A pair of legendary pianos, two extraordinary pianists and, between them, a breathtaking singleness of groove and invention. Like no other great American jazz pianist today, Larry's playing moves people's hearts and feet. Tony has the same status in Italy. And he's one of Larry's most creative disciples, showing his mastery of gorgeous Impressionist harmonies. That's what makes their longstanding twosome so telepathically tight. Sonically, this album is the only piano duo ever recorded with just two mikes. That makes the timbres and attack of each note incomparably pure. The huge soundstage puts you right between the two pianos. Even better, you get to hear the ultra-rare, legendary 11 foot Fazioli mega-grand. Way beyond Steinway or Bosendorfer, it's simply the most awesome piano — from deepest bass to top octave — I've ever heard.
1. Alter Ego (J.Williams)
2. Annika's Lullabye (L.Willis)
3. To Wisdom, The Prize (L. Willis) -Listen to Sample
4. Just Wait and See (T.Pancella) -Listen to Sample
5. Don't Blame Me (J.McHugh, D.Field)
6. Single Petal Of A Rose (D.Ellington) -Listen to Full Song
7. Alone Together (A.Schwartz, H.Dietz)
8. Blue In Green (M.Davis)
I'm automatically predisposed toward two-piano jazz, and a duo would have to be pretty bad to get me to knock it, but this one is A-1 material all the way! Larry Willis has made a number of recordings for Mapleshade and produced many others. Tony Pancella was born in Italy, has appeared on a dozen CDs, and after spending time on the New York jazz scene and studying with Larry Willis now teaches and performs in Europe. The two reunited at an Italian jazz festival and in 2003 toured Italy as a duo. This disc is the latest edition of eight of their musical conversations.
Unlike jazz improvisers who are thrown together for the first time in the studio for a duo album, Williams and Pancella have an intimate feeling for each other's approach to the keyboard, which comes out in these smooth and swinging improvisations. There are two Willis originals, one by Pancello, an Ellington classic, and the closer is Miles Davis' hit Blue In Green.
Mapleshade records in the analog domain to a highly modded semi-pro tape deck, using minimal miking and many of their own audio tweaks. Then the tapes are processed for DVD with a custom A/D converter at a very high sampling rate. The sound of the two pianos is quite different from other commercial piano duo recordings. It is more realistic and authentic, and the solid imaging makes it easier to pick out the spatial location of the two pianists. If you want to separate the two improvisers even more, listen on stereo headphones. -John Henry
Larry Willis is the more widely known quantity on Alter Ego, a piano duo recording with Italian Tony Pancella, who will be new to most American listeners despite his growing reputation throughout Europe. Pancella studied with Willis 15 years ago in New York City before returning to his native land, and the two remained in contact, beginning their two-piano partnership in Europe during 2003.
Like many piano collaborations, the music can be delicate and lovely, and it can be intensely swinging. After opening with the title track, a James Williams tune, the keyboardists move on to “Annika’s Lullabye” and “To Wisdom, the Prize,” compositions by Willis, and “Just Wait and See” by Pancella, then settle into three standards before closing with the Miles Davis-Bill Evans classic “Blue in Green.” While the original tunes tend to be pianistically busy and dense (not quite enough space for musical breathing room), “Don’t Blame Me” and Duke Ellington’s always beautiful “Single Petal of a Rose,” in particular, and “Alone Together,” offer the relaxed openness that is needed. The bookend pieces, “Alter Ego” and “Blue in Green,” as well as “Single Petal of a Rose,” are enough to recommend this collection, but there are plenty of other moments that will bring joy to jazz piano fans. -Will Smith
Larry Willis is one of those musicians whose name should always be remembered when the subject of terrific and, alas, sometimes forgotten pianists comes up. He has been on the scene for over 40 years — from his early quartet work with Jackie McLean through time with Hugh Masekela, to a stint with Blood, Sweat and Tears and up through the years as a player in the Fort Apache Band and as a sort of ‘house pianist’ for Mapleshade Records.
Blue Fable is named after a tune that Willis wrote for the Jackie McLean album Jacknife in 1965. The number reflects a smart hipness that was certainly evident in McLean’s work, but also tells a lot about Larry Willis. It’s rich with a blues feeling and a sense of tradition, but also stays in the present with smart harmonies and deft rhythmic interplay. Above all, it sounds like a smart jazz group having fun. The horn players — alto saxophonist Joe Ford and trombonist Steve Davis — are longtime associates of Willis’ and play with funk and sass but never as showboaters, listening carefully and beautifully complementing the sterling trio (bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Billy Drummond) on four of the tunes here as well as each contributing a composition.
And a sterling trio it is. They can find the sweetness in a ballad — Willis has always made it a point of learning lyrics and Drummond and Gomez must do the same — and then a minute later, knock your socks off with something uptempo. On “Never Let Me Go” they manage the transition back and forth in the same number. Always at the center is Willis’ strong, individual voice. You can hear that in the opening seconds as the pianist puts his own stamp on Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning”.
Willis does a different kind of playing and listening on the beautifully recorded Mapleshade disc Alter Ego, actually led by the Italian pianist Tony Pancella. This set seems to be a hymn to the rhapsodic as two virtuosos play a handful of tunes that lend themselves to lush, melodic interplay: songs from the standard repertoire plus a few from the artists and one by the late pianist James Williams.
The tone of the session is set from the start on the Williams title tune. It flows forward in increasing beauty and if at first it’s disconcerting to not know who’s playing what, as the tune takes up momentum, it becomes clear that it’s about invention and sound and not a cutting contest. Pancella studied with Willis and so their work together here has a sense of joyous teacher/student exchange. Except that it ceases really to matter which is the student and which is the teacher — both players assume different roles at different times.
It’s when they get to the standards that these men display just how much listening they’ve done and still do, from Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose” to a “Don’t Blame Me” that suggests Monk as done by players with classical training. Every such connection on this lovely album bears fruit. -Donald Elfman
Two pianos, one vision. Tony Pancella and Larry Willis have released a duo album titled Alter Ego and with their flow and beautiful lines, it is hard sometimes to see when they do alter, and that's what makes this album superb.
Dipping into the Miles Davis catalogue for "Blue in Green," Pancella and Willis are almost two Bill Evanses playing together with a touch of Wynton Kelly.
The Willis-penned "To Wisdom, The Prize" is seven minutes of great counter play between the two. No one here takes the lead and now on here just follows. With duo albums it is sometimes clear who leads and who follows.
Duke Ellington's "Single Petal of a Rose" is not played in the Ellington standard. While Ellington could have played this with a flair of swing or stride, Willis and Pancella give it their own rendition. If The Duke were alive today and had a chance to hear this version, I am assuming he would be fully appreciative and give his blessing.
The real core strength of this album is the Pancella and Willis-penned songs. From "Just Wait and See" to "Annika's Lullabye," this duo is spot on. They do a wonderful version of "Alone Together" and for that, they really are and it could be possibly the best way. -Brenton Plourde
It’s quite a complicated task in a piano-duet setting to find the right balace, to avoid sound and harmonic redundancies, and to make the interpretations rhythmically fluent without losing spontaneity and energy. Even the most famous piano legends struggled to express themselves in this context. Pancella and Willis (former student and teacher) brilliantly overcome this challenge because of their shared ability to listen and compliment to one another.
The music flows beautifully, whether swinging or intimate, without ever lapsing into the overabundance so typical on piano duos. Here, the two pianists seamlessly interchange the roles of soloist and accompanist, achieving a singular musical breath that never loses sight of artistry.
Their repertoire (some standards, some originals) is engaging from start to finish: highlights include a delicious rendition of Don’t Blame Me, unusually played in C sharp, and Willis’ Annika’s Lullaby.
The pianist from Chieti has created powerfully duets with this American piano master. -Antonio Jammarino