When it comes to giving a concert, pianist Laura Klein and guitarist Tony Corman haven’t seen the inside of a venue together for quite some time, but that hasn’t stopped them from sharing their music.
Performing as the TonaLaura Jazz Duo, the Berkeley couple plays St. Alban’s Parish Hall, live streaming Sunday at 4 p.m. (a show available online through March 7). Presented by Calliope, the arts and social justice organization based at the Albany congregation, the gig is an all-too-rare opportunity for Klein and Corman to reach a wider audience.
Exploring a repertoire encompassing bossa nova standards and American songbook gems, bebop anthems and original compositions, their duo is a loose and limber tandem with a tremendous amount of freedom. For Corman, who dedicated himself to the guitar after a muscle condition derailed his decades-long career as a saxophonist, the uncodified nature of his role is a thrilling work in progress.
“With two harmonic instruments you can do anything,” he says. “I can play single lines. I can play chords. I can add color, or do rhythmic parts. It’s like having a blank canvas that brings out different things that I wouldn’t necessarily play in a trio or quintet or a big band, where you’re part of the orchestration. It’s a learning curve, how to fill it out, keep it varied and alive and responsive.”
Before the pandemic, Klein and Corman could usually be found playing together in FivePlay Jazz Quintet, a group they co-lead that focuses on their original tunes. The band quietly released an excellent album last year, Summer Dusk: The Studio Sessions, that features expanded arrangements with flute quartet, or vocal choir, or the gorgeous singing of Clairdee on the ballad that serves as the title track. Klein also anchors Corman’s Morchestra big band, a vehicle for his vividly imaginative scoring.
“Tony tends to be a maximalist, and I’m a minimalist,” Klein says. “He loves big band orchestration. I love an intimate situations that give me freedom. I love trio, but it’s very codified. The bassist does this and the drums do this. In the duo we’re constantly trading roles.”
They’ve had plenty of opportunities to perform as a duo during the pandemic. Inspired by stories about people in Italy singing from their balconies last spring when the country was locked down in response to the brutal first wave of COVID-19, they decided to start setting up their instruments on their North Berkeley porch and playing every Friday.
“Neighbors started bringing out their folding chairs across the street and it became a socially distanced gathering,” Corman says. “It was good incentive for us to learn tunes and arrangements. We would come up with a theme if we could. Sometimes we’d just play stuff we like.”
They’re looking forward to starting up again, but in the meantime, Corman has taken to creating recordings via the Facebook group Collaboration in Isolation, which facilitates musicians exchanging tracks they’ve recorded. He’s posted several on Youtube, like this lovely arrangement of Vince Guaraldi’s 1962 hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”
“Musicians just want to stay productive,” he says. “With a decent mic and a room, you can record yourself pretty well and it’s fine. These are not products for sale, but we can produce tracks, share and learn.”
Much like the porch concerts, Sunday’s show is designed to welcome all comers while ensuring that Klein and Corman receive respectable compensation. Working with Jazz In the Neighborhood, a Bay Area organization that advocates for fair wages for musicians, Calliope offers $15 tickets for youth and people on a limited income (general admission is $25, and the senior/student rate is $20).