Steinway Piano Festival @ Pizza Express Soho, 26 March 2011

Nikki Iles

Nikki Iles

Judging by the first night of the Steinway Piano Festival, British jazz piano is in good hands.

This was the third annual celebration of the world-famous family of manufacturers, and although jazz piano duets have never particularly been in vogue (apart from some much-heralded ‘70s collaborations featuring various permutations of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett), the format remains an intriguing proposition.

The piano player in a duet has to think ‘rhythm section’ much more than normal, integrating basslines and comping to a far greater extent than if playing in a trio or quartet.

First up on Thursday night was newcomer singer/songwriter Paola Vera performing with Andrea Vicari. Vera’s sultry voice and tasteful playing showed promise though there wasn’t much ‘jazz’ about the sometimes fey songwriting – Vicari’s daring, heavily-chromatic soloing occasionally sounded a little outré for this setting.

Tim Lapthorn and Ross Stanley delivered an adrenalized set full of spiky interaction. ‘While We’re Young’ was a lilting waltz with an intriguing harmony, while Lapthorn’s elegant blues ‘Transport’ brought out the best in both players.

A reimagining of ‘Tea For Two’ in 5/4 was fun and Peter Bernstein’s composition ‘Jive Coffee’ developed into an exciting 7/4 meltdown. Stanley’s comping was rock-solid while Lapthorn’s flights of fancy were always interesting and often delivered with amusing Jarrett-ish vocalese.

But it was Nikki Iles and Kate Williams who stole the show with a perfectly-pitched set. The opener, John Taylor’s challenging ‘Oh’, featured a sparkling solo full of Middle-Eastern promise by Iles. The waltz ‘Summer Night’ was another Iles mini masterclass, this time in rhapsodic Michel Petrucciani mode, while the bebop-tinged ‘Unit 6’ showcased an exciting, horn-like solo from Williams.

Makoto Kuriya and Peter Sarik finished off the evening in grandstanding style. This was the last night of their world tour and it showed, their sheer technical brilliance and infectious camaraderie whipping up the crowd, but occasionally the material was saccharine and a touch cloying.

Kuriya’s ‘Cherry Blossom’ unfortunately sounded more like the music for a Hollywood weepie a la ‘On Golden Pond’ or ‘Terms of Endearment’ than a jazz classic. But no matter – it didn’t spoil this very enjoyable evening of talented ivory-tinklers in the perfect venue for it.

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