These two singular artists have been fitfully playing together for roughly a decade now and they have released a number of albums documenting their incredible duo performances. Notably, their most recent union was for 2021's absolutely killer Made Out of Sound album, but that one was a bit of an aberration for the duo, as it was a studio creation crafted remotely. Happily, Play at Duke captures the pair back together on stage where they belong. The stage in question was unsurprisingly at Duke University, but the album's prosaic title omits a rather significant detail: the performance in question closed out Three Lobed Recording's 21st anniversary festival in appropriately riveting fashion. While both artists rank among my favorite musicians and have truly incredible chemistry as an improv unit, some performances are undeniably better than others and Play at Duke feels like an especially inspired night to me. Moreover, Orcutt and Corsano make a virtue of brevity as well, as there is not a single wasted note or even a hint of a lull in this 25-minute tour de force.
The performance feels like an unusually joyous one right from its first rolling toms and major chords, which makes sense given that the performance was the culmination of a three-day festival in which Orcutt and Corsano were surrounded by great music, a host of their peers, and a sizable audience of receptive fans waiting to be properly blown away. It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment in which I was blown away myself upon hearing the album, but I am confident that it occurred some time during first of the performance's three sections, as the duo quickly strain toward the transcendent and ecstatic (Orcutt's wordless vocal howls tend to be a fairly reliable indicator that a particularly incendiary performance is underway). Naturally, there are plenty of killer licks and technically dazzling drum fills throughout the album, but the true beauty lies less in what Corsano and Orcutt play than it does in how they play it, how they interact with each other, and how they feed off the volatile spontaneity of live improvisation.
Stylistically, the terrain on Plays at Duke will be quite familiar to Bill Orcutt fans: a freewheeling blend best described as sort of virtuosic No Wave blues, though there are occasionally some Hendrix-y touches that feel like a fresh development. I was far more struck by the sheer visceral ferocity of Orcutt's playing, however, as he frequently unleashes fiery frenzies of wild bends, violent twangs, snapping open strings, convulsive riff deconstructions, and rapidly scrabbling fretboard runs. Notably, however, those expected firestorms are beautifully (and seamlessly) balanced with more tender and melodic passages where Orcutt will linger on a single note or chord. While I tend to prefer the more intense passages as a whole, those more feral passages are able to make a deep impact over and over again primarily because Orcutt and Corsano share a virtuosic intuition for effectively manipulating dynamics: intensity waxes and wanes, attacks and decays vary, and a soulful array of other moods are touched upon far beyond "ecstatic volcano." Both Orcutt and Corsano are in peak form on Play at Duke, as it feels like I am hearing two incredible solos at once that are organically intertwined, thrillingly spontaneous, and much, much more than the sum of their parts.