Recital Hall, Monday 28 November 2016
Words: Alan Musson
Photos: Courtesy of Bill Shakespeare
I have a print of ‘The Singing Butler’, a work by the artist Jack Vettriano hanging on my wall at home. It features a couple dancing on the damp sand of a beach under a grey sky. The dancers wear evening dress. To the left of them is a maid, to the right a butler. Both hold up umbrellas against the weather. I have always thought that there was something sinister about this print. On the surface, an elegant dancing couple, but the darkening sky above seemingly anticipating an impending deluge. Perhaps all is not quite what it seems at first glance.
In the same way that Vettriano manipulates paint in veiled glazes and meaningful shadows to touch the heart and yet create ambiguity, pianist Marc Copland and guitarist John Abercrombie do so with music. Moving in and out of the shadows, at times bringing their music into sharp focus, at others becoming more impressionistic in their approach.
It seems to be comparatively rarely these days that we see high profile American jazz musicians in Birmingham. I remember the reluctance of State-side visitors to travel immediately following the terrible events of 11th September 2001 and it sometimes seems that transatlantic travel has still yet to return to pre-2001 levels. However, on Monday lunchtime the good folk of Birmingham were treated to a special Celebrity Jazz Recital in the Conservatoire’s Recital Hall by these two virtuosi from across the pond.
Many times during their hour long recital, I felt that they were the dancing couple from the Vettriano print, elegantly pirouetting around each other, but then the elegant symmetry of the dance would be disrupted, more often than not, by the pianist introducing those storm clouds. Long melodic lines would be interrupted by a Bluesy flourish or an unexpected arpeggio leading the music in a different direction sometimes approaching the boundary of free form jazz, but then again almost instantly, the pianist would tease the musical line back into familiar territory and the storm clouds vanish to be replaced by shafts of sunlight.
The duo opened with a deconstructed interpretation of ‘Yesterdays’, a song written in 1933 by Jerome Kern for a now long forgotten show ‘Roberta’. It was an education to see the bones of the tune revealed and gradually fleshed out. The musical telepathy between the two became abundantly clear, borne from a shared history of playing together in various combinations for some forty years.
Copland is an acknowledged master of lyrical jazz piano playing, harmonically inventive and yet always accessible for the listener. Abercrombie has his roots in jazz-rock but for many years has favoured the gentler, more melodic style of jazz but has never been reluctant to experiment with harmony.
Much of the music for the set was taken from an ECM album by Abercrombie album ’39 Steps’ from 2013, a Quartet date with Drew Gress on bass and Joey Baron at the drums in addition to Copland. We were treated to versions of ‘Greenstreet’ named for the famed British actor and ‘Another Ralph’s’ a close relative of an earlier Abercrombie composition – ‘Ralph’s Piano Waltz’.
Abercrombie sometimes displays a spare, understated style on guitar, something of a contrast to his piano partner, who was often more sprightly in his approach. But this was exactly what makes them such a compatible pairing. One leads, the other follows and then they swap roles. The piano would pick up a phrase from the guitar, repeat and rework it, concoct subtle variations upon it and then the guitar would do the same.
It was clear that this was an unrehearsed concert, the two working out what to play ‘on the fly’. Tunes were often not discussed, but pianist or guitarist would play a fragment of a tune and they would then either discard it or go with it, according to their whim.
The near capacity audience made up mostly of music students, as one would expect, sat enthralled until the end of the performance.
The encore was the only other ‘standard’ of the performance ‘Hey There’ a show tune from the musical play ‘The Pajama Game’ from 1954. A song suggested by Copland and which Abercrombie seemed initially reluctant to play, but which brought a tear to this reviewer’s eye and lump to his throat.
For those who missed this recital or those that were present and would like a lasting reminder of the day, the good news is that the duo have a new release due out shortly on Pirouet Records. This is in addition to an earlier set on the same label from 2011.