To paraphrase Keith Jarrett, the piano perhaps isn’t the most natural instrument for playing jazz, so conquering the beast with 88 teeth remains a huge challenge and this annual festival of duets always throws up an intriguing potpourri of styles.
Jason Rebello and Dave Newton kicked things off with an engaging if slightly conservative set, featuring hard-swinging versions of ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ and ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’. Rebello’s expansive single-note style contrasted nicely with Newton’s rhythmic precision. Hungarian duo Gabor Cseke and Janos Nagy caught a folky, austere mood with a striking take on Liszt’s ‘Consolation’ in 5/4 and some choice Bill Evans-style lyricism from Nagy.
After the break, Alex Wilson and Cesar Correa presented a tightly-structured Afro-Cuban suite alongside a conga player and bassist. The full-band sections were irresistible but there was far too much meandering during the solos. An astonishingly youthful-looking Gwilym Simcock and Kit Downes delivered a mixture of pastoral minimalism and classic balladry with Simcock’s tangential reading of ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’ a highlight. He also aired his ingenious ‘Antics’, written for the 50 pianos placed around London during last summer’s Olympics.
Alex Hutton and James Pearson provided the most thrilling and well-thought-out set of the festival, a potted history of jazz piano moving through Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano, Oscar Peterson and McCoy Tyner. Hutton’s stride playing and dry Northern anecdotes brought the packed house down before Simcock joined the duo for a sprightly encore of ‘Billie’s Bounce’, reminding us that it always comes back to the blues.