Edinburgh Fringe 2010
Richard Michael is a jazz evangelist with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre and the ability to make the complicated sound extraordinarily simple. And boy, oh boy, can he play jazz piano!
St Mark’s Artspace must have a secret store cupboard of star performers allowing them to whistle one up on stage whenever they feel like it. Or so it seems. Having wowed audiences with Sax Collective, they’ve now rolled out Richard Michael to give what was billed as a lecture on the history of jazz piano.
Lecture? Well, if what I listened to for two hours was a lecture then you can sign me up to go back to school right now. Richard Michael has to be one of the most natural communicators and performers the world of jazz possesses. His clear, concise explanation of how jazz “works” and the tricks and techniques bands, and particularly improvising soloists, use to move around the music they are playing unlocked a whole new world for his audience. And to describe Michael’s piano playing as mesmeric simply doesn’t do justice to him. His fingers trip across the keyboard giving us tone, expression, feeling and real empathy with the music, bringing everything he played to glorious life.
He is clearly someone with a gift for hearing what he wants to play just before he hits the keys. And yet, as he told us, it’s not the technical aspects of the piece you are playing that are important, or the key you are supposed to be playing it in. What’s important is whether it sounds right. To demonstrate this, he invited the audience to give him three notes, plus key, tempo and style. What followed was an exquisitely improvised composition – flowing music with subtle changes of all these ingredients – the notes tumbling and rolling around the hall as our pianist took us on a kaleidoscopic journey that only he knew how to end.
He tells a good story as well and used a series of anecdotes to explain the evolution of jazz through a series of genres over the past century or so, taking for his theme the universally well known “Tea for Two”. This he transcribed into a range of styles starting with Bach and ending with Billy Evans, with visits to Django Reinhardt, Joplin, Boogie Woogie, Fats Waller and others along the way. And, yes, Bach is apparently the main composer to blame for jazz improvisation as his habit of diving off into flights of fancy (in true baroque style) has inspired countless others over the succeeding two centuries and more since his passing. Further selections from Richard’s vast repertoire flowed like fine wine including one piece that was expertly deconstructed so that he could explain (as he played it) how it had been put together.
So how do you rate a show like this, especially with the ongoing debate around “starflation” – the drift towards rating shows as four or five star that might previously have merited a spangley symbol or two less? My view is that this merits a five star gong because of the technical competence of the performer, the interpretation and delivery of the material by the performer, his ability to communicate complicated concepts in an understandable manner, the way he engaged the audience and made them part of the performance and last, but not least, his evident sincerity and enthusiasm. It was an evening that could so easily have turned into one of those all night jamming sessions for which jazz folk are renowned. Pity that it didn’t.
But you can catch him on Radio Scotland’s “The Jazz House” and check his website out for details of the “lecture” tour he is promising to undertake. If it’s anything like this, it will be truly sublime and unmissable. Meanwhile, I’m off to see what else is in that St Mark’s Artspace store cupboard.