The piano trio form is expanding in all sorts of directions these days, from the metric perambulations of Vijay Iyer to the deep Zen grooves of The Necks. At last night’s opening gig of the International Piano Trio Festival, a neat bit of programming juxtaposed two bands at the opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum – Nikki Yeoh opened up with a set possibly best described as acoustic fusion, while Cyrus Chestnut offered something hard-swinging and decidedly more traditional, though with some jagged edges.
This was Yeoh’s first Ronnie’s gig for 20 years – the author remembers some great mid-‘90s sessions featuring US groovemaster Keith LeBlanc on drums – and her enthusiasm and excitement were palpable. It’s sometimes easy to forget how much of a thrill playing at the venue was (and is) to generations of home-grown players. It was fascinating hearing Yeoh forging a piano style that very rarely hints at the blues, and she was largely successful in the voyage. She began with an elliptical, Debussy-like solo piece, apparently inspired by Hermeto Pascoal, featuring rich whole-tone clusters and only occasional glimpses of standard harmony.
Then, joined by bass and drums pair Michael and Mark Mondesir, Yeoh embarked on a taut, dense set of complex jazz/rock with a distinctly M-Base vibe. Mark in particular was completely in his element, peppering the material with explosions of China cymbal and classic old-school fusion chops. Elsewhere, ‘Elderflower And Ivy’ was a moving, rubato ballad about ‘summer mourning’, ‘Solo Gemini’ featured an irresistible bass vamp and ‘What Kind? This Kind’ was a minefield of treacherous time signatures. Michael Mondesir demonstrated his mastery of the mid-range bass solo, eschewing chops in favour of always-cogent melodic statements and soulful trills.
By contrast, modern piano master Cyrus Chestnut’s set was serene, but with a controlled intensity that never let up. He demonstrated a sublime touch on the keys, and his all-time-great bass and drums team of Buster Williams and Lenny White brought the quiet fire that has made them so much in demand. Williams has possibly the second-most recognisable bass tone of living bassists (the other being Ron Carter). White’s ride cymbal playing is becoming the apex of all the music he contributes to, as singular as Philly Joe or Billy Higgins, and what a pleasure to hear the reliable thok of his bass drum.
Chestnut’s opening solo demonstrated a remarkably clear line of thought, with a multitude of good ideas and barely an extraneous note. He injected some intriguing non-jazz influences too – White’s composition ‘Dedication’ was prefaced by a take on Mozart’s ‘Sonata In C’, whilst Chopin’s ‘Prelude In C Minor’ was done in Modern Jazz Quartet-style. ‘It Could Happen To You’ simply swung very hard – no mean feat and a very underestimated aspect of jazz musicianship.