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Recorded live in the summer of 2018, this album is a tribute the classic “duo gig” that was so common in NYC when I lived there. Phil is a long time friend and musical colleague (and one hell of a bass player) and I was so happy to feature him in this performance and live recording.
- Track List
Perhaps there is no musical relationship in jazz as intimate as that of a pianist and bassist engaged in a pared-down conversation. It is that configuration that Fries has chosen to pay tribute to, accompanied by bass virtuoso Phil Palombi, on his newest release. Duo Live is a stunning new collection of eight original compositions and interpretations recorded in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Fries—an educator at Western Michigan University—now makes his home.
Duo Live recreates the atmosphere of the “duo rooms” Fries so enjoyed during his early years as a budding jazz musician.
“As a young pianist in New York City I used to frequent clubs like Bradley’s, the Knickerbocker and others,” says Fries, who resided in the jazz capital of the world for more than two decades before relocating. “There were many restaurants that had a piano and would feature live music. Most of these gigs were piano and bass duo gigs, and that setting was fantastic for the attentive listener; the small venue meant you could be just a few feet away from the action. I saw so much amazing music in places like that.”
In Kalamazoo, Fries found himself with the opportunity to bring that cozy vibe to his new hometown. The live recording came together somewhat fortuitously.
“I had just set out to play a concert and it kind of fell together. Phil was coming out to Kalamazoo to work at a music camp, the Keith Hall Summer Drum Intensive, and I thought it would be good timing to have him play here,” Fries says. “The local recording studio, Overneath Creative Collective, offered their space and their piano. They were hosting a series of concerts that were recorded on audio and video. We had a small but enthusiastic studio audience, and the whole event was recorded.”
Fries and Palombi had already shared much history—they both jumped at the prospect of furthering their well-established connection in a new setting. “We started playing together as the rhythm section for singer Curtis Stigers, doing three or four weeks at a time on the road in Europe,” recalls Fries about his long association with the bassist. “From there we just started playing lots of other types of gigs and recordings. He’s a fantastic bass player, and it’s fun to compose and arrange with him in mind, because whatever you throw at him he can play and he will make it his own.”
Duo Live opens with “Loup the Loup,” a sprightly Fries original that immediately establishes the musicians’ tight bond. Originally written for a trio that performed weekly at the NYC venue Café Loup, Fries describes the number as “a fun medium swing tune that has a bit of chromaticism to the chord changes that reminds me of Benny Golson, and then shifts into a sort of quasi-reggae at the end of the form.” (Fries and Palombi can be seen performing this track live on YouTube)
The album’s other Fries composition is “Six and Eight,” a playful tune with world music overtones, named for its 6/8 meter. The rest of Duo Live is filled out with Fries and Palombi’s takes on John Coltrane (“Straight Street”), Wayne Shorter (“Dance Cadaverous”), Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne (“I Fall in Love Too Easily”), Clare Fischer’s “Pensativa,” and J. Fred Coots and Sam M. Lewis’ “For All We Know.” Finally, there’s “Affaire D’Amour,” a wonderful tune penned by Fries’ teacher/mentor, Donald Brown, to round out the program.
“It’s definitely a nod to the music I played on so many gigs in New York City, focusing on the hard bop music of the ’50s and ’60s,” says Fries of the cover material.
“There’s a depth and authenticity to the music of that era that is very important to me,” he adds. “Some of these tunes I have been playing for years; some of them are ‘non-standard standards’ that so many of us in New York would play. Sometimes you get to a gig and someone in the band says, ‘Hey, do you happen to know X by Wayne Shorter?’ Often the answer is. ‘Yeah, kind of. If you play a little of it, I’m sure I’ll remember it.’ And then after a shaky first chorus you’re off and running on a new tune you’ve never played together before—or maybe a tune you’ve never actually played and only heard on a record. “
Whatever songs they tackle together, that rapport between the pair is the music’s most vital component. Simply put, had Fries chosen to work with any other partner, the results would have been radically different. “Jazz performances are shaped so much in the moment,” he says. “Every performance with the same people will come out different, and if you change personnel you of course have differences. I find it most fun to play with people like Phil who come without attitude, where the music is what’s important, and whatever that turns out to be is what you embrace. Now, that said, knowing Phil as long as I have, I was definitely able to shape some of the tune choices and arrangements to take advantage of things I know will work well.”
Fries also credits the Kalamazoo audience for feeding the music with enthusiasm and energy. Some might expect that a Midwestern crowd would bring a different vibe or attitude to a live jazz gig, but Fries found them very appreciative and, he says, “pretty hip.” Since moving to Michigan three years ago, he says, “I’ve learned that this is a great place for the arts. In this case, the audience included some of my students and colleagues from Western Michigan University, plus some folks from the community who just really love to support the live music scene. The audience was responsive, the piano was great, and the acoustics were comfortable. People are really hungry for a different kind of connection to the arts,” he concludes, “and they encouraged us to play our best.”
That much becomes obvious with each new listen to Matthew Fries and Phil Palombi’s Duo Live.
Press release by Jeff Tamarkin
- Loup the Loup
- Dance Cadaverous
- Six and Eight
- I Fall In Love Too Easily
- Straight Street
- For All We Know
- Affaire D’Amour