Following up on Saturday night’s solo piano gig by Marcus Roberts, SFJAZZ concluded its first season of concerts at the SFJAZZ Center last night with the return of two pianists with a long association with SFJAZZ. Those pianists were Dick Hyman and Mike Lipskin, who arranged another of their Stride Piano Summit programs. Both men are masters of this swinging full-fingered keyboard style, frequently associated with Fats Waller, whose compositions dominated the evening. Hyman and Lipskin brought along an impressive rising talent in the stride style, Stephanie Trick; and she, in turn, was joined by her husband, Paolo Alderighi. As a result, over the course of the evening, those of us on audience side got to hear everything from two hands on one keyboard to eight hands on two keyboards.
In the history of jazz piano, Waller is one of the most impressive figures for his ability to keep all ten fingers going almost all the time with a seemingly never-ending chain of inventive riffs the likes of which had not been heard perhaps since Johann Sebastian Bach sat down at his one of many keyboards. Hyman and Lipskin have been bringing just the right mix of understanding and love to this music for decades, and last night’s performance maintained the high standards they continue to set. Their chemistry is such that the ear can quickly recognize when one graciously pulls back to accompany the other. However, Hyman has a particularly striking approach to bringing out the melody in the bass line, which means that, when Lipskin is going full-bore with his own “handful of keys” (which happens to be the title of the Waller piece used to open the evening), Hyman is offering up more than “mere accompaniment” by making sure that the “cantus firmus” is not ignored. Many may try to dismiss this as “old school” piano style; but, through its inventive virtuosity, it provided the essential roots and nourishment for what would later be called “modern” jazz.
It was therefore delightful to listen to Trick carrying on the tradition of this major chapter in the history of jazz. She was clearly building up her own repertoire of inventive riffs; and the confident “voice” of her playing was never overshadowed by either Hyman or Lipskin. The four-hand take on James P. Johnson’s “Runnin’ Wild” with Alderighi was a joyous reassurance that this “old school” style was in the capable hands of a new generation.
All these pianists were joined by a few non-keyboard guests. Vocalist Dinah Lee offered a few selections, including Waller’s “There’s a Man in My Life.” For her songs the pianists were joined by guitarist Paul Mehling and Clint Baker, who, over the course of the evening played bass, clarinet, and trumpet. Lee had a solid voice with a confident sense of pitch, but last night it was clear that the instrumentalists were ruling the roost. However, the absolute ruler, so to speak, was Waller’s spirit. If they never got around to playing “The Joint is Jumpin’” (which he composed with Johnson and Andy Razaf), that still provided the perfect description of the evening.