Review: Peter King Quartet at the new jazz room of the Bulls Head, Barnes

Peter King. Photo credit: Melody McLaren. All Rights Reserved

Peter King Quartet
(The Bull’s Head, December 21st 2013. Review by Andrew Cartmel)

Thankfully, reports of the demise of jazz at the Bull’s Head have proved to be greatly exaggerated. The room is back in action as of this week, and is in very fine shape indeed. The first Saturday for the revived venue featured the Peter King Quartet, and they are on great form, too.

First, the room. Cleverly resituated in a stand-alone building, complete with its own bar and toilets, what was once a back room of the pub is now a free-standing miniature jazz club. This immediately pays dividends by eliminating noise from the punters in the main bar (a major football match might previously have diminished a jazz fan’s pleasure) while presumably simultaneously protecting the drinkers from unwanted jazz. The music room has good acoustics. It is painted battleship grey, with red drapes. There are now tables as well as chairs for the customers (you used to have to put your pint on the floor under your seat, and try not to kick it over). The low stage is situated in a corner, with the audience on two sides in an L-shape.

Now, the music. Lalo Schifrin has called Peter King “one of the best musicians in the world,” so it’s a remarkable privilege to be able to pop down to a pub in southwest London to hear him on a Saturday night just before Christmas. King has a sweet, floating tone on his alto sax, and effortless control — and the listeners loved it. In the old days at the Bull’s Head there were often, sadly, more people on the bandstand than in the audience. Tonight the new room was packed, with the rapt customers outnumbering the musicians by a ratio of more than ten to one. And we were all in for a treat because on this date Peter King was splendidly partnered with Steve Melling on piano, Jeremy Brown on upright bass and Doug Sides on drums.

Opening with Chick Corea’s Inner Space, Peter King played with clarity and a luscious bell-like tone, spinning a carousel of bebop phrases. Steve Melling delivered a great solo, floating and streaming, weaving together right and left hand lines, high speed runs alternating with melodic clusters. Doug Sides was percussive and punchy, playing dense figures on cymbals and drums like a juggler keeping a whole set of crockery airborne. King soloed with laid back aplomb, a class act, warm and strong and precise. His playing was highly polished and melodic, but with echoes of the raw fury of Coltrane.

Jeremy Brown was showcased on V’s Groove, a hip, chic original by Steve Melling. Accompanied by Doug Sides’s shuffle brushes, Brown’s solo was unhurried, with rich, rounded tones. First he was funky, then soulful and gospel tinged before plucking out R&B phrases. This was bass playing of great melodic richness. Steve Melling’s sparkling piano was a synthesis of soul jazz and jelly roll, alternating breathless excitement with leisurely strolling swagger. Peter King came in like a train emerging from a tunnel, but this was a swinging locomotive, running smoothly, taking its own sweet time.

Body and Soul in John Coltrane’s arrangement saw King soaring and swirling around the melody while Steve Melling played with joyful agility, as if he was skipping along a steep, narrow path. Doug Sides deployed beautifully timed cymbal bursts and Jeremy Brown’s bass was plunging, honeyed and engulfing, even singing the melody line. Peter King closed the piece by playing a great cloud of notes with immense calm and poise before concluding with a concise homage to Coleman Hawkins.

King sat out On Green Dolphin Street which was a feature for Steve Melling’s distinctive skipping, dancing piano. Doug Sides’s timing was immaculate, striking a cymbal and then returning to strike it again and again, always exactly just as its shimmer of vibration was fading to inaudibility. He also demonstrated bravura time changes on the brushes.

I couldn’t wait to hear what this combo had in store for us next.

Samba D’Esprit was Doug Sides’s own tune and his drumming on it was dazzling. He had to play with restraint tonight so as not to overwhelm the small room, especially during his blazing fury of a solo on Joshua, and he managed the tricky task of swinging while keeping the volume in check.

World of Trane began as a Peter King composition before segueing into an odyssey of John Coltrane’s finest moments. Jeremy Brown’s bass solo called to mind the Ellington title Such Sweet Thunder for its stormy sonorities. Doug Sides added a dreamy flourish of shimmering drums and there was a piercing piano soliloquy from Steve Melling. Peter King revealed his wild side, occasionally glimpsed earlier, like the bright red lining of his black jacket. He ended with Coltrane’s version of My Favourite Things, playing with rapturous ululations and breathtaking pauses.

Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life provided a solo sax feature for King with the tune glimpsed in a bristling thicket of bebop improvisation. It was a masterful modernist collage, the trio only joining in at the end for a few seconds of ensemble conclusion.

This was a great gig at the end of the first week of operation of a wonderful new jazz room for London (see our previous report of the second night). As the new Bull’s Head finds its feet (so to speak) there are a couple of refinements they might care to consider. When Melling was asked what the piano was like, he replied, “It’s like a Yamaha upright. As opposed to a Yamaha grand.” And certainly the grand piano at the old Bulls Head was one of its great pleasures, but it seems the small stage area in the new room makes a grand implausible. Doug Sides also suggested extending the drapes behind the drum kit, and putting some carpeting under the bass drum, both of which would help with the volume of the drums.

These are minor points. We have a superb new jazz club in London, and it is immensely welcome.

Categories: miscellaneous

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