Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein & Bill Stewart at Pizza Express, London

The enduring American trio brought its subtle, chamber-style organ jazz to the Soho Pizza as part of the club's Hammond festival

Left to right: Peter Bernstein, Bill Stewart, Larry Goldings

Pizza music-manager Ross Dines thought that Bill Stewart would like the new Canopus drum-set just installed at the Dean St, Soho club, and the range of expression Stewart got from the kit – from open drive to subtle embellishment – suggests he did.

Subtlety was actually the watchword for this set and has long been for this trio, now around 35 years old. The trio can burn, but not in the rollicking manner of say, Jimmy Smith or Baby Face Willette. The heat is contained, the power in reserve, as if this hot jazz were inside a pressure cooker. You sense the sinew, but it’s not explicit.

This was the first set of the first of four gigs the band were playing, 17 and 18 April, as part of the Pizza’s Hammond festival. Other shows in the season featured the UK’s Ross Stanley and the US-born, France-resident veteran Rhoda Scott, 85.

The first number, Simple As That, ambled along like a stroll in a sloppy jersey, drum interjections colouring the landscape. The second piece was an Irving Berlin tune whose name eluded me; after a classically flavoured rubato intro, it swung delicately with solos all round, including the first from Stewart. Goldings then made his first announcement, recalling that when James Brown was told Berlin had composed 1500 tunes he responded “So what – I composed 150,000.” Goldings observed that they all started and stayed on D9, but still…

Next came Goldings’ tune Mr Meagles (from the trio’s 2014 album Ramshackle Serenade), a bluesy outing mixing modal smoulder and changes over a crisp Tony Williams style Latin backbeat. Everyone soloed, Goldings sneaking some Gershwin quotes in his, though George wasn’t ostensibly an inspiration for the structure.

Underlining the trio’s proclivity for gentle abstraction, Spring Is Here opened with a hymn-like rumination from Goldings before Bernstein’s guitar sketched the tune over a delicate pulse from Stewart, on brushes until the piece transitioned into undisguised – but still restrained – swing with sticks. To close, the tune retreated into the understated style of the opening, prompting the thought that this could be the first chamber-jazz organ combo – such that it wouldn’t seem out of place on the ECM label.

The set ended with a reading of Wayne Shorter’s uptempo waltz United (recorded by the trio on its 2021 Smoke Sessions album Perpetual Pendulum). It was short, with brief breaks all round, the group perhaps constrained after Stewart had tipped off Goldings about the ticking clock at the end of the previous number. Any temporal oversight was understandable, given the creative reverie in which the group had been immersed the past 40 minutes.

Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein & Bill Stewart at Pizza Express, Dean St, London, 17 April 2024