REVIEW/ PHOTOS: Queertet’s premiere at Omnibus Theatre Clapham

Queertet at Omnibus Theatre Clapham
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

(Omnibus Theatre Clapham, 11 February 2018. Photographs by Monika S. Jakubowska; words by AJ Dehany)

Commissioned by Omnibus Theatre Clapham’s 96 Festival celebrating LGBTQI achievement, the Queertet was put together by Tom Smith with members of this community: “That’s why we’ve got such a fabulous band!” In Clapham Omnibus’s relaxed bar area, the group played two sets of music and songs demonstrating and barely scratching the surface of the immeasurable contribution that has been made by LGBTQI composers and writers to the music.

Tom Smith introducing the show with bassist Stephen Street (background)
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

Tom Smith: “I like doing a gig with a theme. It’s a bit different isn’t it?”

The Queertet played classic tunes by composers with an incalculable contribution to the songbook, Billy Strayhorn, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Lorenz Hart, Harold Arlen, and less familiar tunes by important figures Ma Rainey, Gary Burton, Bill Stewart, as well as a Joni Mitchell song drawn from a short story by Fassbinder, and two beautiful LGBTQI-themed originals by Tom Smith and Pete Lee.

Whether playing the standards songbook or their accomplished originals, the Queertet bring discerning playing, individuality and swinging group dynamics, with great charm and likeableness.

It’s too delicious that the type of jazz the Queertet plays is what is known as “straight-ahead”…

Gay experience has not been well represented in jazz. Billy Strayhorn as a gay black man gets extra intersectionality points, and we must reflect with sadness on those artists who spent their lives chaliced, professionally and personally unable to come out. Gary Burton was afraid of what his loutish employer Stan Getz would do if he knew. Ma Rainey sought to deflect rumours by engaging with them directly in song as on the raunchy Prove It On Me Blues. Noted living known LGBTQI musicians include jazz legend Cecil Taylor, pianist and AIDS-research activist Fred Hersch, vibraphonist Gary Burton, drummer Bill Stewart, singers Lia Delaria, David McAlmont, and Ian Shaw.

Pete Lee and Ian Shaw
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

Ian Shaw is playful with the band and the tunes, full of fun and mischief. A dynamic singer with booming lows and wailing highs, taking creative risks in jazzing up the melodies, it can get cheerfully silly as well as ranging into powerful and impassioned readings of Bernstein/Sondheim’s Somewhere and The Man That Got Away.

Tom Smith – with Matthew Herd (foreground)
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

Tom Smith brings assured and full-bodied soloing on tenor sax on Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, and on bass clarinet brings a mournful sonic depth to Somewhere. His original composition John and Alex was written for a first dance at a wedding, switching between an insinuating 9/8 figure and a lovely waltz-time swing while remaining melodic and danceable.

Matthew Herd
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

Matthew Herd (alto and soprano saxes) is a nimble and voluble soloist with a rich imaginative facility in harmonic colour that livens up the standards and ups the game of the others in the group.

Justin Tambini
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

Justin Tambini’s lithe touch and expressive snare technique give the group space to groove and swing.

Peter Lee
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

Pete Lee’s composition The Velvet Rage showcases the pianist’s clear and luminous style, with rolling neoclassical playing and luscious group themes.

Stephen Street
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

Bassist Stephen Street, whether bowing or driving the eighth-notes holds the group into the groove.

Two Gray Rooms (Joni Mitchell after a story by Rainer Werner Fassbinder): Ian Shaw says Joni “doesn’t so much write songs as portraits of disappointment…” (This is even more true of Fassbinder.)

The Queertet feels like just the beginning. They’ve opened up the standards songbook, but the LGBTQI presence in jazz is various and you might even say polymorphously perverse. There’s the Beat tradition: Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Ginsberg – they all performed poetry with jazz musicians. There’s also an angrier radical intersectional queer tradition beginning with Langston Hughes. Recently I attended The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, Jace Clayton’s multimedia reworking of the neglected gay African-American Julius Eastman’s 1979-80 provocative minimalist masterpieces Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla. Cole Porter it is not.


1. Take the A Train (Billy Strayhorn)
2. Remembering Tano (Gary Burton)
3. Prove It On Me Blues (Ma Rainey)
4. Get Out of Town (Cole Porter)
5. Somewhere (Leonard Bernstein/ Stephen Sondheim)

1. The Velvet Rage (Pete Lee)
2. John and Alex (Tom Smith)
3. K’s Blues (?) (Bill Stewart)
4. The Boy From (Stephen Sondheim)
5. The Man That Got Away (Harold Arlen/Ira Gershwin)
6. Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered (Lorenz Hart/Richard Rodgers)
7. Two Gray Rooms (Joni Mitchell after Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

LINKS: Festival 96 continues for the rest of the month. PROGRAMME
Comprehensive feature on ‘gay men in jazz’ 
LJN interview/preview with Tom Smith

Categories: miscellaneous

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