Larry Willis & Albert Sanz, Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho, London – review

Jazz Club Soho hosted its first two-piano festival in 2009 as a five-day, slightly off-the-wall experiment to mark the delivery of a new concert grand. Now an annual event, the Steinway Festival has steadily increased in range and scope. This year’s event lasts 10 days and is sprinkled with rhythm sections and guests – the Joey Calderazzo Trio and Bill Wyman joining a boogie woogie tribute stand out. Two pianists still lock horns and two grand pianos still dominate the stage but, on the evidence of this opening double bill, the sense of occasion may be getting lost – the audience was surprisingly sparse, even for a Sunday night opening.

A short first set, featuring two piano tyros of the UK’s left field, captured the festival spirit. The slightly cerebral Robert Mitchell and the earthier Alexander Hawkins are both given to rumble, thump and deliver lines that spiral into the abstract. But there were enough differences in touch and emphasis to add spice while an ambitious programme added edge. Sight-reading the mathematically syncopated lines of Anthony Braxton’s “Composition 69 F” is not for the faint-hearted, yet they sailed through it for a finale, intertwined and egged each other on while they improvised, and then reprised the theme as a canon.

The main show was dominated by the veteran modernist Larry Willis, who gave a masterclass in how to give a tried-and-tested repertoire substance. The superb introduction to “In Your Own Sweet Way” was rich with contrast, blues numbers were soulful and swinging, and Miles Davis favourites were given new life.

He was twinned with the Spanish pianist Albert Sanz, and for two sets Willis safeguarded his young companion while spurring him on to higher things. By the second set, Sanz had found his voice and their duet on Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes” was intensely moving. Willis had been playing at the club for most of the week, and his rhythm section joined for the third number on both sets. The music was just as intense – “My Funny Valentine” was a standout and a fiery Latin twist on “Milestones” featured both pianists at full pelt – but the sense of a special occasion began to fade.

The Steinway Festival runs to March 29,

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