Duelling pianos

“Make sure you ask Dayle about last year at the Wellington Jazz Festival,” says Ben Wilcock over  the phone to me.

“He glued his fingers together about five minutes before we went on stage.”

I had just asked Ben whether he had any ‘fighting talk’ ahead of his upcoming piano duel with Dayle Jellyman at Tauranga’s National Jazz Festival.

The pair have been duelling it out with much humour and banter, delighting jazz-loving audiences since they first met up in a Wellington bar.

“Dayle used to drive around Wellington with an acoustic piano in his van,” says Ben. “I had a regular gig with the Jelly Rolls under the Embassy Theatre in the Black Sparrow.

“One day, we decided to bring Dayle’s piano in. We set up a duelling piano and it worked really well. We did it for the Wellington Jazz Festival and then continued for five years in a row. It sold out every time and has become a really popular part of  that festival.

“John Rae is in the middle - he’s a Scottish drummer. He’s always been in the middle, and it seems to be his gig. He acts as a referee and Dayle and I play songs.

“We never rehearse. It’s just spontaneous. We just turn up and we don’t know what the other is going to play. In fact, last year Dayle joked that I send him a set list with the songs and keys, and each year I never play any of those, which is true.” Ben says.

“I try and be genuine but it’s not working.”

With most of the songs based in the jazz, blues or the boogie woogie tradition, both musicians have a similar taste in music and piano style.

“We pick up the chords and often we know the song the other one is playing, so all we’ve got to figure out is the key.

“There’s a spontaneity in there that people like. And we like it.”

Later, over the phone, Dayle confirms the glued finger story.

“There was something wrong with the piano,” says Dayle, “so I fixed it with some glue and got it all over my fingers. It turns out it wasn’t water-based.

“I don’t believe Ben and I have ever had a rehearsal. We’ve been friends for a long time, and it’s really fun to play with him.

“We alternate. He’ll start and I’ll figure out what he’s doing and play along. It’s pretty cool as it’s got that energy when you play, that you’re winging it.”