What could be more appropriate for Halloween month then a piano duo album by two masters of phantasmagoria? Ran Blake, the iconic noir pianist, may be the drawing card, but Frank Carlberg is no slouch when it comes to disquieting tonalities. Carlberg grew up in Finland captivated by his local amusement park; meeting Blake at New England Conservatory later on springboarded a long association fueled by a fondness for the darkly carnivalesque. Not everything on the duo’s new album Gray Moon – streaming at Bandcamp – is creepy, but most of it is. Much of the time, it’s impossible to tell who’s in which channel. If you’re making Halloween playlists this month, there’s a goldmine of elegantly inspired, lurid material here.
Like the opening number, Vradiazi, which is more or less steady and strolling, Carlberg opening it very simply and matter-of-factly, Blake bringing in dry ice and menacing, Messiaen-ic chromatics. Likewise, the two take an otherwise blithe Carlberg stroll, Bebopper, and add gremlins peeking from just about every corner.
The rest of the record is a mix of reinvented standards, familiar Blake favorites and lesser-known originals. Stars glisten cold and remorseless over low lefthand murk throughout El Cant Dells Ocells. With their tightly shifting rhythm and icepick jabs, the two pianists make a real ghost train out of Take the A Train. Then they bring a sudden yet seemingly inevitable terror to Pinky, an otherwise wistful ballad that descends just as ineluctably into the abyss.
They follow the deliciously twisted ragtime of Blake’s Dr. Mabuse with a raptly spare, desolate take of Round Midnight that would make Monk proud. For all its steady, Satie-esque variations, Gunther’s Magic Row – a twelve-tone reference to the two’s old NEC pal Gunther Schiller, probably – seems mostly improvised.
Stratusphunk, which Blake has played for years, becomes a Monkish swing tune here. The bell-like four-handed insistence of Wish I Could Talk to You Baby seems to indicate that Baby can’t be talked to where she is now. Vanguard, another tune Blake has had a long assocation with, gets an angst-fueled, relentlessly unresolved attack from Carlberg. He goes completely in the opposite direction a little later with No More.
The two slash and stab their way into the sagacious soul of Memphis and then do the same on their way out. Marionettes strut and poke each other vigorously in this particularly uneasy Tea For Two. The final Blake favorite, The Short Life of Barbara Monk is more of a tragic mini-documentary than ever before and one of the most vividly conversational interludes here. The album concludes, sixteen tracks in, with Mood Indigo, sparse and saturnine. Blake and Carlberg each have a ton of good records to their credit, but this is one of the best of both catalogs. It could be the best jazz album of 2020, right up there with John Ellis’ The Ice Siren.