Andrew McCormack and Jason Yarde first explored the sonic possibilities of a piano and sax duo in a one-off experimental set at the Vortex in 2008. Two albums and a clutch of gigs later, their performances have become tight routines made malleable by the security of a close working relationship. Their opening duet, introduced as a “warm-up routine”, shifted texture and mood with contrasting themes and short signposting riffs and showed once again that McCormack’s measured yet flowing piano is a perfect companion for Yarde’s full-toned ebullience on soprano sax.
The same fine balance of structure and freedom continued when the duo were joined by the Elysian Quartet. The first number, “A Nice Cup of Tea”, had three themes, with march-like plunkings and movements in and out of time, as phrases were tossed from piano to sax and then to each string in turn. Slurs swept through the ensemble, ending with a short cello stab.
Over the evening, the Elysian strings decorated melodies with counterpoint lines and provided strong rhythmic support. They fleshed out textures with taut contemporary harmonies and amplified McCormack and Yarde’s dialogue with brief shimmers, glissandi and trills. Midway through the first set, Yarde stressed the quartet’s ability to “improvise with us, as well as play the notes beautifully”, proving his point by getting audience members to choose the notes, time signature and two-word title of the next piece. The process was like pulling teeth, and the title “Pebble Hallucination” wasn’t that smart. But the way the full ensemble stretched, decorated and fleshed out the chosen notes with swirling drones, cat-and-mouse plunks and more besides showed that random musical ingredients can produce order, given enough sensitivity and technique.
McCormack and Yarde have already recorded an album with the Elysian Quartet, the soon-to-be-released Juntos, and this gig came after a UK tour. Over two sets, the expanded ensemble blurred the lines between composition, solo improvisation and spontaneous ensemble effects through to the finale. It began as a twist-and-turn showcase for strings, peaked with Yarde flowing over Stravinsky-like rhythms, and ended when a telepathic cue delivered three short stabs.