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Arts Festival Review: Jan Preston

Jan Preston

Reviewed by Tyler Hersey

Jan Preston
The National Bank Festival Club
Feb 26

Looking out on a Festival Club tent brimming with white hair, boogie woogie and ragtime pianist Jan Preston gave the Sunday afternoon audience an upbeat tribute to their own bygone era. The mood was infectious, and what began as toe tapping soon progressed into hiked up trouser legs, unbuttoned collars, and even a remarkably energetic couple who decided to swing dance through the last three songs.

Preston’s strength lies in her ability to faithfully reproduce the idiosyncrasies of classic blues artists ranging from Memphis Minnie to Scott Joplin. From the accent of her singing voice to the insistent pounding of her left hand, Preston embodied not only the spirit of past performers, but also the performances themselves. During a cover of Joplin’s ragtime classic “The Entertainer,” it was a joy to hear Preston incorporate the unusual pauses and delays which are so evident on recordings of the composer.

Subtly backed by Wellington drummer Jeremy Fitzsimmons and electric bassist Sue Dunlop, Preston gave the audience a handful of blues classics accompanied by amiable stage banter and plenty of local references. A Kiwi who moved to Sydney in 1981, Preston played the trans-Tasman rivalry for all it was worth, even telling her favourite Australia joke. “What’s the difference between an Australian wedding and an Australian funeral?” she asked. Silence. Then the punchline: “One less drunk.”

Opening with a string of instrumental tunes, Preston quickly established a rhythmic vamp that would permeate the entire concert. Indeed, her material rarely strayed from the boogie woogie style, with its “oom-pah, oom-pah” bassline played in octaves with the left hand, and blues triplets springing forth from the right. With both hands constantly in motion, the sound from her piano was quite dense, giving little room for Dunlop’s bass to hold up the bottom end. On the more practiced numbers, Preston relaxed and her right hand took flight, with cascades of notes and cool blues licks showing off her virtuosity in this genre.

An accomplished instrumental performer, Preston also possesses the appealing voice and soulful attitude needed to cover such African-American artists as Fats Domino, Julia Lee, and Memphis Minnie. Indeed, her versions of songs by these seminal rhythm and blues artists proved to be the most fulfilling parts of Sunday’s concert. The vocal line from the Domino classic “Blueberry Hill” was an excellent fit for Preston’s range, and she added a sassy lisp to her voice for a great cover of Memphis Minnie’s “I’m a Bad Luck Woman.”

Within her genre, Preston is a wonderful artists and a great purveyor of this historic blues sound. However, her strict focus on boogie woogie and ragtime makes for a somewhat repetitive show. Although a mid-concert dip into Baroque classical added variety, it ultimately came off flat and uninspired. But with her sassy vocals and timeless blues piano licks, Jan Preston brings the soul of yesterday into our modern world.

*************

NZ Arts Festival: Jan Preston
Jan Preston website
Scoop Full Coverage: Festival 2006

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