|Al Cherry, Rob Mullarkey, Natalie Williams, Phil Peskett
Opening of Blue Train, 2nd December 2011
Photo credit: Gary Fox
Zena James reports on the opening night at the Blue Train Jazz & Blues Club, 56 Stamford St, London SE1 9LX:
London’s newest jazz & blues venue has arrived. Less than 10 minutes’ stroll from Waterloo, this compact club has plenty of potential and genuine warm enthusiasm.
Easy to spot with its bright blue neon frontage, a packed Blue Train pulled out full steam ahead on opening night and jazz-soul vocal star Natalie Williams and quartet made sure it stayed that way. From the engaging R&B vibes of You Send Me to the groove-laden 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, this was the perfect choice of band for a celebration that sought to get a crowd on-side.
A cheerful, slightly overwhelmed young team, spearheaded by attentive owner John Dignam and entertainment manager, ex-NYJO trumpeter Ray Butcher, guided guests on arrival swiftly towards drinks and contemporary big band sounds in the upstairs bar (formerly an Indian restaurant). With waitress service, candlelight, a satellite screen to beam up the action from the jazz room beneath to non-paying upstairs customers (curious decision), cool metallic high cocktail tables and chairs, a low level comfy seating area and a late closing time – it bodes well, though it might benefit from more soft furnishings to soak up the boomy acoustics. Billed as ‘the restaurant’ with music duos Monday – Wednesday 6.30 – 9.30pm, it doubles up happily (and better in my view) as an atmosphere-setting bar.
The dark downstairs main music room is billed as ‘the jazz bar’ but was in fact the restaurant on opening night. Seating around 50, this former conference room is pretty intimate when full and wouldn’t look bare with 25 guests. A quirky Tapas-only menu cooked up by an ex-Gordon Ramsay chef ranged reasonably from £4.50 for fried Whitebait to £7.50 for beef fillet. And so to the music. The minimal stage is so far equipped with a Brodmann Baby Grand piano and house sound system, but there is talk of bringing in a house kit for (grateful) drummers (no car park and a narrow get-in).
From the outset, amidst a persistent excited chatter, Natalie Williams, Al Cherry, Phil Peskett, Rob Mullarkey and Martyn Kaine had a challenging night ahead. Opting for (possibly not their original intention) full-on soul & pop classics but only scarce glimpses of jazz (apart from a randomly popular rendition of Nature Boy), the expertly-delivered mainstream upbeat sets were one giant crowd-pleaser. Competing throughout with a few sound system issues and a VERY spirited audience, Natalie and her faultless soul-soaked vocals did an admirable job of keeping the energy train rolling. But the sheer volume of chatter suggested little respect in the room for her craft or the band’s collective swathes of talent and experience.
This may well have been an opening night one-off and could be eased in future by a gentle pre-gig club announcement, but is potentially a recurring challenge for busier nights at the Blue Train. Attentiveness and ‘jazz-familiarity’ of the guests it ends up attracting are still an unknown quantity and it’s a tough one at this stage for the club or interested artists to predict. In short, the band played what they knew would suit the room, but possibly not what the club ultimately wants to be known for long-term. Ray Butcher has booked well-established (mainly vocal) London-scene artists for the first month’s programming with an apparent vision to broaden this out to further-flung, less London-centric talent as the club develops.
It is as yet far too early to judge whether we have a true jazz club alternative joining the ranks of Ronnie’s, Pizza Express Dean St, the 606 and the Spice of Life, characterised by respect for the artists, or whether populist soul & blues and happily chattering crowds become the Blue Train’s way forward. Both are fine and are perfectly viable business options, but let’s hope it’s the former. Good luck, Blue Train.