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Pizza Express Steinway Festival Day 2-Soho, London,16/04/2010

Photography: Photo of Tom Cawley courtesy of Gerry Walden/

by Tom Gray

April 18, 2010


Our new contributor Tom Gray enjoys the piano duos of Tom Cawley/Kit Downes and Richard Fairhurst/John Taylor plus a special cameo solo performance from Joey Calderazzo

Pizza Express Steinway Festival - Day 2, Soho (April 16, 2010)

Tom Cawley & Kit Downes/ John Taylor & Richard Fairhurst

Playing jazz on two pianos can be a fiendishly difficult undertaking. With 20 fingers and 176 keys at their disposal, there are infinite ways in which two improvising pianists can get in each other’s way. Perhaps for this reason, only a handful of collaborations in this format have ever been truly successful. On Day 2 of the Pizza Express’s Steinway Festival (exclusively featuring piano duos and now in its second year), four great UK pianists provided a master class in how to go about this tricky art form.

Tom Cawley and Kit Downes played the first set, which consisted of originals mostly taken from their recent album, ?Homely’. Both of these pianists possess prodigious technique, but the most impressive aspect of this set was their ability to combine together as one, showing the highest levels of musicality and restraint. At several points, the left hand of one of the pianists hovered patiently above the keyboard for a while, before making a perfectly-judged entry when a space eventually opened in the music. Not once in the set did the pianists clash which other. The empathy between them was perhaps most evident on Downes’ enigmatic tune ?Golden’, which was played with a heavy rubato feel, the two musicians following each ebb and flow of tempo in perfect synchronisation. That these two musicians should understand each other’s musical way of thinking so deeply is perhaps not surprising given that Downes was taught by Cawley for two years.

They also employed a number of interesting textural devices, which kept the listeners’ attention and prevented the timbre of the music slipping into a muddy dirge. The opening number, ?Fireplace’, began with metallic, detuned prepared piano effects, which might have elicited a wince or two from any representatives from Steinway in the audience. At other times in the set, the two traded solos where one pianist played attractively contoured lines in octaves with both hands, singing out over the fuller accompanying voicings of the other pianist. During a lively (and as yet untitled) composition in 5/4 time by Downes, Cawley accompanied his former student using the interior of the piano as a hand drum.

This set didn’t quite encompass the full range of dynamics and tempos you might expect at a gig by either of the pianists’ trios, yet it still provided a highly rewarding experience for those listening closely enough to the exquisitely nuanced musicianship on display.

In the interval, we saw how Icelandic volcanic ash can sometimes be a good thing (at least for the audience). Joey Calderazzo?stranded in London after his gig at the same venue the previous evening?kindly played a brief solo number, which swung hard in his signature style. Five minutes of pure joy.

After this unexpected bonus interlude, Richard Fairhurst and John Taylor dedicated the second half to Bill Evans. In a set which included some of Evans’ best known compositions, John Taylor announced that they were “trying to get inside” the music of the great pianist. They amply accomplished this through some subtle and imaginative re-workings. An impressionistic opening of other-worldly Messian-like chords eventually evolved into the waltz, ?Very Early’.

?Turn Out The Stars’ began conventionally enough before side-stepping into an extended section in an exotic-sounding mode, while the theme of ?Blue in Green’ only surfaced right at the end of a piece improvised over the tune’s cyclical chord sequence, a trick that Evans often used himself.

Like Cawley and Downes’s first set, this was exemplary jazz piano playing, but it might also have benefited from an injection of adrenaline at times. Maybe due to the player’s reverence towards the material it didn’t quite reach the dazzling heights of creativity as the duo between Taylor and Gwilym Simcock, which played at the same festival a year ago. Nevertheless, Fairhurst remains a formidable talent to watch closely. Taylor, meanwhile, showed why he has earned his world-class status; Calderazzo even made a point of staying around to watch the British pianist, who is evidently one of his own heroes.

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