Monday 13th March - Tuesday 14th March
Since her emergence on the British jazz scene in the mid 90s pianist Nikki Yeoh has proved to be an improviser, composer and all-round adventurer who has continually sought to broaden her musical horizons. She has led her own bands in prestigious venues such as the Royal Festival Hall and performed with hip-hop producers like DJ Pogo at more informal spaces such as the Jazz Café. She has been part of a brilliant duo with the vocalist Cleveland Watkiss and also worked with choral ensembles. In other words Yeoh is a creative free spirit who, although deeply rooted in the language of improvisation, is open to a range of music that leans as much to populism as it does high art.
Indeed it was a tour with the maverick pop vocalist Neneh Cherry that led Yeoh to form her first significant group, as she clicked musically with two other members of the singer’s backing band, the bass guitarist Michael Mondesir and drummer Keith Le Blanc, noted for his work for the pioneering hip-hop label Sugar Hill.
After making its debut at the Jazz Café in 1994 the trio, which Yeoh called Infinitum, toured as part of a double bill with Django Bates’ Human Chain, and Michael’s brother Mark eventually took over the drum chair as the group did more international work, a highlight of which was a trip to Cuba for a collaboration with Conjunto Folklorico Nacional De Cuba.
Those who have seen Yeoh in any one of the aforementioned settings will testify to her virtuosity on the keyboard. Drawing on pioneers from the worlds of jazz, classical music and soul, above all the likes of Herbie Hancock, Alexander Scriabin and Stevie Wonder, Yeoh has developed a style that can move from explosive rhythmic energy to understated lyricism at a moment’s notice. Indeed her ability to conjure up the most vividly evocative of moods by way of subtle, probing harmony, either in a duo, as with vocalist Watkiss, or in the demanding context of solo piano, has been proven time and again.
Accomplished soloist as she is, Yeoh has also excelled as a composer over the years and this is borne out by the number of very significant commissions she has to her name. Among the most notable recent works is a Suite Of Seven Tunes, based on the seven deadly sins, for the internationally renowned reeds virtuoso, John Surman. This was premiered at the 2010 Cheltenham International Jazz Festival. Prior to that, in 2006, Yeoh presented River Spirit, which was written for The Oxford New College Boys Choir following a commission from Oxford Contemporary Music. These two compositions were testimony to the wealth of ideas that she has generated since the early stages of her career, and the impression she made with Infinitum Plus, a work for a 12-piece ensemble, was considerable to say the least. It could not have been a clearer sign of the composer’s ambition and unpredictability, so it was characteristic of Yeoh to subsequently head in an entirely different direction, writing three pieces for classical piano virtuoso Joanna MacGregor, Be-Bop, Entwined and Flora And Fauna, that were featured on the album Piano Language.
Yeoh’s output to date reflects an irrepressible spirit of curiosity that has taken her into areas far and wide, be it gigs with cutting edge jazz musicians such as Steve Williamson and Courtney Pine, soul stars like Jean Carne and Roy Ayers, or the fiercely original hip-hop group The Roots. Regardless of the setting Yeoh always shows the same degree of dynamism and responsiveness, qualities that she has developed through both her personal research of the history of music and extensive travels in Latin America, India, the Far East and Europe.
As she prepares to release her debut album, Nikki Yeoh is at the peak of her artistic powers. To her experience as a player has been added substantial life experience, above all the joy of being both a teacher and mother. Her music remains one of her most precious creations.
© 2016 Kevin Le Gendre