The duo-piano format may be one of the most rarely heard jazz instrumentations. It has been especially rewarding this season, therefore, to have had Marcus Roberts and Ellis Marsalis performing together recently in Pasadena and, on Tuesday night, the equally fascinating combination of Ramsey Lewis and Billy Taylor at El Camino College’s Marsee Auditorium.
Lewis and Taylor are not performers whose styles would ordinarily seem compatible for the starkly open, musically demanding format of two improvising pianists. And there were, particularly in the opening “Moten Swing,” moments when Lewis’ middle-of-the-beat accents had difficulty blending with Taylor’s boppish, on-top-of-the-beat style. In addition, both players’ tendency to employ left-hand simulations of walking bass lines as regular accompaniment to the prevailing solo line created a murky predictability to the improvised passages.
Those caveats aside, however, Lewis and Taylor found many ways to create some memorable music. John Lewis’ “Django” received a reading that perfectly perceived its unusual mixture of classical and jazz elements and “Body and Soul” showcased both players’ ability to create lyrical counterlines.
But the high point of the evening was a lengthy collection of Duke Ellington (and Ellington-inspired) pieces in which each pianist had the opportunity to extemporize. The performance provided testimony to the wealth of the Ellington catalogue and to its ability to trigger superb improvisational activity.
Lewis and Taylor’s view of “Mood Indigo"--collectively and individually--was worth the price of admission. The lovely, almost symbiotic interaction between the duo on this Ellington classic more than compensated for the uncertain fits and starts of their collaboration in the early part of the program.