December 8, 2013 9:03 pm

Kit Downes Trio/Pablo Held Trio, Pizza Express Jazz Club, London – review

Where Downes evokes Rachmaninov and Monk, Held follows Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock
Kit Downes at Pizza Express Jazz Club, London©David Sinclair

Kit Downes at Pizza Express Jazz Club, London

This double bill of piano trios sharing equal status opened with Kit Downes rippling through a harmonic sequence of his own devising and finished with Pablo Held sustaining a simple harmony over a quiet rattle of percussion. In between, both trios followed the contemporary norm by developing a largely original repertoire as a three-way conversation.

But there the similarities ended. Downes’s first-half set was densely textured and the trio’s improvisations rumbled inexorably to a climax. Downes is a more percussive pianist, wears his love of late 19th-century classical music on his sleeve, and references Thelonious Monk – he finished his set with Monk’s “We See”.


IN Music

In contrast, the German trio’s second-half set was a spacious, continuous performance, put together on the spur of the moment. There were fewer dynamics, and their range was narrower. And, compared with Downes, pianist Held has a lighter touch, a narrower range of influences and is prone to the generic.

Downes was playing material from the two albums that won his trio a Mercury nomination in 2010. He now rarely performs in this format, but has maintained a long working relationship with his rhythm section, and it shows. The florid ripples that opened his set gained a whisper of cymbal, Calum Gourlay added counterpoint bass, and the first composition, “Wandering Colossus”, steadily evolved on an upward curve.

Throughout the set, Gourlay and drummer James Madden created a dense mesh of chattering rolls and figured bass, leavened by a smattering of solid swing. Light and shade came from Downes changing tack on the point of a pin, a lovely ballad and the pianist’s ability simultaneously to summon the ghosts of Rachmaninov and Monk.

Held began by telling us that he’d jettisoned both set list and arrangements and would let the music flow. Double bass opened with a single note and a smattering of piano soon followed. Held follows Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock – the riffs of Hancock’s “Actual Proof” surfaced mid-set – and though there were tremolos and thumps, the main interest came from bassist Robert Landfermann. Rock-solid in support, Landfermann’s bowed-note feature was a highlight of soaring melody and slashed single-note lines.

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