Review: Geoff Eales in Abergavenny

Geoff Eales and bassist Ashley John Long treat Nigel Jarrett to a survey of jazz piano from Jelly Roll Morton to Chick Corea

Welsh pianist Geoff Eales (pictured right) bears a striking physical resemblance to his compatriot Sir Karl Jenkins. There are other similarities. Both studied music at Cardiff University, Eales under Alun Hoddinott's professorship, and both were early drawn to jazz.

After writing a study of Aaron Copland for his dissertation and a symphony for his doctorate, Eales embarked on a kaleidoscopic career as a session man and salaried sideman in various pop and jazz-related contexts (Joe Loss, ship's cruise muso, BBC Big Band).

Jenkins's porkpie-hatted persona as a student tenor saxophonist morphed into a front man for the fusion outfits Nucleus and Soft Machine before interest waned and he went into lucrative ad jingle writing, slowly returning to so-called "accessible" classical music, with which he's made his name. Eales "returned" to jazz at about the same time.

Eales may be making up for lost time, corralling his possible influences in this survey of jazz piano styles as an add-on to the Black Mountain Jazz Wall2Wall Festival earlier this month, which marked 100 years of recorded jazz. He was accompanied by the glittering bassist Ashley John Long.

Some pianists have made a reputation from eclecticism, notably bubbly Dudley Moore and his almost unmediated worship of Erroll Garner, who was a one-off stylist and, by that token, tempting to impersonate directly. Eales matched each pianist with an associated chart, but his essaying of Misty in the Garner style opted for a slightly hotter tempo, which enabled him to incorporate some other Garner licks, including rubato and tremolo and a strumming left hand.

It's a brave surveyor who holds Art Tatum in his sights. "Lots of notes", as Eales commented. "Finger diarrhoea". His solo whoosh of Tea For Two didn't omit Tatum's odd and infrequent lapses into stride, which said more about the older man's background than about the virtuoso style he'd adopted. More virtuosity and brevity characterised some impromptu Cecil Taylor-style ambushing of the keyboard, though one might have felt it it was introduced and achieved with tongue too firmly implanted in cheek.

A neat compression of styles was illustrated in Maple Leaf Rag, as both Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton would have played it, and Tatum's forebear Fats Waller was invoked in Honeysuckle Rose. More than that: Long, as elsewhere, was given room to exploit the finger-flurried wizardry for which he's renowned. If he had pointed some bass lines without ornament, as his antecedents would have done in most of the examples Eales chose, the wizardry would have had better context. Less would have been more. No matter. However, once Keith Jarrett (My Song) and Bill Evans (Waltz For Debby) were reached, Long came into his own. McCoy Tyner (Passion Dance), George Shearing (Lullaby Of Birdland), Dave Brubeck (Take Five) and Chick Corea (Armando's Rhumba) joined the cavalcade.

Quotation, Stan Tracey said, should be seen but not heard. He meant that if a phrase sounded like something else, the similarity was enough and there was no need for revelation. We had lots of quotes at this gig, from J.S. Bach to Sosban Fach, which for a classically trained jazzman from Aberbargoed seemed at least appropriate. But it was that kind of evening. One could never say of Geoff Eales that he doesn't know his stuff. His album Jazz Piano Legends enshrines the salutes offered at this gig; his others, embodying original voicings derived from them (visit the Eales website) invite greetings of their own.

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