Emmet Cohen & Danny Grissett, Steinway 2-Piano Festival
(Pizza Express 23 March 2023. Live review by Len Weinreich)
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Evanescent, but indelible… If you were attempting a list of really rare events, hearing two jazz pianists simultaneously on the same platform must be close to the top. But even rarer is hearing two stellar talents playing on two magnificent instruments, well beyond the usual jazz club standard. However, during the past week in Dean Street, Soho, it’s been commonplace at Pizza Express, where the folk who make Steinways had installed two monster grands onto the stage to allow for duo performances.
While the notion of two pianos together is interesting, everything rests on the choice of piano players. It requires a meticulous match of talents. Each pianist must be a seasoned master jazz professional, a gifted improvisor with prodigious chops, enthusiastic artists willing to share, in total rapport with the other. Selfishness is a no-no and mutual respect is in. On Thursday evening, selfishness was out and mutual respect was in full flood.
The privileged audience was there to hear U.S.-born masters Danny Grissett and Emmet Cohen and, towards the end of their stunning first set, Cohen mused aloud about the evanescence of their efforts. “V.S.O.P”, he said, “what you’ve been hearing is V.S.O.P.: Very Special One-time Performances. They vanish into thin air. But,” he added, “the jazz values of peace and love endure and can be very healing in tough times”.
The adoring audience agreed unequivocally because, if anyone should know, guru Cohen was probably the first jazz musician to overcome the effects of the pandemic by exploiting the advantages of digital development. Coincidentally, as if to underscore the event, the date of the gig, March 23, was also the third anniversary of the start of his legendary “Live From Emmet’s Place” internet streaming series, which has now amassed 23 million streams.
Furthermore, he observed that “two pianos together are like two orchestras”. The twin Steinway B grands commanding the stage offered a total of 176 expertly tuned notes, all highly responsive to the two performer’s unique combinations of touch, instinct, anticipation, humour and experience, all dialled up to 11. Astonishingly, both Grissett and Cohen had only met musically for the first time three hours earlier that very afternoon to plan and arrange the shape of the gig (“enough structure and enough freedom”, explained Cohen, “really fresh. It’s like a first date and I’m having a great time”).
At 7:00pm, they took off, twenty digits blazing to extraordinary effect. Locking into a private ESP network, they batted themes to and fro with lightning dexterity, one comping while the other wove ambitious arabesques. At other times, during fortissimo unison passages, the effect resembled the Basie band in full cry. They launched into a buoyant ‘Stompin’ At The Savoy’, Grissett interpolating a fragment of‘La Marseillaise’ in the treble while Cohen riffed a rhythmic bass figure to audience delight. Eventually, they shifted into a passage of thunderous tutti chords, before segueing into a lengthy shared coda almost as if neither wanted to let go of Edgar Sampson’s celebrated theme.
Throughout the set, both pianists drew on jazz piano history. Their repertoire saluted every generation of piano elders, paying due respect to composers and influences like Johnson, Waller, Hines, Powell, Walton and Monk. The second item, introduced with meaty chords interrupted by sudden pauses and synchronised hand-clapping, was a medley of Cedar Walton’s compositions, ‘Hindsight’ and ‘Holy Land’. Then they accelerated into a warp-speed version of Rodgers and Hart’s ‘Lover’, a tour de force of pianistic ping pong, swapping ideas at what Harlem-based Cohen boasted as “New York jam session burner tempo”, in an amicable side-swipe at Grissett’s supposedly sleepy Vienna home, far from Big Apple action. The pace subsided for Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Two Sleepy People’, popularised by the mighty Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller whose expansive spirit seemed to hover over the event. Grissett offered a subtle out-of-tempo intro while Cohen unveiled graceful harmonies, both performers recalling Waller’s luminous treble trills and figures, trailing traces of Percy Grainger’s ‘English Country Garden’, Rodgers and Hart’s ‘Manhattan’, luscious whole-tone passages and an elegiac finish that had Grissett nodding his head blissfully.
Cohen left the stage for Danny Grissett’s solo spot featuring his original composition, ‘Lament for Bobby’, with its tricky time signature and moody impressionism which silenced even the most harried restaurant waiters. Then Cohen re-joined for a jaunty ‘Old Devil Moon’ by Burton Lane and Yip Harburg, garlanded with deconstructed dissonances, cross rhythms, dense chord clusters interspersed with agile runs and a finale that had the theme see-sawing between the duo.
For a moment before his solo turn, Cohen revealed that, with a home in New York’s Harlem, he could still sense the ghosts of the ‘ticklers’, the mythic piano professors who rocked boisterous rent parties. And then he demonstrated the formidable resilience of jazz keyboard tradition by tackling ‘Carolina Shout’, the monumental classic by James P. Johnson, Harlem tickler supremo. It was nothing short of a dazzling masterclass in powerhouse stride technique, steadily layering to a spectacular climax. The utterly attentive house erupted in pleasure.
Grissett’s return to the piano stool for the penultimate number marked the moment for a blues. Their wise choice was Thelonious Monk’s brooding ‘Blue Monk’. Grissett, first to solo, took the decision to bare his soul publicly, an outpouring of emotion that was authentic, honest, down-home, thoughtful and direct, never resorting to sentiment or blues cliché. Seldom have I heard a jazz statement so moving. The audience agreed and raised the roof. It could have been a tough act to follow, but Cohen, who’d been visibly digging Grissett’s heartfelt ‘cry’, seized the opportunity and subjected his Steinway B to a vigorous blues workout, minting fresh lines and relentlessly rolling waves of fat, juicy chords. We were fortunate to be present.
Finally, the duo closed their set with a crisp version of Charlie Parker’s exultant theme, ‘Relaxin’ At Camarillo’, based on rhythm changes, that managed to include Big Ben’s chimes, a thrilling counterpoint chase, vivid flashes of stride and crashing chords.
Irving Berlin once wrote a lyric: “I know a fine way to treat a Steinway…” and perhaps tonight is what he might have had in mind. Evanescent, maybe. Indelible, certainly. A triumph, definitely. Quite frankly, you don’t often get evenings this good.