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.

Brad Mehldau Trio: Ode (Nonesuch) March 2012

OK, I am unashamed Brad Mehldau fan. From the moment I first heard him in 2001 at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival I was caught in his spell and it has never been broken. Ode is his latest album with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard. We haven’t had a trio album from him since his 2006 live sets from The Village Vanguard, New York- the album called Live was released in 2008. I know a bit about this album – I was there for two of the sets and I still remember them very clearly. There was a lively mid-week audience of students and I’ll never forget the applause when they recognised Black Hole Sun and the young man who murmurred ” Aw…..Braa..dd…..” in a quiet bit (they left that version of this track out!). From Black Hole Sun to a heart stopping The Very Thought of You, to his anagram of his name ( Buddha Realm), in all cases you get intensity. Yes, we all come for an audience with Brad and we get an almost religious, mystical experience from his dense, cerebral performances, especially in small venues like Wigmore Hall and Village Vanguard.

You do get the impression that Brad is controlling and shaping his discography as carefully as Bill Evans did before him, and I guess that is not something most musicians can afford to do? His output is prolific – albums are rarely released in chronological order – so Ode was recorded in 2008 but has only now been released.

Ode consists of eleven original compositions. Not a single Radiohead, oh well never mind. Oh please record “Jigsaw falling into place” soon Brad. So it’s actually a pleasant surprise to listen to Ode and not feel wrung out emotionally, at least on many of the tracks. And the liner notes are easy to grasp! If you know Highway Rider you will recognise echoes of it but that’s hardly surprising as both were composed at the same time. Eulogy of George Hanson is probably closest to the intense Brad we know with a shimmering trembling piano.

My favourite track is Days of Dilbert Delaney. I love its gentle roll and sway. It’s Brad at his most relaxed with his signature right and left hand playing different tempos and all the time something bubbling underneath. This is joyous music with a delicate fade out.

Dave Stapleton ‘Flight’ on Edition Records(EDN1032) release date May2012

This album was to have been called Polaroid but in the end it was named ‘Flight’  and I’m really glad that name was chosen because you are going on a journey where the sax ( in particular) soars like the bird on the cover and there is a sense of space in all the tracks.  Flight starts with the very sombre, haunting ‘Before’ played exquisitely by the Brodowski String Quartet.  Marius Neset on tenor sax enters quietly on ‘Polaroid’ then the piano mimics, like a photo coming out of a polaroid camera. The track ‘Flight’ is slightly menacing and  leads straight into ‘Henryk Part I’ – is this about Gorecki?  I detect an air of sadness.    There was nothing sad about Marius Neset’s album Golden Xplosion so it’s interesting to hear the reflective side of Marius on this album.   ‘Henryk Part II’ opens with a lovely  piano solo  from Dave and ends with a quiet partnership between piano and sax- it cries out for live performance – this track will make you want to weep, it is so tender and gentle.

‘Whisper’ sounds like waves on the shore, or the quiet breathing of someone sleeping. It’s my favourite track because it’s delicate but strong.   ‘Running East’ starts with strings again – you could be in the Purcell Room listening to classical music – at last I notice the drums played by Olavi Louhivuori from Finland and the feathery bass played by Dave Kane.  Put this track on its own and you are in ECM territory, really Northern, spacious, cool and relaxed.   ‘North Wind’ is the longest track at over 13 minutes and has three movements.  You are coming to the end of the journey with a gentle opening movement, this isn’t a cold North Wind but a healing one, then the strings judder, swoop and glide enabling the sax to pick up the tempo. Then a last blast of storm from Marius.  Finally there is peace and a return to the opening phrases. It’s very lovely and you are holding your breath in the closing moments as you don’t want to break the spell.

Sit in your favourite chair, turn off your phone and listen, several times. You will find beauty and depth of feeling in this excellent contemplative album and it will really grow on you. It’s going to be fabulous heard live and I for one am looking forward to the St George’s  Brandon Hill performance in that perfect acoustic.

You can see Dave Stapleton and his ensemble in Bristol, Cardiff and London:

3rd May 2012 – DAVE STAPLETON – St. Georges, Bristol

4th May 2012– DAVE STAPLETON – Dora Stoutzker Hall, RWCMD, Cardiff

5th May 2012– DAVE STAPLETON – Kings Place, London,  ALBUM LAUNCH

‘Flight’ is available from Edition Records:


Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile, Wigmore Hall, Sept 2011

Brad Mehldau’s gig with Chris Thile at Wigmore Hall in September 2011 will go down as one of my favourite nights at Wigmore Hall. My companion and I expected that a concert with a lute player would cover madrigals with a jazzy twist. Imagine our surprise when Chris Thile opened the gig with a rousing blue grass number, to whoops of delight from the back of the hall.  “Hey” we thought, ” They don’t sound like Brad fans”.  I think it was a night when Brad was slightly upstaged in a very good humoured way.

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