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London Jazz Festival 2013

Duncan Heining By

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Enrico Pieranunzi, Julie Sassoon and Stan Tracey—Pianos on the Edge
London Jazz Festival
November 15-24, 2014

The Bishopsgate Institute in the City of London, a few blocks from the Bank of England, might seem an odd place for a jazz gig but—under the auspices of the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston—stranger things do happen. On this opening night of 2013's EFG London Jazz Festival, this double bill of the Enrico Pieranunzi Trio and Julie Sassoon proved an inspired and contrast-ripe pairing that somehow suited this shrine to artisanal and proletarian learning.

Sassoon opened with a solo set drawing extensively on her new CD, Land of Shadows. "What the Church Bells Saw" was profoundly moving and set in context first by the pianist's spoken introduction and then by its opening bell-like chiming. Sassoon makes music that is genuinely evocative of the emotions it describes. These pieces take inspiration from the experiences of her Jewish family in Nazi Germany. At times one senses a mood of almost claustrophobic fear that doesn't lift but is matched by another expressing a determination to survive. In "Land of Shadows," ghosts flicker across one's view and a range of feelings, from a desire for revenge or recompense to another to forgive but not forget, are conjured up. "Forty Four," from her previous CD New Life, on the other hand, becomes charged with a wish to transcend—through parenthood and through music—such horrors. It is intense, profound music that offers its remedies to both trivia and despair.

Enrico Pieranunzi's Trio with drummer Enzo Zirilli and bassist Geoff Gascoyne couldn't have been more different, though Pieranunzi shares a certain European sensibility in his music with Julie Sassoon. What is it that makes the Italian pianist's work so irresistible? One moment, you think it's the incredible melodic lines that flow from his fingertips, the next that it's the sheer driving vigour of his playing. But then you wonder again, if it might just be the form and structure of his compositions, which seem at times to echo an almost sonata-like form.

They open with "Strangest Consequences" with its long open section from 2012's Permutation CD but within moments the trio have picked up the melody and taken it somewhere anew. "Je Ne Sais Quoi" follows. Pieranunzi describes it as a gentle waltz. Yeah, maybe for Astaire and Rogers. It features Gascoyne's best solo of the night but here, as elsewhere it's the combining of these three talents that truly impresses. Pieranunzi may lead from the piano but there's plenty of space in the music for his compadres to stake their own claims. The next tune is a new one and, in a way, it defines Pieranunzi. A bass introduction shifts into a riff as persistent as rain with a strong Ellingtonian feel to it. Dynamic tension is built through contrast—the pace slows like a train climbing an incline only to bubble over into a succession of quicksilver, quarter notes as it crosses the peak. Comparisons here would be both odorous and odious—Pieranunzi is his own man, sans pareil.

The final Sunday of the London Jazz Festival should have seen Stan Tracey lead his quintet through the music on his new CD, The Flying Pig. Illness put the mockers on that but young whippersnapper Steve Melling stepped admirably into the great man's shoes, even transcribing one arrangement that Tracey senior had played from memory. Led by son Clark Tracey, the quintet played through this fine set of new tunes. Given its First World War subject matter, these pieces are surprisingly upbeat—a tribute to the humour and resilience of young men coping with an appalling and unnecessary reality. From the shuffling rhythms of "Weary Willie" and the Latin jazz "Narpoo Rum" through the clumsy grace of the CD's title track to the sumptuous "Ballad for Loos" written for Stan Tracey's father who—at 18—was wounded at the battle in 1915, the music is as rich as anything the pianist has composed. It was beautifully executed by the group with each solo from the frontline of Simon Allen (alto) and Mark Armstrong (trumpet and fluegelhorn) a constant source of surprise and delight and bassist Andy Cleyndert is not both Traceys first choice for nought. His only fault is that he makes it just seem too easy. Shame the older Tracey wasn't there but the guys sure did him proud.

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