Saturday, February 26, 2005

Michael Kaeshammer Trio, Feb. 25, Winnipeg, Canada

Last night, German-born, Vancouver-based jazz pianist sensation Michael Kaeshammer played what looked like a packed house at the West End Cultural Centre with bassist Marc Rogers and drummer Ben Riley. This was his first Winnipeg appearance since playing a small club show (the Liberty Grill) and opening for the Neville Brothers at Pantages Playhouse Theatre, last June at the Jazz Winnipeg Festival.

I had not heard about Kaeshammer until a co-worker raved about his astonishing performance at the Liberty Grill. A few months later, I heard this brilliant, rollicking, piano medly on CBC’s Vinyl Café and was absolutely floored. The audience in the live recording erupted with applause, as if they were hearing and seeing something truly extraordinary.

I arrived around 6:45 pm at the venue and was the fourth person in line. I made a bee-line for the front row and ended up saving two seats for a co-worker and his wife. My seat gave me a straight-ahead view of Kaeshammer and his furious hands. Thankfully, the sound was at a perfect volume level.

Early on in the show, Kaeshammer announced that they love playing encores and will play their encore now rather than later on in the show. Cue the audience laughter. At this point, I knew that this would be an evening of playfulness like I have not seen before in a jazz show. I can see some jazz purists not appreciating his humour, the multitude of false endings with long, meandering, esoteric soloing. At one point, just when it seemed he had finished yet another burst of soloing and brought a song to an end, an audience member began to clap. Still soloing, Kasehammer, raised one hand and pointed it towards that person as if to say, “I’m not done yet.” It was a comical moment that brought measured laughter from the audience.

Early on, he played Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies. He also played Fats Waller, one of his early influences. He told a story about how in the old days, piano players would take turns playing during intermissions in the clubs and if a newcomer was better than the featured player, the featured player would get fired on the spot in favour of the newcomer.

While playing, he typically kept a beat with one foot, while the other one sat still. It’s like he was his own rhythm section. It’s quite something to see. He also sang a few times, evoking the style of Harry Connick, Jr.

The trio swung with a very satisfying groove. Drummer Ben Riley and bassist Marc Rogers were acknowledged several times after their solos by the pianist. The bassist also plucked out the opening notes to Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused, among other vignettes. There were several times in the show when the individual members of the band tried to throw each other of. Kaeshammer commented on this last year in The Manitoban,

“It’s like doing a practical joke on a friend or something. It’s a joy for us to try and throw each other off — if you can throw the other guy off it becomes a train wreck and he has to find his way back,” says Kaeshammer, describing the band’s impromptu competitions.”

Always ready for a joke, Kaeshammer introduced a funeral march for the “2004-2005 NHL season” to considerable laughter.

Not to belittle his band mates, Kaeshammer was spellbinding playing all by himself. Just the sound of the keys, his constantly moving foot and the occasional pluck of the piano wires from inside the grand piano focused our attention.

While best known as a boogie-woogie player (a blues-structured style), Kaeshammer played ballads, stride, ragtime, snippets of classical and straight-ahead jazz. Given his mastery of so many styles, it’s not possible to really pigeonhole him anymore. What can’t he play well is the question to ask.

I would describe Kaeshammer as being mischievously clever, charismatic, and at times, esoteric (I mean, who else plucks grand piano wires?) He strives to be, and succeeds wildly in being, entertaining.

At the end of the encore, I was exhausted, if that’s possible from sitting down. The band gave us a night to remember and rave about and we were content to have them call it an evening.

At the end of the show, Kaeshammer showed up at the hall’s entrance by the merchandise booth to sign autographs, which was no doubt a treat for the fans, old and new. Look out America. I won’t be surprised if Kaeshammer becomes the next jazz superstar.

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