David Rees-Williams Jazz Trio

The pianist manages a successful fusion of jazz and classical at Portaferry Presbyterian Church

Fusing jazz and classical has always been a tempting proposition, but is actually incredibly difficult to do successfully.

The problem is that when classically trained musicians are asked to improvise, most freeze like rabbits in the headlights. They're used to playing dots on pages, but making new ones up on the spur of the moment (as jazzers do for breakfast) is well outside their comfort zone.

Which is where David Rees-Williams enters the picture. Ax ex-chorister and adept on organ, oboe and piano, he knows the classical repertoire backwards. Crucially, he also happens to be a totally natural jazz musician, highly sensitised to the delicate balances needed between basic structure and extemporisation, and skilfully avoiding over-indulgence in either direction.

Rees-Williams often performs as a soloist, but brings his two regular collaborators with him to the latest concert in this year’s Portaferry Proms series. It’s immediately obvious that they are anything but standard-issue backing musicians. Drummer Phil Laslett’s crisply incisive hi-hat work is instrumental in propelling the effervescent opening number (a slice of ‘Autumn Leaves’ mashed up with Handel) excitingly forward.

There is also some sharp antiphonal exchanges between electric bassist Neil Francis and Rees-Williams on piano. Francis takes a looping solo as the piece winds to a dizzying, virtually symphonic conclusion. It’s a major, extended work out for all three players, and an impressive tone-setter for the rest of the evening.

Some breathing space is needed, and comes in the shape of Purcell’s ‘Music for a While’, where Laslett inverts his brushes, cleverly using the handles to fabricate a gong-like effect from two of the six cymbals ranged around him. The repeated ground-bass pattern used in Purcell’s original composition is, of course, perfect to improvise over, and some mellow interludes are teased out of the raw material by the trio.

Announcing a Mozart ‘Gigue’, Rees-Williams comments that the players are going to ‘tinker with it'. The tinkering actually amounts to full-blown recomposition, as fragments of the dance theme are chopped in bits and flung into a decidedly spicy pot of ingredients. Rees-Williams himself is to the fore in the Mozart re-invention, peeling off strings of tricky figuration with enviable fluidity, inventively tweaking accents, and ever alive to the humorous possibilities in the music.

It’s Rees-Williams’s left hand that’s particularly put to work in the version of Enrico Bossi’s ‘Étude Symphonique’ that brings the first set to a conclusion. The hyperactively burbling lower keyboard part is, to put it mildly, a touch demanding technically, but barely ruffles the customary suavity and sangfroid Rees-Williams brings to the Steinway throughout the concert.

It’s not all fireworks, however. Elsewhere there’s a delightfully sensitive, tender take on ‘Arietta’, one of Grieg’s ‘Lyric Pieces’, with an exquisitely democratic balance between the three players, obviously born of long acquaintance and generously inclusive musicianship.

The trio’s re-casting of a ‘Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis’ setting by Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford is another highlight, the segue between the two sections deftly choreographed by Rees-Williams (no doubt he sang the work frequently as a boy chorister), the ripely romantic strands of melody finessed with affection and a gentle infusion of nostalgia.

The abiding impression of the David Rees-Williams Trio’s two-hour concert is that here, for once, you’re witnessing a genuine, fully interactive fusion of styles, jazz commingling with classical, classical with jazz, until you stop asking where the one is ending and the other is beginning.

Portaferry Presbyterian Church once again provides an ideal combination of intimacy and excellent acoustics for this outstandingly polished performance. It will resonate again on Saturday, September 21, when the leading Irish pianist Finghin Collins and his sister Dearbhla present an evening of Haydn, Chopin, Debussy and Schubert. It’s another enticing recital, the latest in a high-quality series, which is putting Portaferry ever more firmly on the map for Northern Irish classical music enthusiasts.