By Ed Enright | Published January 2021
Our connections sustain us during the most difficult of times. That’s what makes the release of Firm Roots, a duo project from Chicago-based pianists Chris White and Lara Driscoll, so very appropriate. Roots keep us grounded and nourish our spirits, making them one of the most vital connections of all. White and Driscoll have made it their mission to lay down roots together—not only in their day-to-day lives as a happily married couple but also in the simpatico music they make on this brilliant new album.
Performing on Conservatory Series Bösendorfers, White and Driscoll recorded Firm Roots at Grand Piano Haus in Skokie, Illinois, a classy showroom located close to home that’s known for its inventory of high-end instruments. The album opens with the Cedar Walton-penned title track, a tricky tune with a deceptively catchy melody that rings through loud and clear. “Sábado De Manhã,” an original composition that, like many of the tunes here, the pianists wrote together, is distinguished by a graceful yet prominent melodic line that breezes along over a light, mutually conjured samba groove; the song reflects the couple’s shared interest in Brazilian music. “One Foot First” takes White and Driscoll out of their comfort zones as co-composers as they plunge into the deeper ends of harmony, meter and song form. “Jalophony” is another challenging original that brings out the best in both players: Driscoll opens with an ostinato 3/4 figure while White lays down a 4/4 bass line, establishing an underlying tension and a sense of perpetual motion; they inevitably land on a big “1” together, as the meters come into alignment for the song’s head and solo sections. Driscoll, who’s heard in the right channel of the stereo field throughout most of the album, toys with her lines and teases out phrases as she develops her improvisations, worrying the blue notes that lurk at the heart of this minor-key adventure. White, usually on the left side, crafts more aggressive lines that tend to weave inside and outside the harmony.
Other highlights include the waltzy “I.P.T.” (which the couple performed together at their wedding reception), the intimate “Tu M’as Convaincu” and the album’s closer, a bluesy take on the standard “Willow Weep For Me” that has the pianists engaging in playful back-and-forth that reveals just how deeply connected they are.