Grand slamming

Soho plays host to the Steinway-2 Piano Festival

Wednesday, 2nd March — By Rob Ryan

Nikki Yeoh-Zoe Rahman-steinway. PHOTO by Nick White

Nikki Yeoh-Zoe and Rahman, March 18 late show. Photo: Nick White

IT is quite a sight to behold, an event that happens but once a year, when two huge, shiny beasts spoon together, like a yin-and-yang diagram, their curves intimately slotted together on stage. No, it’s not some weird cabaret or a bizarre David Attenborough show, I am talking about a brace of Steinway “B” pianos, shoehorned together in the basement at the Pizza Express Soho for the annual Steinway 2-Piano Festival.

This involves a series of duets over 10 days, where a pair of top-notch jazz keyboard players face each other over the lids of their respective instruments and bounce off each other. You could say its duelling pianos, but that is far too aggressive to describe the interplay that goes on. It is more like a conversation than conflict. OK, maybe with the odd raised voice.

That basement must be a problem, though. As regulars will know, there is a spiral staircase from the main dining floor to the jazz area and shifting Steinways is never easy. “On the face of it, it is absolutely ridiculous, but Steinway make it look easy,” says Joseph Paice, who oversees the Pizza’s bookings. “There is no way they could go down the spiral stairs, so they take the legs and foot pedals – and sometimes the lid – off the extra piano [the Pizza already has its own B] and take it down the side staircase that runs from Dean Street. Then they have to re-assemble and, of course, tune it.”


Benny Green, March 19. Photo: Rolf Kissling

This year it is the biggest festival since it started in 2009, although Paice points out two-piano shows were a regular feature of the old Pizza on the Park well before that. “There’s a couple of reasons why this year is a big step up. One was, I got yeses from two of the people I’ve been chasing for years, the Americans Kenny Barron and Benny Green. Both said yes, but they could only do dates nine days apart. So, I had to find them partners and fill in the gaps in between. It was quite straightforward because I owed gigs to people who had lost their shows when lockdown closed the festival just after it had started in 2020.”

Was it easy to find so many participants? And how does he mix and match the players on any given night?

“Most people say yes right away if they can fit it in. I mean, how often do they get to play with another piano player? Bands don’t have two pianists and if they did, the venue probably hasn’t got two pianos. As for pairing them up, I usually ask the first player to give a wish-list of who he would like to perform with. I used to make suggestions, but it has to be someone they admire or have wanted to work with, they need to understand the way each of them voices the piano and then they need to be similar temperaments, to be able to leave each other space and to get on. So, in most cases, it’s best they tell me who they want to be opposite.”

Ian Shaw and Liane Carroll, March 13. Photo: Roger Thomas

Over the years I have seen many of these duet shows and they can be absolutely magic, as when Joe Armon Jones and Ashley Henry improvised a seamless, hook-laden hour-and-half, mostly around the latter’s EP Easter (Ashley is playing this year with Robert Mitchell on March 18) or the always joyous pairing of Ian Shaw and Liane Carroll (this year on March 13). “Well, those two are always great together,” says Paice, “but give them each and piano and it becomes something else.”

 


Julian Joseph, March 12. Photo: Andreas Neumann

It is fair to say almost every style of modern jazz piano gets a look-in over the 10 days, with venerable superstars such as Kenny Barron (March 10/11) and the underrated Kirk Lightsey (March 19), UK heavyweights Jason Rebello and Julian Joseph (March 12), up-and-comers such as Harry Bolt and Chris Eldred (March 19) and quirky pairing like the in-demand Joe Webb (Kansas Smitty’s and others) with the always entertaining Joe Stilgoe – two very different Joes, together on March 16.

There’s also world-class singer-pianists with Dena DeRose and Champian Fulton (March 17) and there are shows where you get to see two duos for the price of one, a proper four-hander. All that, and an American Hot with extra pepperoni on the side.

The full schedule is:

Kenny Barron & Dado Maroni (March 10 and 11 – two shows each night).
Andrea Vicari & Naadia Sheriff / Sam Leak & Ivo Neame (March 12, lunchtime show).
Julian Joseph & Jason Rebello (March 12, two shows).
Ian Shaw & Liane Carroll (March 13, lunch and evening).
Gareth Williams, David Newton, Rob Barron, Robin Aspland, Tom Cawley, & Chris Ingham (yes, all of them! March 14).
Maria Chiara Argiro & Bruno Heinen / Liam Noble & Elliot Galvin (March 15).
Joe Stilgoe & Joe Webb (March 16).
Dena DeRose & Champian Fulton (March 17, two shows).
Robert Mitchell & Ashley Henry (March 18, early show).
Zoe Rahman & Nikki Yeoh (March 18, late show).
Jamie Safir & Nikki Iles / Harry Bolt & Chris Eldred (March 19, lunch).
Bennie Green & Kirk Lightsey (March 19, evening, two shows).
Alex Wilson & Nicky Brown (March 20, lunch and evening shows).

Steinway 2 Piano Festival runs from March 10-20 at PizzaExpress Jazz Club, 10 Dean Street, W1D 3RW
More details and tickets: www.pizzaexpresslive.com/steinway-festival-2022

Bill Friswell. Photo: Carole d’Inverno

JUST in case you prefer six strings to 88 keys, Bill Frisell, that chameleon of the fretboard (jazz, folk, bluegrass, Americana, blues, soundtracks… he covers it all) is playing solo at the Cadogan Hall on March 13.

The show coincides with a new biography about this gifted craftsman: Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer by Philip Watson (Faber). I was initially put off by the sheer heft of the volume and the somewhat hyperbolic subtitle (“The guitarist who changed the sound of American music”) but found it an engrossing and enlightening read, with plenty of interviews from the likes of Paul Simon, banjo and fiddle player Rhiannon Giddens and filmmaker Gus Van Sant.

It sent me back to listen again to his albums both as leader and sideman, especially the ECM ones, which can only be a good thing. Frisell will be signing copies of the book after the gig.

Another consummate heavy hitter from across the water, John Scofield, brings his trio to the same hall on May 16. Tickets for both: www.cadoganhall.co.uk

Homegrown guitar hero Ant Law is at the Vortex in Dalston this Saturday (March 5) as part of a group that features pianist Ivo Neame and shooting star saxophonist Emma Rawicz. The show call Chroma, with tunes inspired by Emma’s synaesthesia, a neurological divergence which means she sees colours when she hears music (two shows, www.vortexjazz.co.uk).

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