JAZZ: Nikki Yeoh; St George's, Bristol

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The Independent Culture
Solo jazz piano is an unforgiving art. Even the greats find it difficult to keep the ideas flowing through a long continuous improvisation, as with Keith Jarrett's celebrated Koln Concert, where much of the first half sounds like the work of a genius, while some of the second sounds like the work of Elton John. Yeoh (pronounced Yo) owes a sizeable debt to Jarrett; her fingers fasten on to those lilting, twanging bent-notes (adapted by Jarrett, perhaps, from Gary Burton's vibraphone technique) as surely as the master's. She even plays a Jarrett-style "Happy Birthday to You", the hackneyed tune made to resound with all the intensity of a religious experience. Elsewhere, she interpolates the chorus of the Coronation Street theme into a long improvisation that eventually emerges as a heart-stoppingly good version of "My Funny Valentine".

While such game-playing could be tricksy or cute, instead it's completely delightful and a natural reflection of Yeoh's engaging personality. As an improviser, she has ears as big as satellite dishes, and they appear to receive signals that actually come from the real world, be they soap opera themes, jingles or whatever. Only 23, yet to make an album, and with a limited track record as a member of bands led by Courtney Pine and Neneh Cherry, Yeoh is devastatingly good.

After a tentative beginning, where she sounded a little lightweight and peered momentarily into the jaws of the Steinway, plucking the strings like a dentist performing a filling, gradually her particular gifts became apparent. She wisely doesn't go for one long-haul slog of impro each set, but works through 15-minute or so spells where she begins extempore before introducing a tune (often a jazz standard like Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage" or Coltrane's "Giant Steps") which is deconstructed until its components are eventually re-jigged into another theme.

By the end, she was flying, and one or two moments were as inspired as anything I've heard: as the chords of "My Funny Valentine" were coming to the end of their useful life, she suddenly brushed her hands roughly over the keys in a gesture whose expressionist discords implied the essence of the song perfectly, while "Giant Steps" was wittily segued into the kitsch melody of what might have been the theme from The Thomas Crown Affair. For an encore, she vamped on Miles's "All Blues", before turning it into "Chopsticks", cartoon Chinese music and some more of what she had earlier described, in broad M25 dialect, as "somefing I made up myself". The genius-to-Elton-John ratio was about as high as it could be. Nikki Yeoh is a true star.

Phil Johnson