Jazz: Caresser of the Welsh dresser

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The appeal of Barbara Dennerlein, who headlined at Ronnie Scott's all last week, is at least partly that of Beauty and the Beast. Wan, willowy and ever so demure, she's clearly Beauty, while the Beast is the cut- down Welsh dresser of her Hammond organ. With a princess's hair streaming behind her, Dennerlein coaxes growls, squeaks and outright moans from the mahogany monster while somehow managing to keep an impeccable poker- face throughout. It's like Leda and the Swan, only with foot-pedals.

Though as a piece of furniture it now looks almost Jacobean, the Hammond organ was once at the cutting edge of musical technology, an elephantine forerunner to Daddy-synth and his rude, Bart Simpson-like son, the sampler. Roundly criticised for putting real musicians out of work in the clubs of America in the Fifties, the beast in a box came factory-tooled with its own rhythm section, courtesy of the foot-pedals that imitated a bass, while multiple organ-stops offered a choice of brass and reed-voicings that could make a hard-working horn-section unemployed overnight. Thus Dennerlein was due to perform with only a drummer, though she added saxophonist Nick Keller to take up any slack.

Born in Munich in 1964, Dennerlein is a product of the second wave of the Hammond's popularity when, as new generations of digital keyboards entered the market, their analogue equivalents attained an almost mystical significance for retro-minded musicians. The imagined humanity of antique valves represents a nostalgia for the days when there really seemed to be a ghost in the machine. Accordingly, Dennerlein plays in the genre of the Hammond's tradition of soul-jazz and gospel-tinged grooves, even if the compositions are her own.

Her technique is superb, and the music swings along, but there's something missing all the same. While pioneers like Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Shirley Scott make the beast talk in a cartoon vernacular of bold and brassy phrases, Dennerlein comes across as a little too respectful, and neither of her accompanists pushed her beyond politeness. In short, the Hammond just wasn't beastly enough.

In contrast, the piano playing of the Cuban Ruben Gonzalez, who played at Ronnie's last Sunday and who returns there next Sunday, manages the rare feat of being both satisfyingly cartoon-like and infinitely sensitive. Described by the guitarist Ry Cooder - whose album with Gonzalez is released next month - as having a style that crosses Thelonious Monk with Felix the Cat, Gonzalez is a real find, even if it has taken the rest of the world a very long time to find him. His own album, Introducing Ruben Gonzalez (World Circuit) is his first as a leader, although he is now 78 and normally more or less retired through arthritis.

Not that you'd guess. He favours long, arabesque lines, and while his style betrays his age, being far more cha-cha-cha than salsa, the Felix analogy is spot-on: a wavering, pixillated line animates the melody of each tune, and he occasionally sidesteps into off-kilter chords that turn cocktail jazz into an expressionist mambo.

Gonzalez's band indulges his melancholy solos, the four percussionists and three vocalists standing by happily as he ventures yet another stately attack on the keys, although eventually even the ancient singer gets to do his party-piece. In Cuban music, it seems, there's world enough and time, and as the closing ovations prove, Gonzalez has become a star at last.