The intimate charm of jazz piano/vocal duets

If you were to look at a list of all the vocal jazz albums ever recorded, you’d hardly find any that were just piano and voice. Most jazz vocalists record with the standard piano/bass/drums trio, while other use a guitar-based rhythm section or add horn players. And a lucky few have the privilege of recording with larger ensembles such as big bands or full orchestra. But you’d have to look hard to find the few piano/vocal duet albums.

Which is unfortunate.

It’s unfortunate but understandable. After all, a full rhythm section sounds great and provides a vocalist with a swingin’ and tonally-varied accompaniment. So even if a singer is performing 6 mights a week in a little bar with “just” a pianist, she’ll usually hire a few additional players for her recording. Again, it’s understandable, but I wish that a few more vocalists would record as a duet.

One reason is that most of jazz singing, historically speaking, has been sung with piano-only accompaniment. Jazz singers tend to be employed in small bars and nightclubs where there’s simply no room (or budget) for bass and drums. Even the great Billie Holiday often sang with piano alone throughout her career. The duo setting is how most audiences have heard jazz singing throughout the years and I wish more of this was documented on recordings.

The other reason comes from the intimate nature of duets. By performing together night after night, a pianist and vocalist develop an almost telepathic communication. They react to each other’s phrasing and musicianship much more directly than they would within a larger group. By adding extra forces for the recording, much of what happens musically in the nightclub is lost. Sure, something else is gained, but something is lost, too.

I’m not saying that every jazz vocal recording should be voice and piano only, but I wish that at least a few more were.

The great vocalist Carmen McRae knew this. Listen to her and pianist George Shearing perform “My Gentleman Friend” from their album Two For The Road. They were both famous when they recorded this and I don’t think they actually performed together as a duet. But they both must have worked frequently in duo setting when they were first starting out, and they obviously wanted to capture some of that magic on this recording. It’s also nice to hear George Shearing play a walking bass line, which he didn’t get to do with his own groups. His right hand solo is a little different too. He plays here differently than he does with a bass player so we get a glimpse into another facet of his musical personality.

I hope you enjoy this tune. It’s joyous, swinging, and intimate in a way that trios and larger groups rarely are. Clearly, these two great artists are having fun and enjoying each other’s company!

Are you an aspiring jazz musician? Here’s a wonderful way to develop your listening skills.

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