Pizza the action

Rob Ryan celebrates a long-running marriage of carbohydrates and jazz, cheesy 1950s teen movies, a jazzy actor and a former Bad Boy

Thursday, 28th July — By Rob Ryan

Emma Rawicz 2022 1

Emma Rawicz

JAZZ and food in this country have not always made for happy bedfellows. Witness Ronnie Scott’s way of promoting the kitchen at his famous club from the stage: “Try the food. A million flies can’t be wrong.” The situation (and Ronnie’s food) has improved immeasurably over the past decade but even during the darkest culinary days there has always been one stalwart dishing up decent eats between sets – PizzaExpress in Soho.
The basement club in Dean Street was the brainchild of the jazz-loving PizzaExpress founder Peter Boizot, who came up with the idea of combining the Great American Songbook with great American Hots (with extra pepperoni). From 1976 onward, it has presented a mix of new names and established stars, mainstream to avant-garde. I have listened to the booming baritone of Gregory Porter there, the mainstream mastery of saxman Scott Hamilton and the angular, hip-hop-influenced constructs of alto player Steve Coleman & Five Elements, and all points in between.

The chain has been through some upheavals (and changes of ownership) of late, but, to its credit, it has kept faith with live music (there are venues in Holborn and the Kings Road, although Dean Street remain its spiritual hub). Now it has spent around half a million pounds giving the old girl an update. Nothing radical – the bar has moved and there’s classy new upholstery, mirrors and lighting. As trumpeter Guy Barker, who played the refurbishment’s launch night last week, put it: “It’s been nicely juju-ed, so it feels like walking into an LA club.”

I’m looking forward to checking it out in action and seeing Devon-born, London-based Emma Rawicz take the stage (which has not been moved) on July 30. A preposterously young sax and flute player who recently won Best Newcomer in the 2022 Parliamentary Jazz Awards, her debut album Incantation is well worth investigating. Thanks to her Flora Purim-ish vocals, Scottie Thompson’s lyrical piano and Ant Law’s splendid guitar, some of it has the feel of ECM-era Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays, but she can do post-bop blowing and tempo-twisting fusion too. First albums by clearly talented artists are often just a snapshot of a moment in their development and it’ll be fascinating to see where she is on her musical journey at the Pizza. At the other end of the career spectrum, the room is also playing host to the veteran pianist George Cables (August 13). Cables has been a valued sideman to many of Emma Rawicz’s influences/heroes – including Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Joes Henderson and Farrell. His style is bright and swinging and he knows how to work a groove and a room. Cables is in London with a quartet that includes the great Darryl Hall on bass, who has a similarly glittering CV, from Carmen Lundy to Robert Glasper. Tickets and full listings: www.pizzaexpresslive.com/

The 100 Club (est 1964, although music had been played on the same site since the Second World War) in Oxford Street is another London live music institution. Over the years it has been home to trad and modern jazz, blues, punk, reggae, Indie and attracted more than its fair share of downsizing rock superstars, nostalgic for the days of crowded clubs. Jazz still comes calling now and then and on August 1 the club sees the launch of Joe Webb’s album, Summer Chill. Joe is best known as the versatile pianist in Kansas Smitty’s, but here he takes on a Cinderella era in jazz – the sort of 1960s pop-jazz you might find being played at Austin Power’s house party or Matt Helm’s pool house, which was derided by purists at the time. There’s also nods to 1950s teen and even Elvis Presley movies, all played like they are stone-cold, long-lost jazz classics by Webb’s hot quintet. Leave your prejudices behind at the door and just frug. Or watusi. Or whatever. Support is from multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Kitty Liv, who, with her brother, runs an under-the-radar analogue recording studio in Kentish Town. Tickets: www.the100club.co.uk

• Tufnell Park-er Damian Lewis has been flexing his musical muscles of late, with live dates, studio recordings and an album due in 2023. This is no recent actorly affectation – he has been playing classical guitar since he was 13 and busked around Europe in his 20s, although his music took second fiddle as his acting career took off. It’s certainly off the back burner now. What will he play? The fact that the support at his gig at Omeara near London Bridge (August 4, www.omearalondon.com/events/damian-lewis/) is the wonderful vocalist and Tomorrow’s Warrior alumnus Cherise, who has worked with Kurt Elling and Gregory Porter, and that in the recent past he has been collaborating with ace sax/clarinettist Giacomo Smith, another Kansas Smitty’s fixture, who is in the band that night at Omeara, suggests we are moving into jazz territory. Just a guess. Damian Lewis also plays the Wilderness Festival in Oxfordshire on August 7 (www.wildernessfestival.com).

Former Bad Plus pianist Ethan Everson is at the Vortex in Dalston for two shows on August 5. He will be playing songs from his recent Blue Note album, Every Note is True, which combines swinging but slightly lopsided melodies a la Thelonious Monk with Bad Plus inspired riffing, albeit in a less frenetic style, touches of rock and funk rhythms and contemplative classical motifs, all in short, tight four-minute bites. On the record the rhythm section is Larry Grenadier (best known for his peerless work with Brad Mehldau) and giant of jazz drums Jack DeJohnette. These are big shoes to fill, but Conor Chaplin and Martin France are well up to the job and I am curious to see if Everson allows his tunes to stretch out and breathe a little in a live context. Book at www.vortexjazz.co.uk

• The Love Supreme Festival at Glynde near Lewes was a sell-out success this year, attracting crowds of 25,000 on the Saturday and Sunday. The programme ran the stylistic gamut from the spoken word and sax of Alabaster de Plume, through the clubby, jazzy vibes of Emma-Jean Thackray to the disco classics of the Fatback Band and Sister Sledge. It’s always a canny mix of straight-ahead jazz, iconoclastic new talent and R&B legends. Tickets for next year (June 30-July 2) are actually on sale now, although there is, of course, no word on the line-up. Limited “Super Early Bird” tickets cost £149.60 for weekend camping, £139.70, no camping. The desirable Supremium tickets, which give access to better bars and toilets and seated areas etc, are £242/£229. Those prices will increase. See lovesupremefestival.com/ If you can’t wait that long for a dose of outdoor jazz, at the time of writing there were still weekend and day tickets available for Gilles Peterson’s somewhat edgier (in a good way) We Out Here in Cambridgeshire. At least you’ll know who is playing there (Pharoah Sanders, The Comet is Coming, Gabriels, the hardworking Emma-Jean Thackray again etc etc). Details: https://www.weoutherefestival.com/

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