Duet challenge adds to chemistry between jazz pianists

February 27, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Musical duets are usually described in conversational terms, as if it were all simply a matter of point and counterpoint, parry and thrust. But when Dick Hyman gets together with fellow jazz pianist Derek Smith (as they will tomorrow for the Baltimore Chamber Jazz Society), the music they make together is rarely competitive or contentious. Instead, he says, it's more like two minds trying to express a single thought.

"We use great care, and listen to each other very carefully," he says, over the phone from New York. "It's like two people simultaneously telling a story, not interrupting each other or giving the punch line away before the other person is ready to do it. It really is analogous to that, a double storytelling."

Except, of course, that stories tend to follow a fairly well-set course. Jazz, on the other hand, walks the line between composition and invention, with some parts taken for granted and others up for grabs. Naturally, it takes more than familiarity to pull off the sort of "double storytelling" Hyman and Smith attempt -- it takes empathy and trust.

"We are supporting each other in all sorts of ways," says Hyman. "If one person is doing something elaborate in his variations, the other fellow might pin down the basic melody. If one person is playing the top of the piano, the other person would, without even thinking of it, move to the middle or the bottom. If one person is playing rhythm style, the other would do something that contrasts with that.

"Quite often we fall into patterns that we can exploit, quite as though we had worked it out," he adds. "We're often very puzzled about how we accomplish a certain effect. I suppose we know each other very well."

It helps that Hyman and Smith have been duet partners, off and on, for some 10 years now. But Hyman insists that there's more to it than that, an underlying sympathy that keeps their playing harmonious. "Some pianists that I've been introduced to are OK, and some others are clearly on the same wavelengths," he says. "Derek is one of the latter. A lot of jazz players just find a common denominator -- that we all know how to play the blues together, or 'Honeysuckle Rose.'

"With Derek, there's a very wide common basis. But the sum of the thing is what's interesting for each one of us. Each of us goes in a somewhat different direction when we have a great common core, but it's the sum of the two styles that makes the synergy."

Hyman, for example, is an acknowledged master of stride piano, the bustling, two-fisted style popularized in the 1920s by James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith. "It's something that I like to do, and I specialized in it, among other things," he says.

"On the other hand, Derek doesn't do a great deal of stride piano," he adds. "He's more an Oscar Peterson kind of player than I am."

But then, that's just another facet of this duo's chemistry. "We just challenge each other while keeping the game going," Hyman concludes. "We do not want to have what musicians call train wrecks. I've never had anything like that with Derek."

CONCERT

Who: Dick Hyman

When: Tomorrow at 2 p.m.

Where: Park School

Tickets: $20 (limited tickets at the door)

Call: (410) 426-2893.

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