Lambert – The Vortex Jazz Club, London UK (22nd May 2017)

A hesitant audience, surveying Lambert and his drummer as they amble to the stage, will have two opposing impressions. The first: the duo’s unmissable demonic buffalo masks, with enormous horns rising up two feet above their heads. The second: their choice of outfit, hoodies and tracksuit bottoms. Intrigue is countered by a ripple of barely suppressed laughter and perplexity. This, we find, is the theme for the evening.

It all starts serenely enough. Lambert descends on the piano, his drummer to the drums, and the music begins. The atmosphere is established: intimate, wine-sipping, table-huddling. Not an uncommon ambience for any 100-max capacity venue like the Vortex Jazz Club, dedicated to experimental and improvised jazz and contemporary music. Delicious waves of piano, heightened by the sweet accompaniment of tapping drums, descend and slumber over the nodding heads of the audience. It could be any other contemporary piano concert. Save for those uncanny, foreboding antlers towering out over the instruments…

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Even if Lambert‘s identify is unknown (or rather, quietly unaddressed), there’s no doubt about his classical training. His performance demonstrates a soft mastery of the grand piano, in the quiver of a passing ornament note and the consistency of the dynamics. But the audience just can’t get past those eerie disguises. Of course, Lambert knows it. He often looks around to the crowd, and in the sockets of the mask, his eyes are searching our expressions. After the first mannerly applause, he wanders to the microphone (wedging it under the chin of his mask). He breathes in a thickly Germanic accent: ‘The way you look tonight is great… the way you look at us, even better.’ Laughter erupts in an unexpected bark. And just like that, the atmosphere is broken. The audience lean forward in anticipation.

Little surprises, like unexpected raindrops, creep into their music. First, the drummer. For a moment, he seems to forget how to play the drums. Instead, he tinkers his sticks against the hat stands, the cymbal stands, the screws and joints. There’s a childish performed momentum to it, as if he’s just realising the joy of alternative sound.

Then more. One moment Lambert is playing away, the next he’s leaning directly into the open skeleton of the piano, tapping against the raw strings of the keys, muting and ringing the notes. Simple, yet so effective. An unexpected whoop rises and pops out of the bubble of the quiet crowd. The mask pivots around. Eyes focus on the assemble. Then his free hand impatiently pumps to the ceiling – the obvious silent intention: ‘Come on!’ – and the crowd collapses into cheers.

Then without warning, everything changes. The duo are playing to a crescendo, louder and louder, masculine chords and smacking bass drum.  Suddenly, Lambert‘s not playing chords anymore, but smashing his fists against the ivories, and now, his forearms… Cheers are climbing as he stands, hits against the piano’s strings again, sits back down, smashes the piano lid down between alternate fist smashing… The crowd by now are absolutely wild. Any barriers left between audience and performer come crashing down. The poor Steinway bears the brunt of Lambert‘s utterly improvised and experimental power.

The show’s energy is set. Wine glasses are empty, but no one rises for a refill. And, in all of this, it just gets funnier. Between songs, Lambert tells more stories to tickle the audience. The drummer is never doing the same thing twice, one moment tackling a MIDI synth, next jumping between sticks to brushes to brooms. At one point, he brings out from behind him yet another instrument of choice, what can only be described as a bizarre bright green, snake-like object covered in bells. From one moment to the next, the venue is whisked away into the unknowing rise and fall of emotion, always pivoting on some place over the scale between laughter and confusion, applause and silenced elation.

The encore at the show’s reluctant conclusion is wholehearted, extended and meaningful. All theatrics aside, Lambert expresses his deep, heartfelt gratitude. But as an audience, we’re the thankful ones. This evening we’ve glimpsed a new road of live music for contemporary piano. For an artist of this capability, it doesn’t really matter whether the audience knows his music before the show or not; only a live performance can capture and demonstrate all the intrigue, comedy, showmanship and improvised energy that Lambert has to offer.