The Critics: Yeoh! Piano for the 21st century

She's avant-garde, sparky and charming. She does jazz-piano impros round the 'Magic Roundabout' theme. Phil Johnson meets Nikki Yeoh

Solo jazz piano is normally a serious business, the artiste's head typically bowed low between the keys as if in holy communion with the very soul of the Steinway. So when the soloist starts to improvise on the theme to EastEnders, to play bits of "Chopsticks" and to encore with a strangely funereal version of "Happy Birthday to You", you have to sit up and take notice. So it was with Nikki Yeoh (pronounced Yo), when she performed a sparsely attended solo concert at St George's in Bristol last autumn.

Drawing from familar standards by John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock as well as her own compositions, Yeoh grew in confidence throughout the performance until, by the end, she was flying. She also interspersed the tunes with ironic references to television game-shows and children's programmes in a way that really seemed to bring jazz's long-lost tradition of re-inventing popular music into the present. And importantly, she revealed a winningly sparky personality. "This is somefink I made up meself," she would say by way of introduction, before going into an extempore ramble, as avant- garde as the experiments of free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. It was the best gig I'd seen all year, bar none, and on the strength of it I made her this newspaper's Jazz Musician of 1996.

Even now only 24, Yeoh has yet to make an album, but she's going to be a star. On Friday she performs with her big band, Infinitum +, at the Purcell Room, as part of the Oris London Jazz Festival, in the reprise of a commission from this year's Bath Festival. Reinforcing the sense of the present rather than the past, where jazz usually resides, Yeoh's background is emphatically that of contemporary London. "My dad's Malaysian: one half Chinese, one quarter Thai and one quarter Burmese," she says, "and it's two different types of Chinese as well. Spiritually, I think we're all from the same place, and I try to reflect that in my music. But being of dual heritage obviously affects the way I compose, and being in Britain will give it a different groove."

She speaks a little Mandarin as well as fluent Italian, and her interest in languages provides the raw material for her compositions, in which she harmonises the patterns of everyday speech into musical form. Previous efforts have involved re-orchestrating the theme from the Magic Roundabout - plus Dougal's voice - for her trio, and the piece she will play on Friday developed from a recording of six people reading, in six different languages, one of her own poems. The speech-rhythms were then harmonised into parts for the band, and a video projection of the readings will accompany the music.

Yeoh learnt to play the piano at the age of three. "I used to knock out a few little tunes on a toy piano to entertain the family, and I'd hear things on the telly and try to repeat them, and then my parents thought I should have lessons," she says. "When I was seven, my grandad bought me a piano; he was a London cabbie and he collected his tips to pay for it. My childhood was good, with typical working-class Sundays when they'd have a roast dinner in the afternoon then have a few Guinness, and crash out while I'd be tinkling away. I was an only child, and I'd be saying to my mum 'Let's go out and play', and she'd say 'Leave me be, I'm drinking me Guinness'. So I'd go and play the piano."

She attended Islington Green school, and went to Saturday music lessons given by the jazz trumpeter Ian Carr at his weekend school in Kentish Town. After completing one year of a music degree at Goldsmith's, her first break came at a jam session at the Jazz Cafe in London with Courtney Pine, sitting in for a pianist who hadn't turned up. It led to her joining Pine's band and immediately going off on an international tour; later she joined the band of pop star Neneh Cherry before forming her trio Infinitum + with bassist Michael Mondesir and drummer Keith Leblanc.

Being a female jazz musican isn't, she says, easy. "Any woman who starts in jazz must be true to it, because it's so hard. People say that you can exploit your sexuality, but you can't do that and be true to your art at the same time; it has to be one or the other. People expect women to be a symbol of their sexuality or their femininity, but I'm just there playing the spirit of the music. If people are really checking the music, my sex shouldn't bother them."

The future is wide open, and she has already established the basis of a parallel classical career by writing for Piano Circus. A full-blown symphony could be on the cards in five years' time. "It's that whole thing of the internal clock and I can only really envisage the next year or two,", she says. "I've only really been going for three years, so may be after another three I'll be able to predict the next six. Also, I'm a woman and there's babies and things, y'know? We're born knowing that kind of stuff. There's so much to think about, and then to forget about and just play, in the moment, 'cos that's how the music comes out."

Nikki Yeoh's Infinitum +: Purcell Room, SE1 (0171 960 4242), Fri.

Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

    £65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

    Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

    £27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas