Peter Erskine Trio, Pizza Express Jazz Club, London

Easy as one, two, three
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The Independent Culture

A week after Cybill Shepherd showed why she's an actress and not a singer, Pizza Express was the venue for another visitor from the US – this time one who's welcome to a multiple-entry visa.

Peter Erskine is often referred to as a great studio drummer, which may not sound much of a compliment, smacking too much of the workaday musician who'll play with anyone as long as the cheques don't bounce. Actually it is high praise. As applied to the likes of Erskine, it means a musician of finely honed technique and sensitive ear who will not only complement any ensemble of which he is a part, but also raise his fellow musicians' game.

That's why Erskine has held the drummer's chair in such a variety of settings, from Maynard Ferguson's big band and Weather Report to recordings with ECM artists and under his own name.

Pictured on the cover of the 1983 album Steps Ahead, a shaggy-haired Erskine looks as though he's about to take class 4B's art lesson, with only the leather elbow patches and chalk dust missing from his brown sports jacket.

He's beefed out a little since then – more the high-school baseball coach – but his touch is as precise as ever. I was reminded of the Steps Ahead album because of its first number, "Pools". The evening at Pizza Express had a similarly liquid feel, especially on the trio's opener, a dreamy version of "How About You?" Erskine's feather-duster snare and ride cymbal shimmered as a pond on a moonlit night. The piano's statement of the melody was occasional drops rippling the surface, the double bass a small monster of a fish lurking beneath, hidden for the most part and visible only when it moved.

The perfection of the trio's execution and balance permeated all they played, enveloping the listener as in a David Lynch film. The second number, the bizarrely titled "My Most Beautiful Numbers, One, Two and Three", was a case in point. Erskine drove the band from behind the wheel of a classy car; we were going over a hundred, but the ride was all smooth cruising, trippy images of the countryside sweeping by outside the window.

He was aided by the presence of two fine sidemen in Alan Pasqua on piano, from whose fingers elegant riffs trickled and flowed, and Dave Carpenter, a man who produced notes as thick and chewy as molasses from his double bass.

This was a serene evening of modern trio jazz at its most subtle. Sure, Erskine can raise a storm if he wants to, but it was fascinating to watch a master at work demonstrating the finer calibrations of dynamics, and letting the simplicity of a tiny variation – a ride cymbal fitted with an especially loose rivet, for instance – ring true. Less can be more, especially by a tranquil pond on a clear moonlit night.