Review: Ronnie's piano festival

Three contrasting trios from Ronnie Scott's International Piano Trio Festival impress Dave Jones with their humour, energy and musicianship

From 15-20 August, Ronnie Scott’s in London once again hosted their own piano-trio festival with an appealing and varied programme including Nikki Yeoh, Cyrus Chestnut, Kate Williams, Robert Mitchell and house pianist James Pearson, amongst a total of around 15 sets by various pianists and their trios.

The festival affords an opportunity to bring to Ronnie's exceptional international pianists who have either not performed there previously or at the most only a couple of times over a period of several decades. Thanks to Ronnie's online streaming facility I heard quite different sets by three of these trios, led by some of the world heavyweights of piano, namely Leszek Możdżer, Enrico Pieranunzi (pictured right), and Michel Camilo.

Tuesday night saw the Możdżer, Lars Danielsson and Zohar Fresco trio bring their brand of East European piano trio music to Ronnie’s for the first time, and it was a set to behold. Entering the stage, Możdżer from a distance looked rather like a suited (rather than cape-adorning) young Rick Wakeman, with the keyboard technique to at least match that of his progressive rock keyboard virtuoso counterpart. Możdżer then proceeded to take us through a programme of material that reflected how well he’s absorbed the past few centuries of piano and keyboard music, and at the same time suggested that with the help of Danielsson and Fresco he’s forging a new piano trio music of his own.

Throughout the set Możdżer made maximum use of the house grand piano, whether by his wide range of tone, articulation and dynamics, or via his excursions to the inside of the piano, damping and plucking the strings delicately to great musical effect, in this case treating the piano rather like a larger version of an acoustic guitar. The latter example of technique was no gimmick and served the music, unlike the tendency of some contemporary piano trios to put a laptop on the piano and expect the audience to gasp in awe, either just because it’s there, or because it’s used occasionally for meandering soundscapes that the music could often do without. It seems appropriate therefore that alongside Możdżer and the excellent, idiomatic and seemingly telepathic Danielsson, we have a subtle and delicate percussionist and occasional vocalist rather than drummer, in the shape of Zohar Fresco, who besides beautifully sympathetic accompaniment made telling solo and vocal contributions.

I was reminded of this trio’s outstanding 2013 album Polska by the title track (composed by the leader) being featured in the middle of the set, demonstrating the myriad of influences and subtly dynamic interplay that is typical of their music. The other tunes were a mixture of originals by all members of the trio, including what Możdżer (pictured left) introduced as "…a ballad for music journalists" with the actual title She Said She Was A Painter. This introduction was typical of his quiet humour on the mic, including a deliberately bad attempt to pronounce his own name (fairly unpronounceable for all but the well informed), which was a great ice-breaker with the audience who seemed to warm to him even more as a result. By the time we all too quickly reached the encore it was almost as if it wasn’t needed – the musical statement having already been made with a very stylish and quite beautiful set; not quite perfect if there’s such a thing in musical terms, but extremely close.

Thursday night saw the Enrico Pieranunzi Trio also making their Ronnie’s debut (how did that take so long?) with a slightly more conventional but very distinctive set of largely Pieranunzi originals with the exception of what he described as “…a happy tune in a minor key by Harry Warren” which they played as a jazz waltz, not unlike a number of other tunes in their programme, but then Enrico and his trio have so many different ways of playing in three-time that they still maintain variety overall. Part of the enjoyment of listening to these trios at the festival is the rare opportunity to hear them virtually side by side and the similarities and differences between them seem to become more pronounced. For example, the trios of Możdżer and Pieranunzi have similarities but they differ most in terms of the generally more North American jazz-style execution of Pieranunzi’s trio, although many of Pieranunzi’s compositions sound rather more European than his execution and sometimes for want of a better word sound cinematic, but in a subtle and reflective rather than bombastic way.

Aiding Pieranunzi were French drummer André Ceccarelli (pictured right), who’s had a lot of experience of playing with North American jazz artists, and Dutch bassist Jasper Somsen whose delicate solos were often a little too quiet and worthy of more volume, but that was most likely a technical rather than musical issue. The interplay between all three was engaging and appropriate to the compositions. Enrico initially introduced his tunes in a quite formal classical-concert-hall style by standing in front of the piano and addressing the audience face-to-face, but gradually as the set developed he adopted a more relaxed "walk around with the mic" style of interaction with the audience, utilising his nicely dry humour. This inter-tune banter with the audience is important, as it’s the pianist as bandleader’s only opportunity to communicate directly with the audience at the front of the stage, rather than via the music at the piano bench, where invariably the pianist isn’t facing the audience.

Pieranunzi’s music is based on an intriguing mix of his European-sounding and sometimes classically influenced compositions alongside his more North American jazz pianist-inclined technique (rather than an overtly classical one) and his tendency to often sound like McCoy Tyner, particularly in his more animated modal episodes and side-slipping, and also sometimes a little like Chick Corea with his penchant for a particular use of grace notes in his right-hand phrasing. The influence of Bill Evans is there too, but arguably in a more subtle way than the aforementioned.

Pieranunzi’s dryly humoured comments on acronyms, e.g. BYOB (bring your own bottle), were followed by another of his own tunes, the title of which, Bring Your Own Heart, is based on his own acronym BYOH. Later in the set he featured his composition Tales From The Unexpected, which was composed especially for his outstanding 2013 live album recorded at New York’s Village Vanguard and features another aspect of his playing where he utilises rapid two-handed unison lines a few octaves apart, Latin-style. The closer, The Surprise Answer, featured some very nice drum breaks from Ceccarelli, punctuated by piano, almost Camilo-style.

Speaking of Michel Camilo, he arrived with his Trio Latino to close the festival on Friday and Saturday and judging by the Friday night performance they did so in some style. He, like Pieranunzi, chose to stand up and bow to the audience following the first number and announced his tunes classical style, continuing to do so throughout his set with little deviance to anything more informal, except perhaps towards the end.

This Latin trio is a different line-up from his trio that appeared at Ronnie’s in 2013, which featured Cliff Almond on drums and Lincoln Goines on bass. The Trio Latino, as the name suggests, is an even more Latin-driven powerhouse and perhaps because of the band members’ shared heritage it appears to be even more tight and accurate, if that were possible. In this formation Camilo is joined by Dafnis Prieto (drums) and Ricky Rodriguez (bass). They’re a formidable combination, with Prieto’s drumming so economical but so very accurate and Rodriguez bringing out the best of the other two as part of the section and in the process also offering some tasteful arco playing on the head of Camilo’s Then And Now.

Dynamics take on a whole new meaning with Camilo's trio (pictured left), ranging from the powerfully loud to the extremely quiet. Often these are side by side, which is pretty difficult to achieve with panache when there’s more than one player involved and particularly so when it involves high tempos and a drum kit. The stunning piano introduction to Camilo’s See You Later, a composition which was originally commissioned for and premiered at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, leads into a very dynamic statement of the head with the band and later into a thunderous drum solo. Prieto always seems to be on the right side of that uncomfortable line between wild and out of control, and impassioned but fully controlled.

Following a delicate nod to the great pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona ("The Cuban Gershwin"), the trio returned to the thunderous, then soon after to a very subtle and reflective piano solo introduction. This was followed by a lyrical melody with Camilo sounding a little rhapsodic and even Pieranunzi-like at times, with exquisite technique and a dash of extremely accurate parallel movement block-chording adding further variety.

Before the inevitable but delicate encore, Camilo led the trio through a version of A Night In Tunisia at an even higher tempo than perhaps Dizzy ever imagined, but again the control and accuracy was still there both as an ensemble and in another incredible drum solo in response to Camilo’s insistent piano montuno.

Having heard these three jazz piano heavyweights and their trios virtually side by side, I asked myself are they all that different? Well, they all come from a classical musical background and still exhibit that in their jazz piano playing, and they all also exude some essence of the music of their origins, but to different extents and in different ways. Możdżer is perhaps the most classically inclined, both in terms of playing and compositions, then arguably in this sense it’s Camilo followed by Pieranunzi. The prize for the most clinical but at the same time the most impassioned playing, together with slick delivery, goes to Camilo. Pieranunzi is perhaps the most conventional-sounding in a jazz sense, which is probably not something that I’d have said before this festival. But that’s the beauty of this event, which represents some of the many different international flavours of that thing we like to call jazz side by side and sometimes surprises us in the process.

Photos by Carl Hyde

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