|Chi. Left to right: Noel Jay, Matt Tween, Steve Grainger, Debbie Cobbett
Photo credit:Amanda Annandale
(City Cruise’s Thames Jazz Cruise, July 17th 2014. Review by Andrew Cartmel)
A complimentary glass of bubbly is always a good sign as you step through the door. Or, in this case, as you step aboard. We were on the elegant Millennium Diamond, a handsome modern catamaran leaving from Westminster Pier for a jazz cruise of the Thames. Jazz and dinner. And bubbly.
With Big Ben glowing in the mellow late evening light, we cast off (I think that’s the term). We were presented with a small safety lecture and a large plate of tapas. As we glided by the London Eye and under bridges, the boat’s resident jazz band began to play. They are Chi Jazz: Noel Jay on electric keyboards, Matt Tween on bass, Steve Grainger a disciple of Johnny Hodges with a penchant for sneaking cheeky little quotations from The Pink Panther into his solos on alto sax and John Clarke on drums. Debbie Cobbett was guest vocalist. And this is a crack quartet, as was made clear by their opening number A Foggy Day (In London Town) — a great tune, though you could hardly have chosen a less foggy day than this scorching, gorgeous summer occasion with sunlight striking through the panoramic windows. Grainger’s alto was in the lead, offering sweetly swaying, reverberant cadences.
The stately skyline of London surged grandly past as the combo commenced I’ve Got You Under My Skin with Debbie Cobbett joining in on warm, mellow vocals. As Grainger’s sax played debonair, descending phrases with the setting sun glinted on the river waves and the Shard rearing gleaming against the sky it became clear we were in for a tremendously pleasant experience. Red double-decker buses rolled across Cannon Street Bridge and HMS Belfast hove into view as the band began A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, reinforcing their excellent choice of songs. Noel Jay provided a delicate drapery of keyboards and Grainger went down a spiral bebop staircase on his alto. Matt Tween’s warm bass rolled like the waves as Jay embarked on a discursive, detailed solo.
Steve Grainger’s playing on Moon River was reflective and rhapsodic, coming at the tune from all angles with an echoing complexity of commentary. Noel Jay’s ringing keyboard solo excavated the melody from a solid body of improvisation while the steady cadence of John Clarke’s exemplary work on cymbals and brushes rooted the tune. The only way the band could have improved the evening’s music was by playing The Way You Look Tonight — which they proceeded to do. Jay performed a chiming, charging solo while Grainger’s alto scooted and soared above and John Clarke’s drumming skilfully kicked the number forward. This was bop adapted for the dinner hour, and none the worse for it.
The sun descended in a benign hot blaze over Tower Bridge, the blue sky scribbled with white contrails as One Note Samba provided a showcase for soloists. Steve Grainger’s fluid sax purred with restraint as he skirted the tune and Noel Jay played bright raucous phrases and dancing long lines against the backdrop of Matt Tween’s big, ripe bass and John Clarke’s steady, constant shimmer of drums. I could also tell you about The Girl from Ipanema but I was too busy concentrating on my moist, flavoursome chicken breast in ratatouille — which is a pity, because both Grainger’s sax and Jay’s keyboards were at their best as I stuffed my mouth full of buttery mashed potato. With the riggings of the Cutty Sark floating above the dark trees and the nocturnal sweep of the city silhouetted against the last of the blue sky, it was clear that this was an unbeatable way to spend an evening. Great music, great food, great experience.
Thames Jazz Cruises are organised by City Cruises and take place on the third Thursday of each month. Next dates are 21st August, 18th September, 16th October, 20th November BOOKINGS (pp)