There are so many places in London I mean to go to, but haven't got round to yet. Ronnie Scott's was one such place. But I was was keen to go there to see someone I really liked, not just any old band. The long awaited opportunity came recently when US jazz legend Pharoah Sanders did three nights there with his quartet.
A word about me and jazz before I get into describing the gig. Somehow with jazz, it feels as though you have to prove your credentials. My dad likes jazz (although he prefers swing) so I grew up hearing stories about his visits to Manchester's jazz clubs in the 50s. I discovered recently he even played drums in a band, such a shame I didn't inherit his sense of rhythm.
My friend, Alistair, who's an explorer of the wilder regions of jazz, introduced me to John Coltrane, and of course the Pharoah himself. Like Coltrane, Sanders is known for imbuing his music with a spiritual dimension. Although I usually prefer my jazz with a shot of female vocals, his track, The Creator has a Master Plan has become one of my all time favourites. Check it out on Youtube.
Ronnie Scott's itself is a very slick operation. We were welcomed at the door, and shown to our table. A waitress brought us, without our asking, glasses of iced water. Another waitress came over and introduced herself as our waitress for the evening. I loved the table service but realized later how practical it is. In a small club, the last thing you want is most of the audience ambling to the bar during the artists' sets. And it's all about respect for the artists. Recorded announcements asked us not to take photos, and to keep conversation to a minimum during peformances.
As I walked in, I said 'Wow', sotto voce, and the waitress turned, smiling and asked 'Your first time?', so I gathered it wasn't an uncommon response from the first time visitor. If I'd been asked to describe my ideal of a jazz club beforehand it would've been something like this. Darkened room, with red shaded wall and table lights, banquettes along the sides and intimate tables for twos and fours dotted around. The walls are covered in black and white pictures of jazz performers, usually unlabelled (I guess you're meant to know who they all are, but I didn't). The prices aren't jaw dropping for Soho, with cocktails starting at £9. My favourite was the Green Bison- Bison Grass vodka, kiwi liqueur, fresh kiwi and lime juice stirred with apple juice and fresh lemon grass, served long. The most expensive item on the drinks list, by a long long way, was a bottle of Dom Perignon (1975) at £1300. I wonder how much they charge to let you sniff the cork?
The performance space is tiny, and but manages to accommodate a gorgeous Yamaha grand piano. It's close enough to the seating for the audience to see the way the musicians communicate non verbally with each other. And what of the music? Well, the support band were the Leon Greening Trio. They were all immensely skilled musicians, particularly the pianist, Greening himself. But they played what I think of as Charlie Brown jazz, after the background music that always used to be in those feature length Snoopy cartoons on tv when I was a kid. Pleasant enough in the background but not particularly inspiring, to me at least.
The main act came on at 8.30 and proceeded to hold us spell bound. Forgive me for not knowing the names of all the tracks, but they didn't announce them, just got on with delivering them.I feel I'm not worthy to describe Pharoah Sanders shoes, let alone his music, but I'll give it a go. First up was a galloping, free form number that was like a musical whirlwind. The speed and virtuosity of the playing was awe-inspiring. The second song was even more my cup of darjeeling...you don't realize how much you're enjoying this kind of music until you notice that your body is responding despite you, toes tapping, fingers drumming on the table. My mouth dropped open in awe as Sanders made the most extraordinary variety of sounds on his saxophone; long rippling runs of notes, squeaks and squawks, even a bubbling sound like when you fart in the bath. He played the whole instrument, tapping on the keys and funnel of the sax to end the song.
My Favourite Things came next, delivered in the style of John Coltrane, with whom Sanders often used to play. It was a thrill to hear it live, and such a pleasure to watch Sanders wandering about the tiny performance space. Often, when the sax wasn't required, he would wander off to the side and lean on a table, nodding approvingly as the rest of the band did their solos, like a benevolent father watching his kids play. To lead into the break, they did a truncated version of The Creator has a Master Plan (well the full version is about half an hour long) over which Sanders finally spoke, introducing his colleagues on drums, double bass and piano.
First song back after the short interval was a straight rendition of a jazz standard, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, probably as a nod to their London audience. The pianist sang the lyric, at first a little scratchily but he'd warmed up nicely by the second verse, revealing the richness of his tone. Next up, a tune I don't know the name of, but was in an arabic sounding scale. This was nocturnal, bedtime jazz. The audience was hushed and still, apart from the band there were no sounds other than the whispers of waitresses taking orders. The deep notes of the bass thrummed through the table into my arms, and the long slow notes of the sax seduced us all. To finish, the quartet returned to The Creator has a Master Plan, this time Sanders' deep gravelly voice added in the simple, repeating lyric.
Writing this, I realize how few tracks this seems, but each one seemed to last for many minutes, as these accomplished musicians soloed, improvised and played around the different themes of each song. It was music that touched on the transcendent, the numinous. Spirituality is such a loaded word these days, that I'm almost embarrassed to use it. To me, it describes that which is about the mystery of life; that spirit that quickens all our flesh, what it means to be alive. This music undercut my rational, analytical mind (which is why it's so hard to describe) and spoke to straight to that spirit. Purely and simply, it made me feel thrilled to just be alive.