David Newton – piano.
Denny Ilett – voice and guitar.
A full house is an expectant one—and both are assured whenever Dave Newton is on the bill. A long-time favourite of Wakefield Jazz regulars, Dave was to have appeared with the singer Liz Fletcher who was unfortunately indisposed. Up stepped guitarist and vocalist Denny Ilett—and the musical magic so keenly anticipated was duly produced.
Dave’s pianism is elegant, even refined, with a lightness of touch that shines no less when he’s swinging than when he’s coaxing maximum expressiveness from a slow ballad. The history of jazz is not without outstanding piano-guitar duos (Bill Evans and Jim Hall; Fred Hersch with Bill Frisell), but it’s still a relatively unusual pairing despite the fact that the two instruments are both chordal and melodic. It seems to take a high degree of musical empathy to make the combination work effectively—much in abundance throughout the evening and very well supported by the club’s superb sound balance.
The numbers in both sets largely featured the great American songbook, but that has never been shorthand for ‘narrow’—especially in the hands of such able improvising musicians. Some jazz musicians are clear that the only way to express the potential for beauty in a ballad is to know the words—that the human dimension is at the heart of the music. One fine example was that old chestnut, ‘Gee baby ain’t I good to you?’, sung by Denny in a voice that clearly owes something to Chet Baker, played against his up-tempo guitar accompaniment. When it came Dave’s time to solo against Denny’s steady comping, he could easily have sprung rapid melodic lines but instead, pared everything back to essentials. It was a wonderfully effective use of space and timing that gave something so familiar an unexpected depth.
Dave had one solo feature in each set. The first was a jazz master class: another old number, opening on minor key, all-but-melancholy harmonic invention. He then followed it with a whistle-stop tour of jazz piano history, finishing on a contrasting, bright finish. And in perfect contrast, his solo in the second set was lush and romantic. By the end, the audience would have followed him anywhere.
Denny’s comprehensive mastery of the guitar allowed him to move with apparent ease between laying down the foundations of a song to clean, well-articulated runs—and, still more remarkable, to synchronous playing with Dave.
And against the possibility that our expectations hadn’t strayed beyond Cole Porter, the penultimate number was a rousing Jimi Hendrix blues—as it happened, the perfect lead-in to the final number of the night, an infectious, toe-tapping samba. As one of the earlier numbers clearly signalled, we could have danced all night.