On Christmas Day I was sorry to hear that the composer Richard Rodney Bennett had died in his adopted home, New York.
RRB and I had been in touch since I made my Billy Mayerl disc. He wrote to me out of the blue to say how much he liked it. I was thrilled to get a vote of confidence from such a fine jazz pianist. After that, we kept in touch every now and then.
A few years ago I interviewed him for a Radio 4 programme about pianists who find themselves labelled ‘accompanists’. He said plenty of interesting things on the subject while the microphone was on, but spicier and harder-hitting things after it was switched off (the producer lamented afterwards that people often come out with their best anecdotes when the interview’s officially over). I remember RRB said that these days he preferred working with jazz musicians, because they tend not to take their pianists for granted. He gave a special thumbs-up to jazz singer Claire Martin, whom he described as smart, gifted, and collaborative.
I last saw Richard in March last year, on the occasion of his 75th birthday celebrations at the Wigmore Hall. A classical piece of his had been played by the Nash Ensemble in the main evening concert. At 10pm, he switched roles to become the pianist in a late-night jazz programme with Claire Martin. The audiences for the two events were almost entirely different – as RRB wryly noted (he was used to it, of course). Between the two concerts, we had a glass of wine in the downstairs bar. It wasn’t a particularly peaceful drink, because people kept coming up to congratulate him. Richard was in great form and gave no sign at all of diminishing energy, either then or in his elegant piano playing, so it was quite a shock to hear that he had passed away.