Two Pianos, Eight Hands

All That Jazz: Jun., 2011

Columns | Philip Ellison | June 2011

It was quite a night for jazz fans on May 10th at the Konzerthaus. Not one, not two, not even three, but four of the greatest living jazz pianists on a single stage! This was the first night with all four performing a post-bop piano programme with bouncy ebullience.

There was a time early in the 1950s when the "piano-less" quartet was all the rage. This night, that idea was turned on its head with a quartet of musicians sharing a pair of pianos, sometimes two by two. The energetic evening ran without intermission, a program in two contiguous parts, concluding with a genuine "come together" round, featuring all of the four soloists.

Benny Green and Eric Reed opened the night with a duet on Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s "Perdido" which gave the audience a taste of what was in store. The tune of course is well-known, a melody little more than a riff and easy, deliberate chord changes, but with room for solo passages. The two pianos, that is, four hands, provided rhythm section and at least a couple of solo voices, giving the tune layers and a sense of dialogue between the two artists.

"Whisper Not" by Benny Golson, followed. Recorded first by Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band when saxophonist Golson was a member, it has become a jazz standard, perhaps best known as a vocal item for Anita O’Day. That may well have been the reason for the success of this duet, with the "second" piano providing the lyric touch.

"Four" by Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, followed. A tune made famous by Miles Davis, in fact wrongly attributed to Davis by many who should know better, it too is a classic.

Benny Green stepped into the solo spotlight on Ellington’s "Warm Valley" which was a brainy choice. A tune Duke Ellington wrote as a showcase for one of his great soloists, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, Warm Valley is a highly sensual piece, which became much more meditative in Green’s hands. Because with Hodges’s horn this seemed a song not about geography, but a more human topography, and the piano transforms it into something transcendant, bringing its poetry to the fore.  Little wonder that in fact "Warm Valley" was the Ellington band’s closing theme on radio.

Eric Reed flew solo on Thelonius Monk’s "Reflections," having recorded it for his own celebratory album, The Dancing Monk. Calling him "America’s Beethoven," Reed admits the difficulty of paying tribute without imitating. As both composer and pianist, Monk was idiosyncratic.

"Monk’s playing and writing are essentially one and the same," said Reed. "Without a thorough cognizance of Thelonious Monk the player, Thelonious Monk the composer remains a mystery." It was with this awareness and respect – along with a sense of fun – that Reed took up the interpretive challenge, finding his own voice, while preserving Monk’s vinegary tang, his rhythmic and harmonic ‘quirks’.  Later in the programme, with duets and four-hand pieces, the task was to avoid the temptation to echo Monk’s piano, rather than capture the characteristic bristling electricity.

Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller opened the second half of the evening’s programme, and their set, with Charlie Parker’s "Yardbird Suite." The tune bears Parker’s nickname, but reflects his fascination with Igor Stravinsky (punning on "Firebird") though it is a Parker original, what critic Gary Giddins calls "perhaps Parker’s most lyrical composition."

While Giddins wasn’t in the room that night, he’d have to agree that Barron and Miller fulfilled the tune’s promise, while adding a warmth that compared nicely to Parker’s fire.

Barron and Miller followed with Benny Carter’s signature piece, "When Lights are Low". However - and here Miles Davis strikes again - it is often played with a new bridge, a permutation attributed to Miles Davis. No one would accuse these two of being purists, or academics, but rather than changing keys and going a bridge too far, the duet steered straight through Carter country.

Another duet followed before Miller stepped out to solo on "I’ve Got it Bad (And That Ain’t Good)" written by Duke Ellington for his musical review, "Jump for Joy". It is a beautiful composition, though many may find it a bit of a steeplechase. That stretch required is, however, what the adept Mulgrew Miller must have found a delight, as he easily navigated the tune’s intervals, delivering a symmetrical reading of a highly emotive song.

Then it was time for the unassuming, but magisterial, Kenny Barron with a solo reading of Eubie Blake’s "Memories of You". Blake was a living legend, with a career that spanned ragtime, stride, and swing piano styles, when he and Barron finally met. By the time Blake hit the century mark in the early 1980s, Barron had entered his prime.

"If I had known I would live this long," Blake apparently told him, "I would have taken better care of myself." While this may be apocryphal, the Barron solo showed what he learned at the feet of the master. Barron played a Tatum-like flood of notes with rocking-chair ease that bespoke the  "stride" connection, the melody cascading rhythmically.

There was another Barron-Miller duet before a closing tour de force, featuring all four pianists playing a jaunty version of "Blue Monk". Probably Monk’s favorite composition, recorded in something like 30 versions, it is perhaps one of his most straightforward tunes. An old-time hummable blues melody, "Blue Monk" reflects the sound of "Jelly Roll" Morton. It was a marvel to watch these four musicians leaping around each other, trading hands and switching pianos, having as much fun as the audience.

The encore was again all four featured on,"Well, You Needn’t". A sparsely constructed tune with only two chords Monk wrote (again) with a young singer in mind, this crack team pushed it through a lively progression, taking it at a brisk tempo. For such skilled improvisers, there was room to move, and the audience was moved to its feet.

"Blue Monk" followed by "Well You Needn’t" ended the night with two wonderful illustrations of bebop at its most joyous, jazz to be celebrated, and a night to be remembered.

Other articles from this issue: