Cities and Deserts came together initially in New York City as a set of short songs. These were merged into a longer suite in the New Mexico desert and then recorded in Budapest. Thus the title. The pieces were composed by composer / bandleader Gabriel Zucker. He also plays piano and keyboards, while Attila Gyárfás handles the drums.
Zucker is a unique talent that we have been watching for several years, from 2018’s Weighting to 2021’s album-of-the-year quality Leftover Beats From The Edges Of Time. He merges classical chops and orchestration with outside jazz and touches of free improv seemingly with ease, energy, and direction.
Cities and Deserts leans on Zucker and Gyárfás to fill out its sound, and that they do. The classical and jazz influences are clearly present, but it’s being an album of art songs adds a lateral dimension. Zucker varies between spoken word and plaintive singing, providing folk / Americana overtones. Gyárfás is a busy drummer, heavy on the cymbal-work, and equally comfortable with patterned and patternless percussion.
All of this results in an effort that is offbeat, avant-garde, and technical, while still pulling at the emotions. It is surprisingly hard to put Cities and Deserts in the same category as the piano / drum duets from Cecil Taylor and Oxley, Bennink, Sommer, etc., or those of Fujii / Yoshida, or von Schlippenbach / Johansson. Zucker and Gyárfás certainly can be lumped in with these pioneers, but this album is a different animal and, in many ways, so much more.
Two thumbs up and highly recommended.