Art As Conversation NPR's Melissa Block and music critic Tom Moon discuss the thrill of intimacy on three new albums by duos.

Art As Conversation

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And we're listening to a musical conversation.


BLOCK: This is jazz pianist Kenny Barron, with Dave Holland on bass. Their album is one of a batch of new duo recordings that have caught the ear of music critic Tom Moon, who joins me now. Hey, Tom.


BLOCK: And, fittingly, this duo album is titled "The Art Of Conversation."

MOON: Yeah, that's what got my attention first because the duo setting is all about conversation, and only conversation. It completely relies on what the two participants bring and this pianist Kenny Barron is just one of the most fluid and sly and kind of subtlety pianists and Dave Holland, equally veteran bass player, plays the same way and you can hear them listening to each other.


BLOCK: In this tune, which is titled "The Oracle," written by the bassist Dave Holland, you really do get a sense - when it's stripped to just these two instruments - I get a sense of real intimacy between these two players.

MOON: That's right. They have to cover the rhythm, the harmony, the melody and they switch roles really easily but more than that, they're thinking about the interaction and sort of the language they'll use to go back and forth with each other. And we're used to hearing jazz players play in a quartet or quintet. This - it really brings you down to the essence of the music.

BLOCK: Let's listen to another cut from this album. This is the Thelonius Monk composition, "In Walked Bud."


MOON: Yeah, and this is one of these tunes where jazz players played a lot. You would hear it on a duo gig and when you can focus and not have a million distractions, you really hear how attuned they are to each other and the level of exploration that's possible, even though it seems like there might not be that much going on.


BLOCK: That's the album "The Art Of Conversation" with Kenny Barron and Dave Holland. And now let's listen to another new duo recording that you've brought our way, very different sound.


BLOCK: And, Tom, we are banjo on banjo here.

MOON: (Laughter).

BLOCK: This is the husband-wife banjo crazy duo - Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn.

MOON: Yeah, a wonderful new record they've made. They recorded it at home in their basement studio, after the birth of their son Juno, and the playing is just rich and they don't play the same style but they sort of mesh beautifully.

BLOCK: So Abigail is playing claw-hammer or frailing style. Bela Fleck plays 3-finger, rolling, Scruggs style. And you'll hear both of those styles coming together on these tunes.

MOON: Yeah, Bela Fleck has shown time and time again how he can apply this very particular picking style to any kind of music and, yet, Abigail's style is very much like old-time traditional American music and they blend beautifully.


BLOCK: And, Tim, along with their dueling banjos, we also hear Abigail's vocals through a lot of these songs and in this song, "What'cha Gonna Do," we also hear Bela Fleck singing.


ABIGAIL WASHBURN AND BELA FLECK: (Singing) What'cha gonna do? What'cha gonna do? What'cha gonna do? What'cha gonna do? What'cha gonna do? What'cha gonna do when the land goes under the water?

MOON: It's very rare.

BLOCK: Yeah.

MOON: It's sang back with new grass revival a very little bit. It's wonderful to hear them together and it sort of adds to this feeling of, you know, they're just in a room playing and here's what we got.

BLOCK: This is their conversation.


WASHBURN AND FLECK: (Singing)What'cha gonna do? What'cha gonna do? What'cha gonna do? What'cha gonna do? What'cha gonna do? What'cha gonna do when the land goes under the water? Land goes under the water. Land goes under the water.

BLOCK: And the last album that you wanted to talk about, Tom, isn't out yet. It comes out in about a month and this is two guitarists, Nels Cline from the band Wilco and the jazz guitarist Julian Lage. The album is called "Room."


BLOCK: And you're crazy about this one, right, Tom?

MOON: I love this. I think this is just wonderful. It reminds a little bit of the old Chet Atkins and Les Paul duets and it has some frantic energy in it. But I like the way they set up, like, a phrase, or an idea like we just heard, and then they'll go exploring off of that sometimes in free improvisation, which Lage has not done at all. His recorded career has been very much driven by the standards and, sort of, the classic jazz songbook. And here, they're playing off each other and going in places that I didn't expect.


BLOCK: They say on the album, Tom, this was all live - no over dubs. And you do wonder just what that contact must've been, what that connection must've been in the studio for them to be playing like this?

MOON: Well, yeah, because Nels, of course, comes from the world of new music and he's one of these people that plays with Wilco but also can play kind of the avant-garde guitar world gigs. So he thinks in intervals like this all the time - in kind of jagged phrases and stuff that's asymmetrical. But Lage is not that way. He's much more of a traditionalist. And you can feel that he's stretching maybe a little bit to fit into Nels' world and Nels probably moving a little bit toward him. And it's definitely a brokering - a middle place between where each of them are comfortable.


BLOCK: And, Tom, the tune that we've been listening to is titled "Racy."

MOON: Yeah, and at the end of it I love the way that it ends. They sort of return to the melody that happens at the very beginning and they play a little bit around with that and then they get to an end - what seems like an end point - and there hadn't been that much racing. There's been a little scampering.

BLOCK: (Laughter).

MOON: Then all of a sudden they just go ballistic.

BLOCK: They take off?

MOON: Yeah, it's just 10 seconds of genius.


BLOCK: (Laughter) That's from the upcoming album "Room" from Nels Cline and Julian Lages. We also talked about the self-titled album from banjoists Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn and "The Art Of Conversation" from pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Dave Holland. Our music critic is Tom Moon. Tom, thanks so much.

MOON: Thanks for having me.


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