Winifred Atwell Revisited: Sun 28 Nov 1.30pm

Adam Fairhill – piano and Johnny Hunter – suitcase drums

Adam Fairhall and Johnny Hunter, stalwarts of Manchester and Sheffield’s creative music scenes, have established a piano/drums duo to explore early jazz forms through an avant garde lens. The piano/drums format is perfectly suited to this, being a favoured format in both Harlem stride and free music.  

Adam’s interest in ragtime, stride, barrelhouse, boogie and blues has been well-documented on previous albums, including The Imaginary Delta (SLAM 2012, named Album of the Year by Bird is the Worm) and his solo album Friendly Ghosts (Efpi 2017). His ability to mix these idioms with contemporary approaches has resulted in a distinctive pianistic voice. Johnny’s versatility and inventiveness as a drummer has resulted in an equally individual musical personality, and as with Adam his vocabulary ranges across eras, from ragtime snare techniques to deft swing brushwork and clattering free textures.  

Johnny and Adam have forged a close musical understanding via a number of projects, including their piano trio Fragments (Fragments, Northern Contemporary, 2019) and organ trio Revival Room (Revival Room, Efpi, forthcoming), and in duo format their communication, quick-thinking and sheer playfulness is fully evident. 

Their current duo project is titled Winifred Atwell Revisited. In this they explore the repertoire and idiom of a neglected figure of 1950s British popular music, the Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell. Atwell was enormously popular in Britain and Australia in the post-war era, selling over 20 million records, and yet she is barely a footnote in jazz histories and histories of popular music. In a sense, her music falls between stools; too little improvisation to be considered genuinely jazz and yet too much a part of the murky pre-rock era of popular music to be considered by pop histories.   

Nonetheless, in addition to forging a ground-breaking career (she was the first black person to have a no.1 hit in the UK), Atwell brought aspects of the honky tonk piano craze sweeping America together with the music hall and pub piano traditions of Britain, and her music resonated deeply with the mid-century revivals of ragtime and traditional jazz in both the US and the UK. In this sense Atwell was a nexus point of various streams of transatlantic popular music. She made boogie and ragtime household sounds in the UK.  

Adam became interested in Atwell after a conversation with Jazz promoter Tony Dudley-Evans, in which Tony referred to the work on Atwell by a mutual friend, jazz academic George McKay. Adam played a tune from Atwell’s repertoire – If You Knew Susie – at Ethan’s Last Rent Party (London Jazz Festival, 2018), and received many encouraging comments from audience members who remembered Atwell’s music fondly (the concert itself received 4-star reviews in the Guardian and Financial Times). Adam then proposed the Atwell project to Johnny, and they performed a well-received concert at Manchester Jazz Festival 2019. They have recently recorded an album of Atwell repertoire, to be released on Efpi Records in late Autumn 2021.

The music mixes ragtime, stride and boogie with contemporary idioms. The music is exciting, accessible and adventurous, and audiences will love it, especially jazz fans who also remember Atwell!

Adam Fairhill – piano and Johnny Hunter – suitcase drums, “Winifred Atwell Revisited” @Seven Arts Leeds 28 November 1.30-4pm. Tickets £10/8/5 here


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