For Jazz Musicians in 2021, Two Was the Magic Number
A host of outstanding duet albums emphasized musicians not only collaborating but truly listening to each other.
The violinist and multimedia artist Laura Ortman stood onstage at the Stone earlier this month clad in a bejeweled paisley jacket with a bow under her arm. She welcomed the crowd with an interested smile, and explained that the music that evening would be “dedicated to distance.” After the set she spoke again, saying that throughout it she had been meditating on the feeling of “never being close enough.”
The first 20 minutes were played only in duet with the pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, and they were probably the most affecting part. The musicians weren’t heavy-handed about the set’s theme, but about 15 minutes in, after a hefty silence, Ortman played a few sharp, playful curlicues on the violin and Alcorn responded with a restive note held in the lower register. They carried on like this for about a minute, and the tension was noticeable from below: two communicators, stuck at opposite ends of multiple spectra at once — melody/drone, high/low, rhythmic/unfixed — finding a way to direct and follow at the same time.
Throughout 2021, I often got the most out of records made by duos, which allowed me to hear musicians not just collaborating but conversing directly. It likely wasn’t just the pandemic that brought me there, or that led to so many great duet recordings this year: We’ve been tunneling toward mutually assured isolation for a long time, embracing a digital existence that has reorganized, among other things, how we talk to each other and how we make music.