On a corner of a main road in the busy, noisy borough of Kennington, London, sits an unassuming building, easy to walk past but turn in and you find yourself in the place of wonder and magic that is Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec. Downstairs is a bistro restaurant filled with intriguing little nooks and crannies, creaky wooden floors and chic art work, already offering a pleasant refuge from the traffic outside. The Loft, which is the jazz club, is up some stairs, up more stairs and through a curtain, emphasising the sense of finding some inner world of magic where time has paused.
To get into the jazz club you pay a small fee (a fiver on the night in question) in exchange for a chunky, round wooden token which can be used to buy drinks in the jazz room. Up the stairs, you enter The Loft, an intimate room with a barman (I learned he is called Chris) with a wide smile and welcoming manner. Offering your token as payment for drinks it feels more and more as if you have chanced upon some wonderful part of Middle Earth where the coinage is wooden and everyone is friendly. However, in The Loft the prevailing currency is music.
The buzz was incredible. The London Jazz Meetup (which arranges groups for those seeking to join other jazz fans) had a table near the front booked and a warm host called Louise introduced everyone to each other as they arrived. There were lots of others there too though, from young teenagers to more senior members of the music-loving community and the vibe was amazing.
How it works for this gem of a venue is that The Loft (and downstairs) holds many musical events and on the day in question (as on every Wednesday) the Loft event was MD'd and compered by Jason Lyon, who plays with his trio and an invited guest. Tonight that guest was Gareth Lockrane on flutes. Gareth is one of the UK's top flautists and has played with pianist Ross Stanley, vocalist Nia Lynn, as part of Phil Robson's Immeasureable Code and many others, either as band member or leader. His Big Band played the 606 Club in January and he has played many venues. His album, Strut, was Mojo magazine's jazz album of the year in 2012 and he has released albums with different combinations of musicians and worked on film and TV compositions and been part of the London Jazz Festival.
The Jason Lyon Trio comprises Joel Prime on drums, who Jason describes as "a great find". An Australian, Joel won the prestigious Open category from Drumtek magazine. Henry Gilbert is an enigmatic bass player, also an actor and brings emotional insight to his playing. The trio is led by Jason Lyon who states in his blog "It took me twenty years to become a jazz musician. Ten years to learn how to play and another ten to learn how to not play." Jason has been playing piano for over 35 years, playing many genres as well as jazz, though jazz is his main choice. He writes (two books published) and teaches, composes, arranges. You name it, if it has music attached, Jason either does or has done it. He is the author of many articles on improvisation, performance, practice and other areas of music.
The set list included Monk's I Mean You, Bill Lee's (Spike's dad) Don't Follow The Crowd, Al Cohn's High On You, Benny Golson's Whisper Not and Grant Green's Cantaloupe Woman. All featured the mesmeric playing of Gareth Lockrane on flutes from bass to piccolo creating a world of sound featuring athletic double tonguing and that overblowing and voice and flute mix to create an ethereal, deeply effective style redolent of Rahsaan Roland Kirk at times.
Jason Lyon was a revelation on piano, happy to chord it in the background as support, inserting trinkling rivulets, sharply tapped-out chords or expanding into solos where he introduced a range of style from gentle softness to intense, dramatic chord progressions. As leader of the trio he is astute, in control and also generously allows the band to lead itself - especially when he goes on one of his “wanderings” to adjust the sound or chat with someone in the audience, leaving the band to work with each other and interpret the music as they wish. His ear is acute and at times you can see him listening intently, picking just the right point to come in with piano, adjusted to just the right pitch and touch of the keys to enhance rather than dominate and his solos were exceptional. Jason's playing reflects his persona - lots of jagged chords, firm hitting of keys but tempered at times with a beauty and eclecticism. He demonstrates intelligent interpretation and is very engaging for the audience.
Behind it all was the steady bass and drums of Henry Gilbert and Joel Prime who emerged from the background regularly with impressive solos. Henry Gilbert gave an incredible example of how a good walking bass line supports solo players with accurate and timely key changes reading not only the music but the body language of Gareth Lockrane. Whilst Jason led with alacrity and Gareth Lockrane took centre stage, it was the drum and bass who injected the pop and fizz so intrinsic to good jazz music into some parts of the performance, timing their deliveries to perfection. The performers were very good and a demonstration of excellent communication and respect for each other - and their listeners. The audience was totally engaged and all of us were under Lyon's magic spell cast so carefully - and it worked.
Later, Jason and I discussed jazz and Jason talks in his writing of the ideal 'dual life' of having a regular day gig (in Jason's case it has included Fleet Street, which pays the rent) and music. He says, "It's pretty much a given these days that you go to music college, scuffle your way onto the circuit, do some recordings, start teaching and that's your life. I'm all for people being dedicated but it can be a bit of a blinkered existence. I firmly believe that musicians should have lives outside of music as well. Off the top of my head, Borodin was a chemist, Charles Ives sold insurance, Oscar Peterson was a keen photographer, Bowie was an acclaimed artist, McCoy Tyner went and drove a cab for a few years. Jason Rebello went off to Cumbria to become a Buddhist monk at the height of his fame and Stan Tracey gave it all up and happily became a postman for a while.”
“I reckon music is about telling stories and you need some stories to tell. Liszt and Brendel used to advise students to read literature and philosophy, appreciate visual art and so on."
Jason filled me in with some details about the venue, explaining, "Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec was launched eight years ago and has since been coming up by its own bootstraps, in fits and starts. It's a family affair - Nolan, Florent and Herve Regent have really toiled to get the place going. They've always had a laudable commitment to presenting live music every single night of the week, come what may. I was involved from the start and, probably against my own immediate best interests, advised them to start from the weekends and build out but they were adamant. God bless them for that - they are passionate about all kinds of live music. Since when it's gone through the usual travails - it has to present variety and sometimes it isn't exactly high art or for all tastes but they have to keep the tills ringing. There has also been the problem of putting the venue on the map as the sort of place where better musicians want to play.”
“The idea behind the Wednesday nights was to build the place up as the sort of venue that you could go and hear really good guest soloists for the cost of a drink. There's no green room, so you might find yourself elbow to elbow with Tony Kofi or Anita Wardell at the bar and get chatting about high falutin' harmony or the football - it's supposed to be a rather clubby environment, a 'scene' that you're welcomed into."
I would say it works - the venue is welcoming yet professional and the service runs like a well-oiled machine. That sense of Alice Through The Looking Glass or a Hobbit world is enhanced by the tokens and the interior of the place but it is also a place run by devoted people who have a passion for service and music and the two go hand in hand. Smiles are elicited from the service behind the bar to the quality of the playing. Jason continues, "I don't like it when jazz is presented or perceived as some precious artefact for devotees alone. The music has its roots in communal experience - it should attract, not repel. I also think things should be presented a little bit. It doesn't have to be full-on stand-up comedy or an academic lecture. Jazz musicians often complain that people don't really get their music or appreciate the rich and interesting history. So tell the audience something about it. The best compliment I've ever had is 'I don't much like jazz, but I really enjoyed tonight.' That's what it's all about for me."
Of his trio, Jason comments, "I've always been conscious of the trio having to be a unit that knows each other and can play off each other. We've been through various iterations over the past four years or so but Joel and Henry are now my trusted wingmen and we've got a nice click going. Everybody listens and reacts beautifully. We really enjoy playing together, and part of the challenge that we relish is finding a way to accommodate the personalities and repertoire choices of different soloists on the fly every week; accommodating them but still being ourselves - one week it's classic bebop, the next it's a bit ECMish, the next it's modal, bordering on free. Sometimes it's funky, sometimes it's dreamy. Several soloists bring down unusual or original repertoire and they trust us to just go for it. We might occasionally top'n'tail something during the sound check but we don't really rehearse. We just use our collective experience and spirit.”
“As for the jam element of things, it's frankly a bit of a tightrope walk. I've always striven to be kind, bring people on, encourage them, give them an opportunity to get some 'dirt under their fingernails' - but at the end of the day it still has to be a gig, not a workshop. For instance, I'll usually take pains to put up someone who isn't too sure of themselves yet with others who can support them. We all learn by playing with people who are - not to mince words - better than we are, and they can lift our game and inspire us. Above all, it's just supposed to be enjoyable for everyone. Jazz isn't just for chin-strokers - as long as it's done right."
Jason is currently working on mounting a two-night mini-festival at the venue sometime in May featuring the latest high-flyers just emerging from music colleges, many of whom have been BBC Young Jazz Musician finalists over the past three years. This demonstrates how Jason and this venue supports emerging talent and nourishes it, offering a great place to play. Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec is a find, a place of great music and warm welcomes. I, for one, definitely want to go again.