Minamo [Satoki Fujii/Carla Kihlstedt] — Kuroi Kawa [Black River] (Tzadik, 2009)

Minamo, as Fujii and Kihlstedt now call their piano/violin duet, is producing strong music that’s just this side of classical. These pieces combine the stern precision of serious chamber music, opened up with the rhythms of jazz soloing and the daring openness of improvised music. They have an overtly classical sound but tickle my ear the way good jazz improvising does.

The two have performed together since at least 2002 and released an earlier CD, titled Minamo, on Henceforth Records out of San Diego (a label with some really intriguing titles in its young catalogue).

I thought I would favor the longer pieces, but the short snippets on the 18-track Disc One, the one recorded in-studio, caught my ear more. Combined, they sometimes play like multiple movements of a single, thought-out piece, each movement conveying its mood and then stepping aside. Most of these tracks don’t cross the 3-minute mark and stick to one mood or sound, yet they pack the detail of novellas.

“Kagami” (“Mirror”) is a spooky hallway, marked by alien high squeaks of violin and the metallic crash of hands on bare piano strings.  “Suiheisen” (“Between Sky and Water”) is a slow interlude, leading into the playful chamber sparseness of “Koneko” (“Kitty”).

“Kibo” (“Hope”) uses accordion and trumpet violin played in sad, small figures. “Chihisen” (“Between Sky and Land”) plays like a sonata but throws some jazzy chords from the piano, little curveballs in an otherwise slow, emotional sonority.

The five longer pieces (and one exciting 3-minute encore) are on Disc Two, recorded live at the 2008 Vancouver Jazz Festival.  Despite what I said about liking the short pieces, I do enjoy hearing how Fujii and Kihlstedt take advantage of a wider margin of time, whether it’s a slowed-down contemplative seriousness that builds (“Aoi Saka”/”Blue Slope”) or a quiet rustle giving way to an upbeat allegro dance (on the title track, which includes some of the best moments on the album).

The passages of extended techniques that show up on both discs are admirable, but some of the strongest effects come from more traditional playing, whether in calm contemplation or flashy slashing and pounding. You can sense this strongly on the live track, “Midori No Shinkiro” (“Green Mirage”): It has a wispy segment consisting of swirly sounds whispered off of metallic strings, but it’s afterwards, when it settles into a more classical-sounding mood, that it reaches a deeper level of improvisation.