Music: Grrr! She's wonderful

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The Independent Culture


IT'S A strange yet time-honoured ritual: the promoter spends thousands hiring the hall and flying in the band; the audience arrives in a heady state of expectation, and then some bloke in a pony tail at the sound desk mucks it all up. Or at least that was the view from Row G. To be fair to the bloke, the musicians must take a fair share of the blame themselves.

We were all probably hoping that pianist Geri Allen's trio would feature bassist Buster Williams and drummer Lenny White from her marvellous album The Gathering. Instead we got two sturdy yeomen who were eminently capable but somewhat lacking in subtlety. Perhaps as a result, Allen chose to concentrate on heavily percussive, blues-based themes rather than pellucid keyboard meditations. As she pounded her way through the set, individual notes disappeared in a backwash of overtones, the volume levels got louder, and one became unmistakably aware, as if in a kind of out-of-body experience, that the instruments of the trio were actually an undifferentiated din.

It started off fine, with the sprung rhythm of the album's title track ushering in a series of dazzling improvisations at the keyboard that more than justified Allen's reputation. True, you couldn't actually hear her very well, and the drums sounded like biscuit tin lids, but surely, one thought, the bloke in the pony-tail would soon sort that out? He didn't, and while there was no doubting Allen's technique - or her ability to swing as hard as anyone - it remained deeply frustrating.

If the experience of Allen and her trio was strange, the young British pianist and rising star Nikki Yeoh, who opened with a solo set, was just bonkers. Scheduled for 45 minutes, she played for 70 and almost had to be hauled off the stage with a hook. Though Yeoh has yet to learn that less can mean more, her improvisations contained enough shards of brilliance to last a career, never mind an opening act, but they were mixed in with quite a lot of dross, too.

Her great appeal is that she sounds like nobody else, and her sparky, oddball personality is engaging and irritating at the same time. Though she took a while to warm up, the second half hour of her set was wonderful. Then, just when you were ready to admit her genius, however wayward, she went and dedicated the performance, indeed the whole evening, to the glory of God. Bah!

But if God was in the QEH on Tuesday night (and not at the RFH, listening to Dave Brubeck), He must have been a proper Old Testament, crotchety grandad, fiddling mischievously with the faders on the sound desk and laughing his socks off.