Geoff Eales is a pianist I greatly admire. Here is my review of a performance I caught of his, earlier this year.
Geoff Eales is an artist I’ve been meaning to checkout live for sometime now, ever since discovering his joyful treatment of standards on his Mountains of Fire album. I’d originally meant to watch him play at The Spice of Life in Soho on Thursday, but I was fearful of Royal Wedding fever brining central London to a standstill, so I postponed and went straight home.
I’d never been to Hugo’s before – restaurant/bar/music venue in the backstreets of Kilburn’s residential area – but it seemed a much more intimate spot to catch Eales live than The Spice, so I was more than happy to make the journey. According to one of the proprietors Sunday music has been a fixture for 13 years, an omission that feels me with regret and a sense of opportunities missed.
I was expecting Eales to be playing in a trio setting, but was greeted at the door with a sign detailing a Geoff Eales/Michael Coates duet. As with Eales, I’d never heard Coates play live before, and the prospect of witnessing Eales juggle harmony, rhythm, and bass whilst trying to coax his own solos – for free I hasten to add – was very exciting indeed.
Hugo’s might have hosted music for 13 years but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s been jazz, and if it has someone really should have told the audience. Eales’ warmth exuded from the stage at once, but it took two opening tunes for the audience to respond with their own gratitude. The first set consisted of 5 tunes, the third being an Eales original, Song for my Mother. Originally released on his Master of the Game album, this live version started off in a much lighter mode, and with Coates taking control of melody (the original played by piano trio) there seemed a sincere musical nod to the Jarrett/Garbarek acoustically-melodious jazz-rock of the late 70’s (now there’s a mouthful!). The set ended with I’ll Remember April, allowing Eales to boast his canonical repertoire with off-the-cuff Perdido and Salt Peanuts riffs during his improvisation. It was a fun ending to the 1st set, and by this point Coates’ tenor was flying.
The 2nd set opened with Stella by Starlight, which must be a favourite of Eales as it’s also on his Mountains of Fire album. His quick licks and runs across the keyboard were displayed, as was his love for the blues, always tastefully done and never on the wrong side of cliché. The 4th tune of the set, What Is This Thing Called Love, further emphasised his admiration for Jarrett. Eales opened with a boogie-esque left hand vamp reminiscent of Jarrett’s own on Whisper Not, which smoothly developed into an Alberti Bass blues vamp that Bach would have tapped his feet along to! – Too cheesy a description? Who cares?! In fact this side note reminds me of how charming and charismatic Eales comes across as a player and as a person. At the end of the evening Gemma, the ever supportive girlfriend (and slightly tipsy at this point), quite rightly pointed out how completely unpretentious and down to earth Eales comes across – certainly compared to her previous experience with a jazz pianist, the ever elusive Vijay Iyer – even going as far as to describe him as “cheeky”!
Anyway, as a nod to his sideman Eales quoted the popeye theme (a favourite joke of Parkers) and ended the tune on the St. Thomas riff. The 5th tune of the evening gave Coates the opportunity to really shine, a slightly up-tempo take on I Fall in Love too Easily (also recorded on Mountains of Fire). Coates got a real ‘cool’ Konitz tone from his instrument, and I have to say the breathiness of the tenor works a lot better with Eales’ playing than the smoothness of the alto on the album. Coates had previously taken an impassioned turn around the chords of Thad Jones’ A Child is Born, drawing the attention of everyone in the room with his muscular yet passionate soloing. It was at this late point that I realised there was no amplification being used, and that all that power and perfect instrumental levelling between the two was all natural. Impressive.
Eales and Coates ended with a frolic around Sonny Rollins’ Oleo, batting musical jokes and gestures to each other like a game of tennis. The fact that Hugo’s isn’t strictly a jazz venue must have freed these two commanding instrumentalists from the expectations and rigmarole that often clouds strict jazz haunts, evident from the laughs and smiles that beamed from the stage throughout the evening. As for me, I was happy to just sit, listen, and get merry whilst planning my next trip to Hugo’s.