Iain Dixon / Les Chisnall Duo, 5th February 2016

Introducing the final number of the second set, Iain Dixon told the audience that playing in a duo format was ‘nerve wracking’ – which is at one level understandable, because a sustained performance of music for piano and clarinet on their own is a high-wire act. But no one in the audience had reason to think so, such was the grace and fluency of their playing.

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Nowadays, this kind of musical offering is often referred to as ‘chamber jazz’—on this occasion, an apt description, not only because of the absence of a rhythm section, but because the utterly still, rapt attention of the audience is something you wouldn’t ordinarily witness in a jazz club. And their playing offered a perfect balance between what’s most compelling in both: the technical precision and formal beauty of chamber music; and the spaciousness and spontaneity of jazz.

The clarinet has long been the ‘poor cousin’ of front-line jazz instruments—and on this showing, inexplicably. In the right hands, it is a wonderfully expressive and nimble instrument, variously soft or piercing, raucous or mellifluous, gentle or assertive. All of those qualities and more were on show. In the slower numbers and in the lower register, the clarinet seemed to melt into the piano.

Throughout the evening, the emphasis was on English music, with its pastoral character and underlying gentleness even in the most assertive passages. Expressing these qualities on the piano requires the kinds of resourcefulness and delicacy of touch that Les Chisnall has in abundance; and sustaining the intensity of the moods he created in combination with the clarinet can’t be done without a sensitivity and responsiveness that made this a true partnership. ‘The shadow of your smile’ had an elegiac beauty; and the audience didn’t draw breath until the last note had faded. This kind of intensity can be more than a match for grandstanding solos; and on the night, it was.

Link: What’s Next At Wakefield Jazz?

J Whitman 06.02.16

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