry and Sir Roland, and if we’re speaking of Detroit pianists geographically and not stylistically Kirk Lightsey, Geri Allen, Alice Coltrane, etc., but you get the idea). Two of the most elegant pianists ever, and they predictably nail the difficult piano duo format.
10. James Williams and various duo partners: Jazz Dialogues (Vol 1-4)
Okay, this is sort of cheating (as it’s a series of duos, not just one), but it’s my list dammit! This would be a remarkable set of recordings (4 CDs) even if it didn’t carry the extra weight of being JW’s last recording as a leader. There are more highlights than I can count, but some extra-particularly fine moments (not counting duets with vocalists) include “Be Real Special” with Steve Nelson, “Rainy Days and Mondays” with Christian McBride, “Walk With Me” with Rufus Reid, “Le Wizard de Basso” with Ron Carter and “Inner Urge” with longtime musical partner Billy Pierce.