Alexander Hawkins, piano.
Neil Charles, bass.
Stephen Davis, drums.
How does jazz reconcile fidelity to the tradition with the creative impetus of individual performers who work to edge it past familiar boundaries? In all of the creative arts, risk is important, especially so in the performing ones. In a touching reflection, Alexander Hawkins acknowledged that even improvisers can fall back on familiar routines; and he thanked Wakefield Jazz for its open-minded programming. And an expectant audience got what it came for: adventurous, searching, boundary-expanding improvisation of a high order.
The two sets of piano trio were occasionally supplemented by electronica, but the heart of both sets was the remarkable interplay between piano, bass and drums—often closely woven together in a complex braid that defied familiar listening habits and with wonderful cross-rhythms that came together powerfully and coherently. It is one of the splendours of jazz that truly able musicians can improvise collectively as well as individually—and it’s not something you’ll witness on every occasion.
Alexander’s pianism was splendid throughout, but it was riveting to listen to his left/right hand balance. Instead of familiar chord changes over which melody lines could be improvised, there were extended passages in which at least equal weight seemed to be assigned to his left hand—to striking harmonic effect, however percussive the playing. One is reminded of Art Tatum’s challenge, “Look, you come in here tomorrow, and anything you do with your right hand I’ll do with my left” (and also his disdain for what he called a “picture show right hand.”)
At the same time, Stephen Davis’s drumming was a masterclass in polyrhythmic musicality—both in itself and in combination with Alexander and Neil Charles on bass. His playing was a close, if often contrasting complement to the rapidly changing shifts in the piano—and clearly at an improvisatory level that was anything but routine. How he was able to maintain that level of creative drumming while remaining sensitive and responsive to the other two musicians is part of the marvel of jazz at this level. And Neil Charles’s playing was carefully deliberated—sometimes deploying deft, well-placed notes through frenetic passages; adding texture through his bowing; and of course, putting down rapid bass lines against which the other two could—here, the word would ordinarily be “respond”, but “interact” seems more appropriate. For this was a wonderful band performance—the art of the piano trio at its best.
It is a privilege to witness creative musicians at full stretch and we the audience knew that this evening was something special.