Coach and Horses , Isleworth: 6th April 2009
I came away from last night’s gig at the Coach & Horses, a few minutes’ walk from Syon House (above) with two very strong feelings. A sense of optimism about the renewal of the jazz audience, and the knowledge that I had been completely transfixed by seeing a world class musician, a guitar hero at very close quarters.
Trevor Tomkins, a drummer of genuine pedigree and distinction, has been quietly, efficiently booking bands to play at the Coach & Horses in Isleworth for six or seven years. The gig has survived a few changes of landlord. But a gig as good as this doesn’t just survive, it refreshes itself, it changes. Yes, there is the core, loyal audience of older people, the traditional jazz audience who get there early. But, as the gig went on, I noticed that the room progressively filled up with attentive, listening younger folk prepared to stand. The atmosphere is convivial and welcoming. People greet you. If you’re not too late, they even help you find a seat.
A commentator without ears would have taken a look at last night’s rhythm section of John Critchinson, Jeff Clyne and Trevor Tomkins and just seen their grey hair. But this is a formidable professional unit. On the button, but with a streak of anarchy. The tune might, for example, be Sonny Rollins well-worn “Doxy,” but Critch was gleefully laying down squishy chords during the first head which would not have embarrassed Don Pullen.
The strongest presence on the stand was that of John Etheridge. Tall, commanding, mesmerising. During his solos I looked around and saw the audience’s faces fixed in rapt attention on him, on his lightning-quick fingers, on the plectrum often parked for convenience between his front teeth. He called breakneck tempos for the faster numbers – Monk’s “Well You Needn’t”, Parker’s “Anthropology”, and a final hurtling “Cherokee”, which became ideal vehicles for his agility and his powerful chordal playing. Tempos this close to insanity “get the blood flowing,” he chuckled after one tune.
But I found my attention was also held between the numbers. Etheridge would sit and stare at his tune list, his face finding a perplexed, quizzical expression. He stroked his chin as he looked from top to bottom of the list, and again up and down. He was taking his time. He was seemingly wiping the slate of his mind clean to wait for inspiration to strike before finally calling a tune. “You’ve got them in the palm of your hand now,” bassist Jeff Clyne commented laconically during one particularly long deliberation.
In the first set, this meditation produced a ballad, and with it a completely magical moment. Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” started with Travis and Etheridge as an interlocked duo. Travis’ delicate sound, which risked being overpowered in the hurtling faster numbers, here finally emerged into lyrical fullness. With the three rhythm players all watching on benignly, Travis and Etheridge started telling their story, sweetly, gently.
One day a national critic might follow my footsteps to Isleworth. And will discover that there are very few places quite so friendly. And will enjoy, as I did, hearing some great old tunes kicked into fresh new life.
Admission to the gig is free. The “door money” for which these world-class musicians play comes from raffle ticket sales and CD sales. As City Hall’s new campaign has it
“Only in London.”