In jazz as in romance two is the magic number, but far too often horn players are shut out of the duo dating pool. More than any other format a twosome allows for free-flowing exchanges and impromptu digressions, liberty fully exploited by trumpeter Ian Carey and pianist Ben Stolorow on Duocracy. As mainstays on the San Francisco Bay Area jazz scene, both players have released critically hailed albums as leaders, but their duo represents a new direction as they investigate jazz classics and American Songbook standards (both familiar and rarely played). Duocracy unfolds as a series of unhurried conversations marked by lively wit, melodic inventiveness, dazzling counterpoint, quicksilver rhythmic shifts, and unguarded beauty.
“It’s super-naked and that was intimidating at first, especially once the tape started rolling, but it’s also really freeing. On my last album I felt like I was trying to build something perfect,” Carey says referring to Roads & Codes, an album selected by many critics as one of 2013’s best releases. “This was about going in and enjoying playing with each other, about playing jazz and seeing what we could come up with, and letting these tunes shine.”
The duo kicks off the session with Walter Donaldson’s lilting 1930 pop tune “Little White Lies,” a song recorded by Ella Fitzgerald but most strongly associated with Dick Haymes. They immediately establish their modus operandi, lavishing careful attention on the melody before embarking on a series of ebullient interchanges, seamlessly trading roles as accompanist and soloist. They find similarly fertile territory in another song recorded before the swing era and then overlooked by the beboppers, Rodgers and Hart’s “You Took Advantage of Me,” a piece that showcases Stolorow’s gift for melodic invention.
They slide into high gear on Ray Noble’s “Cherokee,” a song embraced by the bebop generation. After taking turns investigating the tune’s steeplechase chord changes and engaging in some thrilling high-wire exchanges, there’s tremendous satisfaction in hearing the melody at the conclusion. From the giddy heights of “Cherokee” they glide into the mournful refrain of Gordon Jenkins’s aching ballad “Goodbye,” the album’s longest and most emotionally exposed track. As on Mancini’s “Two for the Road,” a standout Latin-tinged ballad performance that showcases Carey’s gorgeous tone, the partnership is well served by their voracious listening habits.
“One thing that’s great about the Internet is that you can always find interesting sources,” Carey says. “I’d been playing ‘Goodbye’ on and off for a while since I got it off a Sinatra record. Ben heard it on a Cannonball Adderley record. When we started playing it together we went through a long process of listening to a lot of different versions, and ended up borrowing reharmonizations from Bill Evans with Cannonball as well as Nelson Riddle’s classic arrangement for Sinatra.”
Carey credits a satellite radio station focusing on recordings from the 1940s with reigniting his love for vintage pop tunes. Struck by the effortless swing that was the era’s rhythmic default, he and Stolorow decided to keep the duo loose and limber, unencumbered by involved arrangements. Which isn’t to say they shy away from difficult tunes. For sheer guts and bravura technique, the album’s centerpiece is Monk’s treacherous “Four in One,” a famously knotty tune that they navigate with swinging aplomb. They co-wrote the album’s sole original, “Comin’ Along,” an abstract tune built upon the chord changes of Benny Golson’s standard “Along Came Betty.” Closing with a pair of enduring standards, the Gershwins’ jaunty “How Long Has This Been Going On,” and Kern’s masterpiece “All the Things You Are,” the duo departs in a blaze of beauty, refreshing the ubiquitous songs with unfussy eloquence. Combining effortless swing and improvisational smarts, it’s a project that calls out for a second act.
Born on July 24, 1974, in Binghamton, New York, Ian Carey grew up in a house suffused with music and art. His mother, the late Judi Carey, worked as an illustrator and arts fundraiser. His father Philip is a museum exhibit designer and gallery-represented graphic artist with a long-running series illustrating his dreams. Also an adventurous vocalist, he performed in the 1960s with the Gregg Smith Singers, a chorus that frequently worked with Igor Stravinsky and won a Grammy in 1966 for the Columbia LP Ives: Music for Chorus.
Carey’s first musical outlet was singing Baroque works in church, where his exposure to a brass quintet turned his eye to the trumpet. He started on cornet in elementary school, and after the family relocated to Folsom, near Sacramento, California, he took up the French horn. When he showed remarkable facility on trumpet in the 10th grade he was quickly recruited by the high school band teacher, and within several weeks had taken over the lead trumpet chair.
Two years of classical trumpet studies at the University of Nevada in Reno gave Carey the opportunity to play with visiting artists Eddie Daniels and Ernie Watts. Transferring to the New School, he studied composition with Bill Kirchner and Maria Schneider, and trumpet with Cecil Bridgewater, Charles Tolliver, and the late Laurie Frink. Meanwhile, he gained invaluable experience in performances with rising tenor star Ravi Coltrane and trombone veteran Eddie Bert.
After five post-grad years in New York City with a New School degree in Jazz and Contemporary Music, Carey was ready for a change of scene. When a high school friend hooked him up with a summer sublet in San Francisco he decided the time was ripe for a coastal shift. “I met good players right away and started playing,” says Carey, who also found far more satisfying work in his other profession, graphic design.
Quickly recognized as a formidable improviser, Carey performed around the Bay Area with top-notch ensembles like the Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, guitarist Mike Irwin Johnson’s 8 Legged Monster, multi-instrumentalist Adam Theis’s Realistic Orchestra, accordionist Rob Reich’s Circus Bella, and vocalist Betty Fu, which is how he started playing with Stolorow.
Carey made his recording debut as a leader with 2005’s Sink/Swim, an impressive quintet session featuring pianist Adam Shulman, saxophonist Evan Francis, bassist Fred Randolph, and drummer Jon Arkin. By the time he released 2010’s critically hailed Contextualizin’, the band had consciously sidestepped the hard-bop sound by foregrounding Francis’s highly accomplished flute work. Featuring evocative originals and unusual material like Neil Young’s film theme “Dead Man” and Stravinsky’s “Andante,” Carey’s ambitious 2013 release Roads & Codes featured his quintet plus altoist Kasey Knudsen and his most intricate writing yet.
Born in New York City on June 1, 1976, Ben Stolorow lived in Fort Lee, New Jersey and Monterey, California before settling in Los Angeles at the age of 12. He started taking piano lessons at four, and shortly after moving to L.A. he fell in with a piano teacher who revered Bill Evans, a passion passed on to Stolorow. He found his way to Monk on his own and got serious about learning and playing jazz after hearing Cedar Walton with Billy Higgins and David Williams at Catalina Bar & Grill.
He moved to the Bay Area in 1994 to attend U.C. Berkeley, where he eventually settled on a music major and studied piano with Bill Bell, Susan Muscarella, and Dick Hindman. A Hertz Traveling Fellowship put him in the thick of the New York action for six months, and he took advantage of the opportunity, studying with masters such as Gary Dial, Stanley Cowell, Fred Hersch, and James Williams. Out of college he found another important champion in Muscarella, the respected pianist and founder of the Jazzschool in Berkeley.
“Susan was really generous referring students to me, and before too long I joined the Jazzschool faculty,” Stolorow says. “I was able to teach privately and support myself. In the 1990s there was a lot more work, and I was playing little gigs around town. Playing semi-regularly at the jam session at the Dogpatch in San Francisco with Vince Lateano and Andrew Speight really helped me get my playing to a certain level.”
Drawn to a diverse array of musical settings, including numerous world music bands, Stolorow never lacked for work, but around 2005 he decided to refocus on jazz. The discipline clearly paid off on his debut 2008 debut album I’ll Be Over Here, a highly interactive trio session focusing on his lustrous originals with bassist Ravi Abcarian and drummer Greg German. On his 2011 followup with bassist Dan Feiszli and drummer Jon Arkin, Almost There, Stolorow deals more explicitly with song forms.
The partnership with Carey grew out of their gig accompanying Betty Fu, and was fed by their camaraderie on and off the bandstand. “We found we had a lot of interests in common,” Carey says. “In addition to the jazz, we both have a passion for Japanese movies, sushi, and beer. I also ended up doing the design for his first album.”
Those connections probably wouldn’t have led to the duo if Carey hadn’t relocated to the East Bay, just a few miles north of Stolorow. Proximity allowed them to start playing together informally, which led to several gigs at an art space in Berkeley. As they found their musical sweet spot, the duo has turned into a singular improvisational ensemble, unconventional but steeped in jazz conventions. Still, a duo recording wasn’t really on the drawing board.
“We didn’t know we were going to make this album,” Stolorow says. “But we played a couple shows and it was really successful. I had this idea to record to see what happens, and Ian felt, if not now, when?”
“We’re drawn to a lot of the same repertoire, lovely mid-century well-crafted pop tunes,” Carey says. “What makes working with Ben so satisfying he is very into the idea of breaking out of traditional duo roles. There’s a lot left to discover.” •