Two Piano Tornado sets toes tapping

There'll be no sitting still when Annie Avery and Grant Simpson bring their two pianos into three venues this week to launch their long-awaited CD Two Piano Tornado.

There’ll be no sitting still when Annie Avery and Grant Simpson bring their two pianos into three venues this week to launch their long-awaited CD Two Piano Tornado.

The two Whitehorse-beloved musicians, grooving in New Orleans jazz style or igniting a ragtime tune by Jelly Roll Morton, will spark a dance in any pair of feet.

Avery and Simpson are both accomplished musicians in their mid-fifties with multiple recording projects. Two Piano Tornado, their first recorded collaboration, is a lively ride through 10 jazz standards and one original song. Tucked in after a spirited rendition of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” Simpson’s “I’m Gonna Name My Gypsy Wagon After You” is a lilting tune that dissolves slowly and sweetly like taffy.

The title for the compilation was a simple choice. Avery and Simpson have used “Two Piano Tornado” as a moniker for a Frostbite Festival stint in 2010 and a Fats Waller Tribute in 2011, among other gigs.

The two don’t need much rehearsal before playing together. They prefer what Avery calls “spontaneous combustion.”

“When we do a gig, it’s, ‘What do you want to focus on?’” Simpson says. “We both know a lot of piano stuff between the two of us and we each have our area of expertise, so there’s tons of crossover. Like Annie’s really good at New Orleans stuff, she’s got all the little rolls, all the little nuances. So it’s really fun.”

“And he’s got the fastest left hand in Canada!” Avery interjects, adding that Simpson is an expert in stride and in songs from the 1920s.

They continued the spontaneous approach in the sessions at Old Crow Recording, run by Bob Hamilton (Avery’s partner) out at Wolf Creek.

“We’ve got so many tunes it’s overwhelming, so for the recording session we just went and played,” Avery says. “It’s almost like Grant would say, ‘Do you know “All the Things You Are”’ and we’d say ‘Yea, let’s try it!’ So we played a tune three or four times. Then if there was a take worth taking, we took it.”

A few vocal tracks were overdubbed, but all piano tracks are original takes.

“People who have to do forty-eight tracks, it’s hard work to get anything that sounds spontaneous. This recording sounds happy,” Avery explains.

The two have wanted to record together since they first performed together in 2009. They met in the mid-1980s at a tourism industry association conference in Fairbanks. Simpson played saw and banjo, and Avery played piano in one number and put on snowshoes as part of a comedic can-can dance in another number.

Over the years, they began to know each other’s work, but it took time. Simpson works as a full-time musician and directs the Frantic Follies vaudeville shows each summer, a role he’s thrived in since 1980. Avery runs a full music-teaching schedule, records with multiple Yukon artists and plays live shows practically every week of the year. Avery has also played with the Frantic Follies part-time for the past two seasons.

“We couldn’t hang out together much because usually when Annie’s playing somewhere I’m playing somewhere,” Simpson says. “Sometimes we could catch part of each other’s show. But we like playing together and we like each other.”

Like all committed jazz musicians, they respect the original versions of songs that have become standards, but they don’t try to recreate someone else’s version.

“Between the two of us we’ve probably heard thousands of tunes, both live and recorded,” says Simpson. “But then there’s a way that I do it when I play it, and there’s a way that Annie plays it, and between the two is how we play it, so it really is that kind of collaboration.”

Both musicians record original songs with others – Simpson with Whitehorse’s folk singer-songwriter Kate Weekes, and Avery with Dawson City’s harmonica-and-guitar player George McConkey, to name just two examples.

The Two Piano Tornado combo will do more originals in a future recording, but for now, there are so many tunes to honour by making them different every time, Avery adds.

“So we should play the very best of music. And not everybody should presume, because they’re creating music, that it’s any good.

“If you look at a list from all the tunes that were popular, let’s just say in 1942, you could go through thousands of semi-OK tunes that made the charts until you could find five or six that would stand out as lasting music. So when you look at the plethora of bad songwriters that we have today, there might be half a song in a year that would stand out as good music.”

The music-drenched conversation could go on. And it does, each time Avery and Simpson perform. Both ooze knowledge and passion for ragtime, swing, stride, jazz and more.

Ask Grant Simpson sometime about seeing the Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin Big Band for the first time, or Annie Avery about hearing Henry Butler in New Orleans over the years. Or just head to one of the CD release concerts and shout out a request, and get a double-keyboard response.

Two Piano Tornado plays at the Old Fire Hall this Thursday, at Marsh Lake Community Centre on Friday and at the Mount Lorne Community Centre on Saturday.

The shows all start at 7:30 p.m. Call 667-7083 for details.

Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist in Dawson City.