‘Classic Gershwin’ at The Bull’s Head

 

‘Classic Gershwin’, created by 7 Star Arts, explores the world of ever-popular composer George Gershwin by weaving his vibrant music with the fascinating story of his life – from his birth in the colourful, teeming New York of 1898 to his tragically early death from a brain tumour in 1937.

Viv McLean, piano

Susan Porrett, writer & narrator

Thursday 21 December 2017, the Jazz Room at The Bull’s Head

The Bull’s head is an attractive pub on the riverside at Barnes, south-west London, and is home to the iconic Jazz Room. Known at “the suburban Ronnie Scott’s”, the Jazz Room – once simply a room at the back of the pub and now in its own separate building – is almost as old as Ronnie’s, boasts a fine roster of jazz performers and is still regarded by many in the jazz world and beyond as a significant music venue. On first sight, it’s not the most appealing place, but when the lights are low, candles flickering, a glass of something in your hand, and with the right performers, the ambiance is pretty special.

The music of George Gershwin remains perennially popular with performers and audiences alike, and his life and work are vividly illustrated in ‘Classic Gershwin’, It is a mistake to think of Gershwin purely as a composer of “jazz” (a term he in fact disliked, preferring the term “swing” to describe his jazz-infused music). His musical tastes and influences were wide, from Bach to Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and he was particularly influenced by the French composers of the early twentieth-century, notably Maurice Ravel, who in turn was intrigued and impressed by Gershwin’s work. Gershwin’s great skill was his ability to manipulate different forms of music into his own unique musical voice.

This was the third performance of Classic Gershwin at The Jazz Room. It’s 7 Star Arts’ most popular show and the enthusiasm and enjoyment of the audience was palpable from the start. For those who may not wish to sit through an entire evening of solo piano music, the combination of music and words is ideal, and the text of ‘Classic Gershwin’ offers just enough information to continually pique the listener’s attention. George Gershwin is brought to life with the delightful interweaving of words and music. Each nugget is illustrated with sensitively-chosen music selections, including Someone to Watch Over Me, I Got Rhythm and the rarely-performed Three Preludes, to Swanee, the song which marked Gershwin’s elevation into the realms of established composer and song-writer after Al Jolson heard Gershwin play it at a party.

The first half of Classic Gershwin closes with Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin’s hommage to bustling metropolis of Jazz-Age New York, the city of his home, played with exuberance and panache by Viv McLean. The second half focuses on Gershwin’s later life, his growing success and fame, and his work in Hollywood. The description of his failing health (the result of a then-undiagnosed brain tumour) was told with great poignancy, and the concert closed on a tender note with The Man I Love, Percy Grainger’s beautiful transcription exquisitely played by Viv McLean

The great appeal of this words and music concert, aside from the wonderful music, played by Viv with a wonderfully natural musical sensitivity, all underpinned by his pristine technique, is its ability to offer just enough information in the text to keep the listener wanting more. Viv demonstrated that pieces driven by rhythmic vitality and syncopation can still have the most exquisite tonal palette and a magical dynamic range, and the music provided the most delicious interludes, complementing the text at every turn (the musical selections are made between Viv and Susan). The overall effect is a glorious and intriguing celebration of Gershwin’s life and work.

Classic Gershwin makes its West End debut at Crazy Coqs Live at Zedel on Thursday 29th March. Book tickets

Rowan Hudson Trio at The Bull’s Head

I admit it, I’m a jazz ingenue. I know very little about the genre and even less about how to write a convincing review of a jazz gig or album. People say the rubric of classical music is complex and inaccessible; for me, jazz is even more complicated – there are genres and sub-genres aplenty. Do you know your Be-bop from your Hard bop, your trad from your stride? I don’t, but in jazz as in classical music, or world, or folk, or pop, the fundamental rules apply: it’s what you receive aurally – the music – that matters, and I can certainly appreciate really well-played music when I hear it.

This gig was part of 7 Star Arts‘ year-long residency at The Jazz Room at The Bull’s Head, a venue which has a fine long-standing reputation in the London jazz world. Once called “the suburban Ronnie Scott’s” (the pub is in villagey Barnes, overlooking the Thames), its legendary jazz room, now housed in a separate building next to the pub, has played host to many jazz “greats”, including Humphrey Lyttelton, Alan Price, Jeff Beck and Peter King, and there is live music in the jazz room every night.

Rowan Hudson is a young pianist whose interest in music developed from a stack of LPs of music from the 1960s and 70s, alongside some hefty independent research online and plenty of time spent at the keyboard developing his improvisation skills. When I spoke to him briefly during the interval, he explained that he is now exploring classical music, and one of the pieces in the second half was by the Spanish classical composer Joaquin Turina, arranged for trio. His trio colleagues are Joe Dessauer (drums) and Jj Stillwell (bass).

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Rowan Hudson

The Jazz Room is an intimate space, usually arranged club style so you can set your drinks on a table before you and lean back and enjoy the music. As with any music, whatever the genre, being up close and personal with the musicians can make a huge difference to one’s enjoyment and engagement with the performance (except perhaps at a Thrash Metal gig!), and its fascinating to see the musicians at work individually and how they interact with each other.

The programme was a mixture of tunes by, amongst others, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, along with some lesser-known numbers, and the vibe was generally relaxed and – let’s be honest here – the very epitome of “cool”, in the best sense of that word. Listening to and watching this trio, one has the sense that these three musicians have been playing together for donkey’s years, such is their empathy and synergy, and lack of ego too. Yet they are all still young. Rowan’s piano playing is sensitively paced, supple and elegant. His dynamic palette is varied and colourful: he can do the gentlest whispered pianissimos and muscular fortes without ever losing clarity or quality of tone, and he can make piano sounds bend and waver, seemingly effortlessly.

Highly recommended.

FW

7 Star Arts presents…… at the Jazz Room at the Bull’s Head continues on 12 September with Liam Stevens Trio and special guest Matthias Beckmann on trumpet. For further information please visit www.7stararts.com