Laura Cole and Alexander Hawkins, 18 October 2019

Laura Cole, piano
Alexander Hawkins, piano

There can’t be many of us whose musical appreciation is truly boundless. The musical universe is vast; and our ability to apprehend and enjoy unfamiliar musics is shaped by cognitive, cultural and aesthetic parameters which aren’t entirely self-determining. It’s not simply a matter of ‘liking what you know’: there are also limits to what it’s possible for us to grasp as fully and warmly as the music we cherish. Surely much the same applies to the visual arts, too.

But our ability to extend our appreciative reach remains considerable—and the possibilities for doing so are often at the point where our resistance is strongest: at the boundaries of the musical genres we know and love. There’s nothing new in this: the debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris was met with a riot; French audiences did not understand the orchestral music of Mozart in his time; early in their careers both Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman were shuffled offstage by musicians who wouldn’t tolerate their innovations; and Louis Armstrong disdained Bebop. But at the largest scale, at least some portion of what was once deemed radical eventually gets incorporated into the tradition; and as individuals, we can surprise ourselves on any review of what we have come to embrace.

The larger point is that musical traditions are either legacies or museum pieces. As an improvising musical form, jazz is a magnet for creative enterprise, for musicians who do not distinguish between improvisation, innovation and experimentation; and for whom the tradition is a wellspring rather than a sacred fountain. There would be something worryingly amiss if every new artist or ensemble was comfortingly familiar—and indeed, if it didn’t meet variously
with at least some outright rejection, or with forms and degrees of incomprehension, suspicion or less-than-zero aesthetic responsiveness. What truly matters is not how we react to any particular performance, but that it’s important to try.

So a performance at Wakefield Jazz by two pianists who represent leading-edge
compositional and performance development was much to be welcomed—and all the more because their sets were met with an attentive audience and warm response.

Laura Cole played the first set, which comprised a balance between her own compositions and pieces written for her by friends and colleagues. With the exception of the opening number, the compositions were arranged as seamless, extended excursions, much as in the manner adopted by Keith Jarrett in some of his solo concerts. For all of the variety on show, a distinct musical voice was soon apparent: a strong emphasis on striking harmonies; slow, spacious openings; and darkly shaded, expressive figures played over ‘figure of eight’ left hand passages, often at the far end of the keyboard.

This was thoughtful, even cerebral music, some portions of which could fairly be characterized as chamber music, albeit with improvisation much to the fore. Yet it was not so abstract as to obscure the developmental lines in each of the pieces. For all of their approachability, there was nothing in these numbers that could be described as sweet (the careful deployment of dissonances had a role in this); many of the numbers could fairly be described as steely; and several of the passages as acerbic.

It was also an engaging performance, played with concentration and what certainly appeared to be devotion. For her final number, she was joined by Alexander Hawkins for a dazzling four-handed piece—naturally both more complex and more densely textured and an utter delight.

Alexander’s set was quite contrasting, which subverted the kinds of labelling that more experimental and technically extended music so often attracts. Deploy the term ‘avant-garde’ if you must, but acknowledge that the term is generic: it points to perceived boundaries, not to a discrete genre. In his brief introduction, Alexander made the point succinctly: ‘Music: one tree, many branches.’

This set was an enthralling showcase of the musical riches to be mined when superb technique is combined with musical vision. In short, it was a virtuoso display—occasionally fortissimo, at other times, quietly lyrical; and there was no shortage of his fleet, precise right hand; amazing, propulsive left-hand work, clever counter-rhythms, and a great deal of harmonic invention. Even through the most frenetic passages, the musical logic, the sense of the shape of each number, was discernible. There were a few moments when it seemed that one of the impossible-to-play piano rolls of Conlon Nancarrow was being performed live.

But what about the tradition? It did not require a strain to hear stride and rag time working its way into both the harmonies and the rhythms; and Alexander’s rendering of ‘Take the A Train’—an astonishing, explosive take—is a reminder that there are as many ways of hearing and interpreting the canon as there are listeners and creators. The audience came away knowing that the tradition lives on and that the future of jazz is something we create together—bold musicians and open-minded audiences together.


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