Category Archives: Jazz venues

Review: Phronesis, The North Wall Oxford, 1 December 2012

The penultimate gig of 2012 for Phronesis was held in the North Wall in Oxford on 1 December, a good venue for listeners with excellent sight lines, comfy seats and lovely mellow brick walls. Old fans were probably hoping for some new material and were well rewarded with at least three new compositions which were not attributed – perhaps a symbol of a new Phronesis, utterly confident in each other’s presence. As I sat there I thought back briefly to seeing the Brad Melhdau trio just two weeks ago at the Barbican, and it hit me – this trio has exactly the same confidence on stage as that well-established entity, only with more equality.

This evening felt daring – old and new were mixed, leaving us to guess which was which – all sounded fresh, deeper, matured like good wine. We heard material from all four Phronesis albums. The sense of continuity in sound and concept, despite changes in drummer and pianist, is amazing, and a tribute to Jasper’s vision. It’s not that the sound is static, it has evolved so naturally that you are unaware that you are learning, that you are adapting to their increasingly complex deep sound. So we started with a tune from the first album Organic Warfare, called Untitled#2 which sounded very stately on the Yamaha piano, five years on, it still worked and sounded new. From their second album we had Love Song and Happy Notes – the latter an ironic commentary on an unwitty heckler. Passing Clouds (from Walking Dark) had an Oriental feel, the gentle movements of Tai Chi made manifest in majestic, floating, billowing sounds with darker clouds evident at the close.

The new material has the gorgeous lyricism we have come to expect. Nomads had me holding my breath, it was so beautiful. Ivo has hit a rich seam of tunes lately – his That Syncing Feeling from Yatra is one of my pieces of the year. Another new piece started with a simple melody on bass that I was still humming in the morning – had I heard it before? No, it just comes naturally.

One of the joys of seeing this trio live is that you never know how Anton will create new sounds. At one stage, I thought he was striking the stands of his drums, perfectly in tune – actually he had cymbals on the floor I think. But the fact that I thought he was hitting his drum supports did not strike me as odd. Sometimes he plays silently, hitting the air for several beats, always he is mesmerising. You have to see them to really appreciate just how tightly they play now, with such empathy for each other.

So I felt very hurt for the band when a woman heckler demanded new, unrehearsed material. It may be Oxford but it was just plain rude to Jasper, it broke the moment. It was extraordinary, to me anyway, that the heckler could have thought that she was not listening to new material when we were. The fact that new material sounded well rehearsed when perhaps it was not is a tribute to the skills of this perfect trio.

Sadly, fans in the UK now have to wait until Phronesis’ next performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 5 April 2013 when we are promised some guests including the singer Olivia Chaney. It’s a big venue but they can fill it, physically and mentally, they are at the top of their game.

Favourite small venues for jazz

Here are my top five small venues for jazz (as a listener):

The Village Vanguard, New York   The scene of seminal live albums such as my favourite Bill Evans “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” and Brad Mehldau’s “Art of the Trio” and “Live”.  It is quite simply the best, most egalitarian jazz club in the world. Turn up early and you get the best seats near the piano.  The seats are hard, the tables tiny, there is no space to move once seated.  The servers are amazing at lip-reading your drink order, never chink money or clink glasses. The sound system is amazing despite ( maybe because of?) the pizza slice shape of the club.  The walls are lined with photos of greats of the past. The piano is impeccable.  Look round the audience, it is often as starry as the artists. But we all come to listen, no business deals are struck, no cell phone dares ring. You won’t want to leave.

Smoke, New York.  Small, plush with nice food, to me if feels a bit like a high class bordello, all velvet plush (I was there in 2006) and servers who are very smartly turned out.  You are free to glare at people who dare to talk during the sets.  The owners pride themselves on the sound system. I was seated right next to the drums but not for one moment did I feel overwhelmed by them.  I was more in danger of losing my dinner to the drummer, Joe Farnsworth, how told me ” We drummers have quick hands!”   You take the A train to get here which is a nice touch.

The Vortex, London.  Extremely civilised – you queue up outside in the rain, then discover that you have been allocated a seat at a table where your name is on a card – they knew you were coming so you feel welcome the moment you walk up the stairs.  You get two sets and plenty of time to enthuse with the fellow guests on your table.  The bar staff are quick and friendly – probably volunteers – the place feels like it is run with love. 

St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry  Gorgeous medieval building with beautiful stained glass and rare tapestries, the perfect setting to hear Dhafer Youssef’s exquisite voice which just soars up to the ceiling of angels.  Late-lamented Coventry jazz festival venue for several years.

A club in Krakow, now not used as a jazz club.  No not the Harris piano bar (too crowded), not U Muniak (perfectly fine though that is). No, this one was a small basement club on the main square, now sadly no longer a jazz club.  We saw a Polish pianist (not Leszek Możdżer) and the most amazing vibes player. What makes me remember this club with such affection is that we came here after a day in Auschwitz, and the Polish faces around me reminded me of the faces I’d seen on the walls of that terrible nightmare place. But here they were so full of life and hope, it made you think, just for a moment, about how amazing it is to be here at all and to be enjoying jazz.