REVIEW: Robert Mitchell, Alexander Hawkins, Tom Cawley, Gareth Lockrane and the Steinway Spirio "B" at Pizza Express Dean Street

The first duo: Robert Mitchell (live) and
Jason Moran (Spirio)
Robert Mitchell, Alexander Hawkins, Tom Cawley, Gareth Lockrane and the Steinway Spirio "B"
(Pizza Express Dean Street. 7th March 2016. Opening night of Two Piano Festival. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

The pianists must have been wondering if they were going to be upstaged last night. Just after the four musicians who were due to play the opening night of the Pizza Express Club's eighth two piano festival had arrived at the club, they all stood in stunned silence, and listened to the rapid-fire virtuoso sound of Art Tatum (1909-1956) playing the piano. The keys were seemingly operating themselves. Tatum's joyous sounds were emanating from a Steinway "B" Spirio. Like a normal Steinway piano, it is a fine instrument made by the craftsman in the firm's factory in Hamburg. But it also has some very smart electronics in it, which permit it to go off into its own world, where the ghosts of pianists past and present can be summoned with just a quick touch of the iPad which controls it.

Steinway are presenting the Spirio as their first new product in seventy years. It will retail at a price of around £95,000. It currently has a library (included in the purchase price, be reassured of that at least) of about 1500 tracks, downloadable from the cloud, but that will grow rapidly. Julian Joseph, a Steinway-endorsed pianist, introducung the evening, extolled the value as an educational tool, from which you would "be able to get a lesson from your favourite pianist wherever you are."

I couldn't help remembering that, back in the day, when the punters at Ronnie Scott's appeared to be non-plussed by the roll call musicians he had to offer them in future weeks, he would promise the Red Arrows. Last night's debut may be the closest we will ever get to Scott's jocular vision of a nine-piece aerobatic display team appearing in a jazz club.

The evening was bookended by pianists playing duos with the Spirio. At the beginning Robert Mitchell on live piano played a delicate duo with Jason Moran on Spirio. Jason Moran, tweeting later, seems rather tickled by the idea.

The man-and-machine duo gave way to two live pianos, Robert Mitchell and Alexander Hawkins. For me the highlight of a set was an energetic composition of Hawkins which sounded intriguingly like a relative of Bernstein's Cool. What was remarkable about their set was how two pianists with very different individual stylistic leanings could adapt to provide a completely coherent duo sound, and to tell stories together.
The second duo, Alexander Hawkins and Robert Mitchell

The Pizza Express Two Steinway Festival is now eight years old, and this opening night was the occasion for the festival organizers to give carte blanche to one of the pianists who had performed at the opening night of the very first festival, Tom Cawley. His inspired idea was to invite a direct contemporary from his Royal Academy of Music days, flautist, film composer, educator, and, yes, pianist, Gareth Lockrane to play the other piano.

The third duo, Tom Cawley and Gareth Lockrane

The two were generous in their praise for each other. Cawley remembered that when he arrived as a student at the Academy he had rapidly become accustomed to the idea that he "wasn't going to be the best piano player in my year, even if I was going to be the only piano student." Lockrane returned the compliment by the describing performing in a duo with Cawley as getting a piano lesson. Their set was much more tune- and changes-based than the first, finding the right kind of exuberance in Nobody Else But Me

Tom Cawley (live piano), Gareth Lockrane (flute), Bill Charlap (Spirio) 
The Spirio was switched back on in the second half. Cawley on piano and Lockrane on flute played to complememt Bill Charlap playing Jerome Kern's Yesterdays. 

Were they upstaged, then? Not really. It was fascinating to see this technology in action. One can imagine the Spirio in the role of providing unnoticed background music in the homes of the mega-rich. But in last night's context it provided a spur for four subtle, stylish individual musicians to show their adaptability, and their capacity to respond to this most unusual of playing situations.  It also provided a great curtain-raiser for the festival week.

- Interview with Howard Riley and Keith Tippett - appearing in the Festival on Wednesday
- Full Festival programme   

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