August 30 2013
I did a gig last night. As you may know, I like to keep the descriptions of my musical activities to a bare minimum, framing as they do the more interesting parts of the day such as inevitable curries, car-related discomfort and the Seaplanes of the Axis Powers diorama. I also have an absolute aversion to the stuff one finds strewn about the interweb like guano in a bat cave which reads along the lines of “Just done a killing set with Nimny-Noo down at the Gigfornomoney Arms. Really smashed it! Rocks my world, I’m so great, sun currently shining from my backside, great times, lovin’ my life etc”. Therefore I find myself in the unusual position of wanting to extol the virtues of a performance of which not only was I a participant, and but which also formed the main focus of interest for yesterday.
The job in question was to be part of a quartet at the Shepperton Jazz club, featuring the New York pianist John Coliani, pictured above. You’ll notice that his hands are not in contact with the piano here. This is what might be referred to as “Safety Mode”, for from the very first note of the evening to the very last (a distance of some eighteen trillion individual pitches) there was absolute electricity in the air. A good rule of entertainment is that if the entertainer is clearly in command of something which not everybody can do, then the result will be an entire audience held in thrall. Given that the only person on the planet who can do what Coliani does is Coliani, then the effect is predictably devastating. It is as if somebody had taken a time-lapse film of virtuoso piano playing, and then speeded it up to observe the results.
I honestly don’t think I’ve heard a piano subjected to a ride like that in my life. I’ve worked with John before, but it’s been up at Boisdale in Belgravia, where the management provide an electric keyboard. I knew John was fast, but to hear him unleashed on a the Shepperton Jazz Club Yamaha baby grand where the sound is created by strings rattling round in the air, rather than air rattling round in a small speaker was to have an experience of an altogether different dimension, in the same way that you wouldn’t quite get the gist of Pavarotti if all you had of him was a snatch of Nessun Dorma left on an ansaphone message. John can play the piano faster than anyone, for longer than anyone. So much so, that you get the feeling that the design parameters of the piano themselves were being pushed rather too far – had Yamaha had an inkling of his work, I rather feel that they’d have put a computer and some servo motors in there somewhere just to help the poor old piano keep up. I’m sure that on more than one occasion I could just about hear Scotty down in engineering shouting “The crystals cannae hold, Cap’n- she’s gonna blow any second”.
John can also play slower, louder or quieter than anyone too. A piano is an instrument with a colossal dynamic range. Tickle it and it will purr, thump it, it shouts. Most pianists I know shy off of really laying into a piano, as after all, it can’t hit you back. I think that John takes the view that there’s no point having really quiet sounds if there are no really loud ones, and what makes the interest is the contrast. Sharp contrast makes big drama, big drama makes entertainment, and entertainment with that much craft invariably adds up to art. At speed, the detail is as sharp as when the tempo is easy. The repertoire is stunning, and seemingly all available at the flick of a switch, or at least the touch of a key- during our slow rhumba version of Love For Sale, the piano solo morphed into a kaleidoscopic journey through Rhapsody In Blue and West Side Story. In “A Smo-o-o-th One”, Fats Waller met and shook hands with McCoy Tyner. It was terrifying and wonderful at all times.
The English host team consisted of me, Dave Chamberlain on bass and Richard Pite on drums. Most of the time, the chaps wisely provided JC with a steady pulse on which to build his shimmering and sometimes irregular edifices of harmony. Chamberlain scored a notable goal though, successfully managing to insert the theme from Batman into his solo on “The Continental” For my part, I tried to react as best as I could to the piano. Usually, the pianist will lay down an accompaniement which states the harmony, and bounces along with the rhythm. With John, you’re very much a part of a duet, which most of the time he will lead. It’s much more communicative, and you have to stay on your toes. He can imply the riffs of the entire Count Basie Band, and as soon as you’re used to that he’s changed and is feeding you angular stabs like the brass section of Tito Puente. John clearly listens to a huge amount of big band music, and as with virtually anything else can boil the essence of that knowledge into a succinct pianistic jus. As the gig wore on, I realised that jousting was not the thing. He had his brain and a piano with all those keys, most of which he can play simultaneously. I have my brain and a clarinet, which can only do one note at a time, and that’s if the brain is all lined up ok. Realising that it would be a bit like trying to fight off a tiger tank with a tennis raquet and a snowball, I found that the way to make the best music was to react, and try and play in the holes. The performance then became about John’s huge ability to produce symphonic arrangements of things on the spot, and it led us all into previously undiscovered corners.
After we’d done, and I was lying in the corner feebly, I found that John was an Airfix nerd. His own anorak is for the Italian airforce of the second world war. Thank God for that. He’s normal after all. Just for fun, here’s a picture of John with a chair up his nose.