Review: European Jazz Piano Summit in Cologne

European Piano Summit
(Iiro Rantala- photo credit WDR/ Lutz Voigtlaender, Florian Ross, Gwilym Simcock – pianos – KvB -Saal, WDR-Funkhaus, Cologne, October 28th 2010)

Greetings from the Funkhaus (above- free translation “House of Funk”, why not?!). I’m here* for a short festival called WDR3jazz.cologne2010. It lasts four days and is very imaginatively programmed indeed.

It acts as a showcase for German music, and specifically for musicians from the country’s most populous region, Nordrhein-Westfalen – the WDR Big Band will play a sold-out concert tonight.

It also has a strong presence of international musicians, and those with UK connections run through it like the letters in a stick of rock, or the Pennines, or indeed the Rhine.

First, happily bouncing onto the stage last night to start the festival was Gwilym Simcock. Things will be brought to a close this Sunday with a set each from John Taylor with Diana Torto, and from Dave Holland’s quintet.

Last night’s opening gig was a “piano summit” announced from the stage as presenting three pianists announced from the stage as nothing less than “Welt-Piano-Giganten.” Gwilym Simcock may have been lexicographically usurped in the programme by the other two, but he had the privilege of opening the batting for England last night. It was a nice moment. The first copies of Gwilym’s CD which will be released in January on ACTMusic “Good Days at Schloss Elmau” had just arrived hot from wherever, and the producer was in the audience.

It was an evening of contrasts. The three pianists played short individual sets, then as duos, and finally as a trio. Simcock in his solo set played “On Broadway,” and “Plainsong” and “Northern Smiles” from the new CD. It was a very well contrasted, beautifully crafted and much appreciated short programme. Simcock is always moving forwards.

Second up was Florian Ross, an extremely classy pianist and composer born and raised in Cologne, and with a supreme ear for balance and texture.

But a new discovery for me, and the audience’s favourite on the night was Finnish pianist Iiro Rantala. Rantala makes things easy, not least for the writer. There are some obvious externals to coment on: he has a lager-than life, bear-like physical presence. There’s the luxuriant Boris Johnson mop, and a Jamie Oliver presentation style with close-to-the-bone jokes about how he resembles a butcher. He wields the big white towel Pavaroti-style, an implement which doesn’t just get used for mopping his brow, it also energetically – and loudly – serves to clean the piano keyboard. He wears his heart on his sleeve, as in a sincere tribute to mentor and teacher the late Pekka Pohjola.

And there are some serious and strong musical virtues too. They say that all Finns have a singer in them, and Rantala always carries melodic line with conviction and presence. He carries intimate moments well, reducing the Steinway to pianississimo music box within the octave. But once the temperature rises, the Art Tatum runs bring the entire keyboard quickly to submission.

The pianists all explained that they had been relishing the challenge of combining forces, all rose superbly to the challenge of being additive. Simcock had described meetings of pianists as most often happening “like ships in the night.” I didn’t witness a single collision, even in the trios. The first was “Bernd Boogie” a new composition by Simcock written specially for the occasion, with jagged contours. And a final “Bye Bye Blackboard,” started with a beautifully paced solo opening from Florian Ross, involving much inspection and rhythmic attention to all three piano casings and building to an ecstatic volume.

Some people remarked that this was an evening with too many piano keys. An eloquent friend of mine would describe it as the kind of gig where you have to go round and sweep up all the extra notes afterwards. But it was an imaginative, memorable and ultimately very successful way to get a festival out of the starting blocks.

*as guest of WDR.


Categories: miscellaneous

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