This has been done, of course. Among the legends to have played in a piano-and-bass duo are Bill Evans and Eddie Gomez, Chris Anderson and Charlie Haden, Duke Ellington and Ray Brown, and Paul Bley and Gary Peacock, among many others. To be sure, stepping into this format has its pitfalls. Which brings us to pianist Jeremy Woolhouse and bassist Shannon Birchall, a Australia-based pair who push hard against convention even as they effortlessly reanimate the beauty, symmetry and camaraderie that made those earlier intersections so legendary.
Take “Echoes in Emptiness,” which begins the independently released The Scenery of Life Unfolding on a half-lit note as Birchall draws a crepuscular bow and Woolhouse ruminates darkly at the keyboard. The track eventually rounds into a more linear narrative, with Birchall exploring his instrument with a thudding portent while Woolhouse unfurls an intriguing series of asides – before the duo returns to its opening statement, drawing a discreet veil over the composition.
The Scenery of Life Unfolding, issued via Jazz Piano Australia, continues forward in this way, with Woolhouse and Birchall referencing certain rules, while ignoring others. Theirs is a jazz without boundaries, one that stirs in a classical use of space and a progressive penchant for unusual song construction, even as they confirm a latent ability to swing like crazy.
For instance, Woolhouse, the album’s principal composer, says he based “Virtual Affection” – along with the subsequent “Four Hours Our of Heathrow” and “Bubbles Rising” – on the poetry of Lisa Chappel, rather than your typical songbook figure. With this first excursion, the pair engages in an impish, deeply involving interplay: Woolhouse boldly moving out into fresh areas of discovery while Birchall weaves in and out. The results reference the expansive color palette of the opening cut here, yet boast a more decisive propulsion. “Virtual Affection” ends, though, with a sudden exclamation on the bass, opening the door for the more contemplative narrative found on “Four Hours.”
Birchall, the next tune’s initial conversationalist, then moves quietly but determinedly away from the gentle thematic material which served as an initial underpinning. That Birchall never loses his warm, inviting tone through that transition is a wonder. Ultimately, he sets the stage for one of this album’s most generous and heartfelt solos from Woolhouse – even as Birchall, perhaps best known for his work on bass with John Butler, continues sifting each line against his. The results are a wonder of symbiotic music making.
Birchall and Woolhouse first worked together in 2002, collaborating with accordion player Anthony Schultz as the Estuary Three on a tango-themed jazz album titled Thumbnails. They’ve been performing regularly together as a duo since 2011 – and it shows. Woolhouse and Birchall work together on The Scenery of Life Unfolding as if they are two life-long companions, familiar enough to finish each other’s sentences.
They also know when to keep quiet: “Lost Friends,” a desperately sad rumination, makes gorgeous use of those times when the duo isn’t playing, conveying the sense of separation in a way that too many notes (minor though they may be) never could. “Darkening Shadows,” on the other hand, moves quickly away from sentiment into a roiling atmosphere of worry before Birchall and Woolhouse settle into a free-flowing exchange of musical ideas.
Woolhouse begins “Optimist’s Folly” with a sad moment of acceptance before Birchall returns to the bow – giving the song a billowing sense of heartbreak. “Bubbles Rising,” built on a strolling cadence from Birchall, is a graciously realized reminiscence that perfectly conveys the idea of what might have been without resorting to melodrama. Same with “Tears of Summer,” which if anything, feels like a winking rebuke of those who fail to understand the rhythmic cycle of life.
Birchall strolls step for step with Woolhouse as the title track gets underway, in another example of their uncanny telepathy. Even when Woolhouse steps forward for a solo, Birchall manages to remain present and involved without disturbing the pianist’s delicate equilibrium. Finally, there’s “The Third Person,” an impassioned but similarly measured farewell – and one last chance to marvel at their sympathetic, yet utterly cliché-free update of the age-old jazz duo format.