THIS year’s London Jazz Festival was something of a praise song to cosmopolitan jazz piano and it begins with Cuba.
When two keyboard stalwarts, Chucho Valdes from Quivican and Gonzalo Rubalcaba from Havana, play opposite each other at two pianos on the Barbican stage, the musical genius of the revolutionary island swings and surges.
Valdes’s rippling runs up the keys and Rubalcaba’s emphatic, hard-struck and crystalline notes chime the shared bells of piano joy, melody and rampaging improvisation.
It’s as if each of their magical instruments has many more keys than they actually have and they evidently enjoy their London meeting as much as their enraptured audience.
At the Cadogan Hall, veteran Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko is joined by the much younger members of his New York quartet — Detroit drummer Gerald Cleaver, bassist Reuben Rogers from the Virgin Islands and another Cuban pianist, the brilliant David Virelles.
Stanko’s terse, rasping and nerve-cutting horn, starkly blown, provides generous solo opportunities for his bandmates.
And, as Rogers’s bass dances, Cleaver’s drums mix subtlety and power and Virelles fuses waves of Caribbean rhythm and New York stride, the quartet swing like fury.
It’s a long time since Abdullah Ibrahim, then Dollar Brand, exiled himself from apartheid South Africa and met a marvelling Duke Ellington in a Zurich night club.
His US band Ekaya play proudly as they reinvent some of his old tunes at the Royal Festival Hall, including a spirited version of Scullery Department, written by his old bebop jazz friend from The Jazz Epistles, alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi.
Ibrahim reminds his listeners of the time when black musicians waited for their gigs to begin in segregated Johannesburg hotels and you can feel that his bandmates, in particular drummer Will Terrell, bassist Noah Jackson, altoist Cleave Guyton and trumpeter Andrae Murchison, are reliving similar times from their own civil rights history.
The wonderful pianist Zoe Rahman plays a memorable lunchtime set at Soho’s Pizza Express, with her Anglo-Bengali roots to the fore.
She strikes the keys with her characteristic power and beauty on Ibrahim’s Sunset in Blue, Ellington’s Single Petal of a Rose, her own Dantastic — dedicated to her son — and a scintillating These Foolish Things.
Like Ibrahim, Virelles, Rubalcaba and Valdes, Rahman makes you thank the Earth for the piano and all those musicians globally who have loved and mastered it.