The People Band
September 22, 2012
The Vortex Club in Dalston, north London, recently celebrated 25 years as a jazz venue. For a quarter of a century, first in Stoke Newington and later Dalston, The Vortex has offered jazz of all genres to the world. Major names, as well as those starting out, are given the chance to reach audiences from all over the UK and a look through past and future programs gives an idea of just how varied the club's offering is, from poetry to mainstream, improvised to free form, and workshops.
On Saturday, September 22, 2012 I was in London and had been invited to the gig by three different people; what could I do? It was dubbed Vortex Outdoors as the daylight activities were held in Gillett Square, outside the club. Later, events would move inside and upstairs. The day's program, from 2pm until late, was to include free form, electro-jazz, Latin,a trombone workshop and the stages would be taken by local and international artists, known and unknowntypical of The Vortex's wide and varied programming. I could fit in only a couple of hours but it was well worth the effort.
It was my third jazz gig of the month and, so far, even the talent of saxophonist Courtney Pine
had not lifted my spirits, but at The Vortex, on that day, jazz finally hit the spot and my mood lightened, even as I reached the event with The People Band already on stage.
A welcome break in the wind and rain meant Gillett Square was bathed in cool but bright sunshine and people came out in small numbers at first, but the crowds got larger as time went on. There was food, real ale, second hand music and records, art and a mix of people. Most had been to jazz gigs before, but what was good to see was quite a few for whom the event was the chance to see if they liked jazz or not. Families with children, grandpas and grandmas, people from diverse backgrounds and cultures all came out to catch the atmosphere.
First up was The People Band. The lineup included George Khan, alto and soprano sax; Paul Jolly, alto and soprano sax, bass clarinet; Davey Payne, tenor sax; Charlie Hart, electric bass; Tony Edwards, congas and djembi; Adam Hart, electric piano; and Terry Day
, drums. Since the late 1960s, The People Bandmusicians from diverse musical backgrounds and professionshas gathered together and performed to amazed and often bemused audiences throughout Europe and the UK. Over the years, members of the band have played with an array of musicians and all have had success away from the band. Day formed the London Improvers Orchestra and played with Peter Cusack and Steve Beresford
, as well as scoring films. Jolly played with Maggie Nicols
; Khan, with The Battered Ornaments, Kilburn and The High Roads, and Robert Wyatt
. Charlie Hart played with The Kilburns, Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance, The Battered Ornaments and with Wreckless Eric, while Payne has played with The Blockheads. Playing sporadically until the late 1970s, the band reformed 30 years on to play projects at King's Place, Café Oto and The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The group's last gig as The People Band was over a year ago, but here they were.
Theset contained numbers of manic ferocity, contrasting with short, sweet moments of bliss when all went quiet and a soft sound of pipes or keyboards could be heard, tinkling a riff from afar, before that same riff was grabbed gleefully by a saxophonist and taken loudly and with abandon to its conclusion. What comes across more than anything, when The People Band plays, is its sheer delight in taking tunes and riffs, pulling them apart and then putting them back together as neatly as a jigsaw and playing them back again, like nothing had happened. All have an innate understanding of where the music is going. The players change tempos, rhythms and dynamics and are led by the moment, the crowd and fellow players, creating music of tooth-crunching discords alongside divine sweetness.
Tuned into each other and its listeners, The People Band produced a set which was just short of perfect to open the event. Subdued, perhaps, though its playing was, because of the occasion and the mix of the crowd, I found myself drifting in and out of the music, but then I willingly admit to having a penchant for speaker-breaking free form and maybe this was not the occasion for that. It was early and the band played to a moderately sized but appreciative crowd. Past descriptions of The People Band include "visceral," "freewheeling," "forceful" and "anarchic," and all of these were still true. It is the music which drives these musicians; free form players to the heart, they broke the door down for others in the late 1960s and were justly given the opening slot in this celebratory event.
Onstage, the players got caught up in the music to such an extent that Day later told me in an email, "I don't know what George and Paul played in general at the gig, but Paul definitely played bass clarinet at some point."
Payne was in his elementno musician looks quite as happy as Payne on stage, particularly when he plays free. From manic, breathtaking solos to screaming into the microphone at one point, he embodied free form as a player. His playing had anger, and periods of silence were interspersed with deliciously monstrous, gleeful over blowing on tenor sax. The People Band consists entirely of consummate musicians who took riffs in turns as solos came and went; at one moment, three players were playing in sublime harmony, before one lifted the tune and played with it, supported by the rest, before returning to the harmonies. The reaction of the audience was that it was not sure how
to react, which made it all the more interesting.
Charlie Hart played subdued electric bass, underpinning the rest of the band and carrying the melodies, such as they were, with aplomb. Day provided sensitive drums and Adam Hart provided keyboards which filled in any discernible gaps. Jolly played bass clarinet and saxophones, switching from one to the other, showing both the range of his talents and the instruments. Of the entire band, he looked to be enjoying himself the most, grinning (or grimacing!) nearly all the time. The People Band proved that good musicians, playing in tune with each other and loving the music can create something special and the 40 years since the group came on the scene vanished in the blink of an eye.
In the hiatus between acts, the square began to fill with incomers and, as usual at such events, people began to mingle. The Vortex does what it does well and there were enough staff to ensure queues were kept short, all of which meant we had more time to mingle, which is half the point of an event like this.
I met Day briefly afterwards. Payne reminded him I had interviewed him for one of my columns earlier in the year and a warm handshake followed as recognition dawned. Payne was surrounded by people congratulating him and was very chatty. We soon discussed Hampstead, a Blockhead piece I had recently written and a bit of music. You cannot help but get drawn in by the warmth (and the bear hugs) with which people greet you and the warmth is palpable between players as well. I was introduced to Alan Wilkinson of FLimFLam (Ryan's Bar) and others too numerous to mention.
The next act was Electric Jalaba, a band with a completely different style. Bringing world music to The Vortex, Jalana played with energy and a constant deep thrumming box bass, played by vocalist Simo Lagnawi, pervaded the tunes. Lively, and with Lagnawi covering the stage in leaps and bounds, within a very short time, the group had people dancing, from small children upwards. Truly original and full of intensity Jalaba finished its set to enthusiastic cheers and clapping, and the square began to fill.
The contrasts in music experienced in just a short time at The Vortex underpinned what was a celebratory event. I spoke to Wilkinson for awhile, though he was not playing at the event (he is, however, taking part in the London Jazz Festival, November 9-18. The diversity of people was immense, as I met Jake from Jamaica (via Leytonstone), Mike and Kate from Lewisham, and a guy who told me he was doing a PhD thesis. I discovered that Payne lived in the same part of Hampstead as I for a while at a different time, one girl was doing a 1500km sponsored bike ride and I heard other snippets about the diversity of lives drawn together by the common bind of great jazz music. Jazz attracts all kinds of peoples from all backgrounds, ages and cultures. We are all connected and jazz provides the link. We all originated, perhaps, from the same small speck of dust from which the universe was created and given that fact, we are all connected and so anything can happen. Sometimes, with music, you feel the sense of a spirit guiding us all, whether you are onstage or in the audience. We are all very different but interlinked through music, and jazz of any genre offers many doors through which the spirit may enter.
From what I saw, The Vortex needs little in the way of change. What they offer is as diverse as the people they attract. Venues like this bring the world of jazz to people. The music is only the start of many things and the link which keeps many of us coming back to gigs but there is so much more to it than this, and as The Vortex turns silver, whether it offers us myths, legends and originals from the 1960s or new acts from the 2010s, it has done a good job and I, for one, hope it continues to do so.