Sunday night in Camden. The temperature has plummeted and there are few people about on the high street.
Outside the Jazz Cafe however there is a queue forming. I rush to join it and edge my way forwards between the metal barriers to get my wrist stamped. A young man runs alongside us peddling his own CDs; £3 for an EP, £10 for the album. ‘I’ll have the EP,’ says the man in front of me, visibly sorry for the musician pounding the pavement on such a night.
We enter the venue and step out into a spacious bar area. Up ahead, the dimly lit dance floor, stage filled with instruments and leads, and running around them above, a buzzing mezzanine restaurant. The Jazz Cafe is a slick operation. Professional with friendly staff. It is the perfect venue for Jean Toussaint’s Allstar 6tet tonight.
I spy front man, Jean Toussaint, chatting with someone in the audience off stage and walk over and shake his hand. He hasn’t changed a bit since I last saw him play in the Bass Clef (sadly closed) almost three decades ago. He is tall, dressed in a suit, polite and still possesses that old-world charm. For someone who has spent most of his life playing in smoke-filled jazz clubs (no longer thankfully), his face is remarkably smooth and unlined.
He beams at the floor now filling with young people in their twenties. Women with afro hair dos and batik hairbands, young men dressed in dark jeans, clutching pints of lager. By their age, Toussaint was already touring the world with the famous drummer, Art Blakey, who had played with everyone, from Charlie Parker all the way through to Thelonious Monk. Toussaint was one of the ‘Messengers’. In the late eighties he alighted in London, drawn by its effervescent jazz scene and settled here. With his own line up, Toussaint spent the next decade performing in London’s top music venues, Ronnie Scotts, Jazz Cafe, Pizza on the Park, Dingwalls and the 606 club.
At 9.20pm, a little early, Toussaint walks on stage with Andrew McCormack, a talented British pianist and composer. In interviews, McCormack is quick to mention Toussaint as having taking him under his wing. Toussaint takes his mentoring role seriously. He remembers what Art Blakey did for him. But having a band is not a charitable project, Toussaint only picks the best: Byron Wallen on trumpet, complete with studded cap, Dennis Rollins, trombonist. Double bass player Daniel Casimir slips in behind, together with Shane Forbes on drums.
During an interview Toussaint accords me the following day, he tells me a Miles Davies story. ‘Miles Davies’s approach to his band members was always the better you play, the better I gotta play. It’s not always like that in jazz. I allow my players space for their music.’
The gig at the Jazz Cafe is the occasion to perform pieces from his eleventh album, ‘Brother Raymond’ – and to combine it with new material: Gatekeeper, Missing of Sleep and Mandingo Brass.
Toussaint nods to his own engineer brought in especially to do the live recording. In a beautiful baritone, Toussaint announces their first piece: Amabo, Obama spelt backwards. ‘I shall love in Latin he explains.’ It’s a musical fingers up to Trump. Refusing to give in to doom and gloom, Toussaint enters upon a joyous, irreverent piece. African rhythms abound (in honour of the first African, American President) and the 3 horn frontline beeps out the New York car horns. Two young men in front of me, bob up and down with their iPhones aimed at the stage. The rest of the floor is engaged in frenetic dancing.
Gatekeeper which follows, composed by trumpeter, Wallen, is a darker, introspective work, reminding us of effort and struggle in an unpredictable world.
In marked contrast, Doc is a tender, mellow composition by Toussaint. A gentle melody of three rising notes, smooth piano exploration, muted trumpet, played exquisitely by Wallen. The melody crescendos, becomes more urgent. Two thirds of the way through, Toussaint breaks in on tenor sax with a rollercoaster of notes suggesting pain, excitement, impatience and finally gratitude. His sax solo spills into the two other horns – a gorgeous musical moment!
Annoyingly I have to leave just as the sextet are about to embark on Mandingo Brass.
In our interview I ask Toussaint about ‘Mandingo Brass’.
‘It was the name of my first band in the US Virgin Isles where I was brought up.’ Calypso underpins the piece. Aged fourteen I started playing saxophone. I took to it immediately.’
Music was in the genes. Toussaint’s father had his own group and played trumpet but was forced to give it all up. ‘A sad time for him,’ says Toussaint in a reflective tone. Toussaint eventually left the island to follow his own musical path. He attended the very prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and from there New York and fame beckoned.
I ask Toussaint about his work ethic. ‘I am pretty disciplined these days. I practice three to four hours a day and sit down to some daily composition.’ Musical influences? So many. Jazz greats like Davies and Ellington. He listens to a lot of classical music: Messiaen, Chopin, Prokofiev, Stravinsky – an interesting mix! ‘Good music is good music,’ he insists.
And the future of jazz? Toussaint is optimistic. The students he has mentored at the Guildhall School of Music and Trinity Laban are starting to come through and make a name for themselves he tells me proudly. He mentions Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia but there are many more. ‘The more bands you have out there, the better it is for jazz.’
And judging by Jean Toussaint’s enthusiastic fans at the Jazz Cafe, it is clear that his young audience will grow.
Brother Raymond album can be found in the ITunes store.