At first glance, a duet between a piano and saxophone could be considered a challenging assignment for some jazz listeners. Stripped of a rhythm section to anchor the ear, artists who tackle such a formation reduce their sound to its essence while allowing ample space to roam, leaving nowhere to hide if one player steps out too far beyond the other's lead.
Fortunately — but certainly not unexpectedly — no such thing happened at the Blue Whale on Thursday night. Combining saxophonist Ben Wendel and pianist Dan Tepfer, the concert was a summit meeting of sorts between two steadily rising talents on the Sunnyside label.
Wendel may be the more known commodity in L.A., having co-founded the genre- hopping jazz-rock group Kneebody as well as a stint teaching at USC before leaving for a position at the New School of New York. But Tepfer has drawn considerable notice in recent years with his 2010 album Five Pedals Deep" and frequent collaborations with saxophone great Lee Konitz, which included a lauded album of improvised duet recordings in 2009.
Opening with a gently twisted take on Monk's Dream" by Thelonious Monk, the duo circled the edges of the song's familiar, off-kilter refrain, never entirely embracing it until the finish as the two took turns following one another down a lightly sketched path as the two constructed a head-bobbing groove.
A roiling take on Tepfer's Peal, Repeal" fairly justified the Brad Mehldau comparisons as the pianist punched out bright counterpoints over a steady rumble from his left hand. As Wendel's saxophone arced overhead, Tepfer boldly tore the melody into a new, darkened corner, inspiring Wendel to downshift into a low drone underneath his changes. Effortlessly coursing through a seemingly endless series of give-and-takes, the song seemed as if it could expand through the night as it continued to build.
A composer with a restless sonic ear, Wendel switched to bassoon for a churning run through “Simple Song,” which was balanced by an anthemic turn from Tepfer, and “Leaving” from Wendel’s recent album “Frame” missed the original’s dark, percussive drive but gained a new layer of melancholy with Wendel's sighing melodica anchoring the song’s center.
The duo later ventured into a few “tastes” from Tepfer’s profoundly ambitious “Goldberg Variations / Variations” recording from last year, which was co-produced by Wendel. Following the structure of the album, the duo took on a pair of Bach’s knotty originals and followed each piece with looser, improvisation-heavy takes.
After the intricate musical miniatures that at one point found Tepfer alternately crossing his hands over each other in a dizzying display of pace, the duo looked spent — but joyfully so. “How many of those are there again?” Wendel playfully asked Tepfer as he wiped his horn. Upon hearing the answer Wendel replied, “Yeah, two is enough.”
Ben Wendel and Dan Tepfer, Alva's Showroom, 1417 W. Eighth Street, San Pedro. Sat., 8 p.m. $20. (800) 403-3447. www.alvasshowroom.com
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