The history of jazz is the history of jazz musicians. Not composers, in a sense which separates the two. Jazz musicians are the composers, on the spot and on the hoof. So-called jazz standards, which are tunes originally notated for use in a different context – stage musicals and films, for examples – are almost always enhanced when appropriated by jazz players, though jazz musicians have written tunes of their own, which rarely fly beyond jazz boundaries. Jazz, when it’s not self-sufficient, is endlessly accommodating. It was a point illustrated by Welsh pianist Geoff Eales and bassist Ashley John Long at this ‘History of Jazz Piano’ gig for the Black Mountain Jazz (BMJ) club at the Melville Centre for the Arts, Abergavenny.
In many ways it was a jazz ‘recital’, if you will, a form that might be considered a stage in the deferment of actual jazz performance itself. Here, reproduction of different piano styles was the aim, never one that was going to be beyond a musician of Eales’s experience. He studied music at Cardiff University under Alun Hoddinott’s professorship, and was early drawn to jazz. After writing a study of Aaron Copland for his dissertation and a symphony for his doctorate, he embarked on a kaleidoscopic career as a session man and salaried sideman in various pop and jazz-related situations (the strict tempo ranks of Joe Loss, ship’s cruise muso, BBC Big Band), until a millennial late flowering that has seen him record several albums, featuring his own compositions. The musician’s life, when spread around, can be enervating. It’s not many who can put it behind them and then concentrate on musical activities probably representing their true if somewhat frustrated ambitions. Jazz musicians don’t play the Stock Exchange.
Eales and Long had many pianists to choose from, an indication of how jazz has developed in less than a century and a quarter. The first jazz record was made in 1917 and in many ways the history of recording has run parallel with the history of jazz. One of jazz’s core elements, with the Blues, racially-charged minstrelsy and the European classical tradition, was ragtime, here represented by Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag and played how Joplin himself, not a jazzer, would have essayed it, rather stiffly as Eales correctly indicated. Jelly Roll Morton, definitely a jazzer (he claimed to have invented the music) would have attacked it with more abandon, as Eales did. Some pianists have made a reputation from eclecticism, notably Dudley Moore and his almost unmediated worship of Erroll Garner, who was a one-off stylist and, by that token, tempting to impersonate directly. Eales matched each pianist with an associated chart, but his interpretation of Misty in the Garner style opted for a slightly hotter tempo, which enabled him to incorporate some other Garner trademarks. Eales didn’t flinch at the prospect of including the virtuosi Art Tatum and Cecil Taylor in his survey. Long rested as Eales impersonated Tatum’s blurring wizardry in Tea For Two, not forgetting to include the strange lapses into the Stride style, a case of Tatum’s, in turn, not forgetting his immediate antecedents. Perhaps it wasn’t so strange. Taylor, freed of chord changes, melody and the other formal and traditional paraphernalia of music-making, remains a challenge to musician and listener, though he deserves more serious consideration than the commentary gave him here.
Tatum’s forebear, Fats Waller, was saluted in Honeysuckle Rose. More than that: Long, as elsewhere, was given room to exploit the phenomenal dexterity for which he’s renowned and which makes him, in my book, one of Europe’s leading practitioners. That he can more than capably point the bass lines without ornament, as his predecessors would have done in most of the examples Eales chose, might have set those examples more convincingly into context. But once Keith Jarrett (My Song) and Bill Evans (Waltz For Debby) were reached, Long came into his own. Eales recalled that as a child he’d first learned to play a 12-bar blues, then (rather improbably) the blues in the style of Oscar Peterson, so it was Peterson’s Night Train that opened proceedings. Horace Silver (Song For My Father) McCoy Tyner (Passion Dance), George Shearing (Lullaby Of Birdland), Dave Brubeck (Take Five), and Chick Corea (Armando’s Rhumba) joined a procession whose breathless delineation perhaps absolved Eales from telling his audience what to look out for. That can be dodgy with a jazz club audience, by definition knowledgeable.
There were lots of quotes at this gig, from J.S. Bach to Sosban Fach, which for a classically-trained pianist from Aberbargoed was to be expected. There’s enough evidence on records he’s made since 2000 to estimate Eales’s place in the firmament, so this informal trawl, perhaps only possible in jazz, was confined to jovial ventriloquising, itself an acquired art – the ventriloquising, that is. Acquisition is part of the jazz musician’s modus operandi, and enables a reaching-out after originality. That said, it was an entertaining and witty evening. Visit Eales’s website to discover what he’s made of the musicians saluted here. Visit Long’s, too. Welsh jazz? It’s jumping.
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