A TWO-PIANO release already carrying a certain emotional depth – with epitaphs to much-missed jazz musicians Pete Saberton and Kenny Wheeler – acquired an unexpected poignancy when, on 18 July 2015, the sudden death of respected pianist John Taylor was announced. The immeasurable influence of Taylor, both as a musician and a well-loved personality and encourager, has since been well documented in an outpouring of memories, including an affectionate tribute by Simon Purcell and a comprehensive obituary in The Guardian by John Fordham.
The starting point for Duets arose from an invitation to Richard Fairhurst, in 2010, to perform at the Steinway Two Pianos Festival in London. Citing John Taylor as one of his musical heroes (“I first heard JT play when I was a teenager. I bought all his records and listened to them constantly.”), he immediately chose John to duet with, especially as they played together at John’s 70th birthday celebration concert and had also realised that this collaboration had recording potential.
Looking to achieve a contemporary angle, exploring harmony and understatement as well as treading a less beaten track, the project unfolded from the pianists’ initial focus on the music of Bill Evans; and owing much to the fine preparation and recording of the two Steinway Model Ds, Fairhurst and Taylor together created a cohesive account of beauty, intensity, clarity and, at times, remarkable placidity. Indeed, many of these eleven works actually benefit from placing ‘white gallery walls’ between them, the paused isolation providing breathing space to register the detail of each.
A case in point is the sparse, bell-like opening resonance of Epitaph to Sabbo, which evolves into constellatory wonder – and already, any division between the two instruments is almost intangible. Pete Saberton’s own 3 P’s Piece (in two parts) suggests the buoyant ostinato style of Steve Reich, its assertive, hard-wrought melodies contrasting well; and part two’s Ravel-like reflection cannot, it seems, resist in recapitulating to its former, fiendishly difficult animation.
Richard Fairhurst’s Open Book is sweepingly romantic, though also displays melancholic reticence – and the intertwining of themes feels entirely organic. Miniature Epitaph to Kenny finds its effective rhythmic propulsion in manipulated, muted piano strings; and the accentuated tango feel of Wheeler’s Sly Eyes (which John Taylor recorded with the trumpeter on the Moon album with clarinettist Gabriele Mirabassi) becomes gloriously showy in this version, its complexity never over-reaching itself.
The broad landscape of Taylor’s Evans Above is a masterpiece – seven and a half minutes which appear to reflect the creative persona of pianist Bill Evans, with folksy, dancing piano phrases breaking out of its pervading, echoic reflection. And, following on, the three-movement suite of Evans’ music paints his Very Early, Turn out the Stars and Re: Person I Knew in very different hues (and, of course, without rhythm section), whilst retaining that familiar chordal sumptuousness – sixteen minutes which demand repeated listening. To round up, Richard Fairhurst’s Growth in an Old Garden creeps both wistfully and meditatively… and for one final time, the four hands of Fairhurst and Taylor are exquisitely combined.
Released on Basho Records on 7 August 2015, Duets is available from Jazz CDs and all good jazz retailers. The originally-planned launch concert, at London’s Southbank Centre on 9 September 2015, has been sensitively re-imagined as a Jazz Piano Summit in dedication to John, featuring Richard, Michael Wollny, Gwilym Simcock and guests.
Richard Fairhurst piano
John Taylor piano
Basho Records – SRCD 49-2 (2015)