Any listener coming to Rewa, the latest release featuring Tania Giannouli, expecting that it will sound the same as the Greek pianist's 2015 ensemble release Transcendence is in for a surprise. The two recordings are dramatically unlike: Transcendence is characterized by strong ensemble performances and the compositions Giannouli wrote for the album, whereas Rewa features improvisations conducted by the pianist in partnership with Rob Thorne, one of New Zealand's leading exponents of nga taonga puoro, and Rattle Records' sound engineer Steve Garden (and owner), who's credited with treatments. It's hardly insignificant that all three are identified as co-composers and co-producers on the project.
Stated otherwise, some adjustment in expectations is needed in coming to Rewa after Transcendence, but said adjustment brings verifiable rewards. The improvisations were laid down over an intense two-day period in 2017 in Athens, less than a day after Giannouli and Thorne met for the first time. She discovered his music through the 2013 release Whaia Te Maramatanga and immediately captivated by his sound arranged to record with him when he visited Greece. In bringing different backgrounds to the endeavour, hers rooted in the Western classical tradition and his stemming from his Maori heritage and the traditional and ancient sounds of that culture, the players pretty much guaranteed that an unusual set of recordings would emerge. Rewa isn't, incidentally, Giannouli's first duet recording, that distinction falling to her 2013 set Forest Stories with Portuguese wind player Paulo Chagas.
With Giannouli playing piano and prepared piano and Thorne generating sounds from ancient Maori instruments, the two realized early on that the optimal strategy was to allow a free flow of musical ideas to materialize instead of imposing frameworks in advance. Garden's involvement proved critical in the way he subsequently shaped their raw material into the album's final form. Her elegant, thoughtful musings illuminate the recording, whether it be a solo setting such as “Triptychon,” where generous pauses allow her instrument's sustain to perceptibly echo into space, or one like “Yfasma,” where the unusual sonorities of her prepared piano commingle with the even more unusual sounds of Thorne's arsenal, some instruments flute-like in nature and others suggestive of sounds emanating from the body.
Some performances are hushed (Giannouli herself correctly characterizes them as “haiku-like”), whereas others are bolder. In the latter category is the album standout “Te Tangi A Mutu,” a mesmerizing, fifteen-minute exercise in deep magic that couples aggressive prepared piano swirls with vibrato-heavy warblings and wolf-like howls. Elsewhere, Thorne introduces “Prisma” with stark wail and shudder, while “Dark Star” makes good on its title when his woodwind figures are countered by the pianist's low-register chord clusters. True to its title, “A Forgotten Land” veritably oozes loneliness in its sparse duo expressions.
The listener is drawn into these methodically conducted performances, which prove especially engaging when every gesture is the product of real-time interactions, and an impression of intelligences deeply engaged is established as these nine exercises unfold. Giannouli is currently preparing an album involving a new trio project (featuring piano, oud, and trumpet) and also working on material for another ensemble album. Until those projects appear, one can derive no small amount of satisfaction from Rewa, which presents the pianist in a more intimate light when the interactions are with but a single other musician.