The Art of Improvisation

Monday 6th November, 2017

The Second Concert in the Subscription Series presented by Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts was a resounding success. It saw a return visit by the Italian born jazz pianist Rossano Sportiello whose home is now in New York City. His previous visit to Queen’s Cross a couple of years ago drew one of the biggest ever audiences to Chamber Music Concerts and on Monday evening Queen’s Cross Church could boast a near full house. It was an enthusiastic audience too. At the interval, Sportiello’s CDs which were on offer sold out completely in less than five minutes.

His programme drew on a wide range of tunes and styles representing, as the concert title suggested, a panoramic sweep through The Great American Songbook. Earl Hines, Richard Rogers, Henry Mancini, Count Basie, Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Victor Young and Willie the Lion Smith were a mere few of the tunesmiths and jazzmen whose names cropped up in the thrilling journey that Sportiello led us on through the world of American twentieth century jazz. Sportiello included a couple of his own compositions in his programme. They stood up well alongside so many dazzling stars in the galaxy of jazz piano. A few other rather surprising names cropped up too – Schumann, Chopin and finally Beethoven – but more of them later.

Go on the internet and you will find that Sportiello is feted as a virtuoso master of the jazz style known as stride piano. There were several fantastic examples of that on Monday but Sportiello shone in so many other jazz styles too. His opening piece, Rosetta, an Earl Hines classic, opened the concert in a gentle beckoning mood. The playing was beautifully clean and clear and demonstrated all the special elements that make up a fine jazz performance – first of all, a great melody, fascinating chord sequences, crisp clear improvisation usually in the right hand, a bass line that makes you want to swing with the music and everything bound together with an irresistible rhythmic pulse. All of these were there in this opening piece.

Three songs from the early catalogue of Richard Rogers led us to the first exciting example of stride using the full extent of the keyboard. Melody was very much to the fore in the next set which brought together two delicious tunes Moon River and Over the Rainbow. In the first Sportiello made the notes tumble from the piano like a river of pearls and in the second it was as if iridescent bubbles were floating upwards out of the piano. Vipers Drag by Fats Waller was stride piano at its most exciting and then three tunes by Count Basie brought the first part of the concert to a conclusion. The left hand rhythms in The Shoe Shine Boy were a fantastic source of fascination.

Sportiello opened the second half of the concert with two of his own compositions, Why Did You Tell Me ‘I Love You’ had a great smooth melody while Be Bop Dance, as you might expect, was more excitingly up tempo. It was then that Sportiello turned to his classical background for inspiration with well known piano pieces by Schumann and Chopin, then gradually these pieces morphed into jazz. I thought the choice of melodies was apt and the jazz metamorphosis was brilliantly and tastefully accomplished. I watched the audience and there were smiles all round.

I loved the next section devoted to music about stars. Jerome Kern’s I’ve Told Every Little Star and Hoagy Carmichael’s Starlight were delicious for their gentleness, melodic power and translucent harmonies and in Victor Young’s Stella By Starlight, Sportiello surprised me by making it surprisingly up tempo.

We were told that many of the jazz pianists in New York in the twenties and thirties were inspired by radio performances by Rachmaninov and Horowitz and Sportiello concluded the official programme with two examples by Willie The Lion Smith, Echo of Spring (suggestions of Greig perhaps) and then the most astonishing display of piano virtuosity in a piece aptly named The Fingerbuster! Oh wow!

The audience was loath to let Rossano go and he rewarded us with an encore that began with another Victor Young classic, When I Fall In Love and then yes, it really was Beethoven’s Ode To Joy which morphed into a boogie woogie storm. What fun. I was astonished at how well it worked.

Rossano Sportiello Review