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A sizzling piano competition

The below article appeared in the Sept/Oct issue of Pianist magazine:
Thanks to a jazz piano competition with an international reach, Nottingham may be turning into a new jazz mecca. Inge Kjemtrup talks to one of the competition founders, Clement Pianos’ Mick Wilson

How did a Nottinghambased competition for solo jazz pianists get to become so famous that young jazz pianists from around the world are thronging to take part?With the fourth Nottingham International Jazz Piano Competition just one year away (and deadline for entrants approaching in March), it seemed a timely question to ask of one of theorganisers, Mick Wilson. In his day job, Mick and his brother Andy are directors of Clement Pianos. They’re the thirdgeneration of a family-run piano shop that was founded in 1919.

Photo: Tom Partridge

Photo: Tom Partridge

‘Being in the piano industry, we see lots of good pianists, and we wanted to find a way to recognise them and get them noticed,’ explains Mick. They settled on the idea of presenting a piano competition, but soon realised that there were all too many classical competitions – and vanishingly few jazz pianocompetitions (there’s one, for example, that runs concurrently with the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland). Solo jazz pianists seemed ‘desperately unsupported’, says Mick.After four years of discussion and planning, the Nottingham Jazz Piano Competition was launched in 2008. That first competition, won by Manchester pianist Dan Whieldon, was a success. But the amount of interest from overseas pianists made the organisers realise they’d have to allow non-British pianists to enter, and the next two competitions were won by two New Yorkers – Logan Thomas (in 2010) and Jeremy Siskind (in 2012). However, given the increasing strength of British jazz playing, it’s easy to imagine a British winner of the next biennial competition, whichtakes place 3-5 October 2014.

Over the years, the format of the competition has been tweaked, but the core concept has remained the same. Competitors areoutstanding young jazz pianists aged under 30, who send a sample of their playing along with their application (due by 31 March 2014 this time). Then the serious listening begins. ‘Thejudges listen to all the entries anonymously,’ says Mick, who recuses himself from jury duty. (‘My musical expertise is more classical than jazz, though I love jazz,’ he says.) The judges narrow it down to 12 semi-finalists, who will appear in Nottingham in October to play a 20-minute programme comprising blues, a standard and a contemporary tune. In the grand final, held at Nottingham Albert Hall on 5 October, the four finalists will play for 25 minutes each – but after that, they will facean ordeal that you certainly can’t imagine being part of any classical competition. ‘Finalists are given a short musical motif that they’ve never seen before,’ explains Mick. ‘They are given 60 seconds to think about it and then they improvise.’ This terrifying-sounding experience has, according to Mick, separated the merely talented from the superstars, and determined the winner in more than one instance. ‘At the endof the day, we are presenting them as a performer and a composer.’ Another unusual aspect, introduced in 2012, is the audience vote, which is not simply a way to discover which performer the audience is rooting for, but can be crucial for determining the outcome. There is a judging panel of fourprofessional musicians, but the audience has the casting vote. ‘We think this gets the audience more involved,’ says Mick. As we went to press, the members of the judging panel areTim Richards, leader of the bands Spirit Level and Great Spirit; pianist and composer Andrea Vicari; British Jazz Award ‘Best Pianist’ winner Dave Newton and pianist and Leeds Collegelecturer Jamil Sherriff. The 2014 competition also marks a change of supporter to Bösendorfer, the luxury Austrianmaker now owned by Yamaha, and Pianist magazine as the media sponsor.

‘Bösendorfer is really pleased to be supporting this competition,’ says Leanne Barrell, Marketing and Promotions Manager for Yamaha UK. ‘Bösendorfer is one of the favourites in the jazz community and we’re delighted to be supporting jazz talent around the world. With prizes including performancesat Ronnie Scott’s, the 606 Club and Jazzland in Vienna this is an opportunity not to be missed! Surely that’s a dream for all jazzers.’ Ah yes, the prizes. In addition to the club dates mentioned by Barrell and other performance opportunities, the 2014 winner will also get to record an album in studios inNottingham, and a track of their playing will be included on the covermount CD of an issue of Pianist. ‘The grand final is also recorded and a CD is created from that,’ says Mick.And of course all the competitors will have the pleasure of playing on a Bösendorfer grand, an instrument favoured by the late great jazz legend Oscar Peterson – most definitely aninspiration for any young jazz pianist.

How to enter

The deadline to the Nottingham InternationalJazz Piano Competition is 31 March 2014.Go to www.nijpc.com for entry details.

How to attend

The competition’s semi-finals and the grand final(3–5 Oct 2014) are open to the public. Bookingdetails will be available at www.nijpc.com

Media partner

Pianist magazine is media partner to the Competition www.pianistmagazine.com