The Vortex jazz club in Hackney is one of my favourite places to hear jazz in London. It also has the advantage of being a mere 30-minute train ride from where I live. For many years based in a glass cube overlooking Gillett Square in Dalston, one of the liveliest and noisiest squares in East London. The club has a loyal following who come to listen. It’s a small club with a good acoustic and a Steinway grand piano of which the club is justly proud. To my mind it’s the perfect environment in which to hear live jazz
It has a tradition of showcasing up-and-coming talent from UK and Europe playing music that stretches from modern and contemporary to free improvisation. Evan Parker, the free jazz titan, has been a Vortex regular for over 30 years. Pre-pandemic the Vortex offered one of the most packed jazz schedules in London, including regular opportunities for big bands and curated jam sessions. At weekends they would often schedule two, sometimes three performances daily. From time to time, it will attract a big name or two from the states and Europe. I recall a packed gig four or so years ago featuring the mighty American tenor saxophonist David Murray playing with a German trio who weren’t quite up to his blistering standard. He played two high energy sets and repaired to the dressing room, probably the size of a London taxi where you could hear him practicing furiously, before returning for his second set.
The Vortex has a unique, informal, slightly chaotic character, partly because it is a charity. It is reliant on volunteers, not paid staff to keep the show on the road. Over the years the club has come close to closing on a couple of occasions and the enforced Covid closure hit it hard. The commitment of its volunteers, members and audiences have ensured the club’s survival. It reopened with a reduced offering that is now building up to the familiar packed programme. Remarkably the club decided to use the Covid break to redesign and refurbish. On my visit last week, the acoustic and sound quality- always good is now exceptional. The old stage has gone replaced by a curtained gallery-type space which has made the environment even more intimate. The design has brilliantly created a chamber music vibe for the club-a perfect venue in which to hear unamplified (or minimally amplified jazz).
So, I was knocked out when I spotted that the Vortex were hosting the world-renowned pianist Ethan Everson for one night only last week. I was immediately in touch with my old jazz compadre Andy and booked two seats. We were not disappointed. In fact, we were to experience one of our great jazz evenings.
Ethan Iverson is something of a jazz renaissance man. Hailing from Wisconsin in the mid-west. Iversen came to prominence in 2000 with the genre-busting trio The Bad Plus comprising Iversen on piano, Reid Anderson on bass and Dave King on drums. Since leaving that band in 2017, Ethan has pursued a career as a leader while combining membership of the faculty of music at the prestigious New England Conservatory with a growing profile as a public intellectual, commenting on a wide range of musical, cultural, and political issues via his quirky Do The M@th website and through his intensive social media presence. His website is a store house of interesting articles, interviews and reflections.
While aware of the Bad Plus I came to Iverson in more recent years. His extraordinary big band homage to Bud Powell, Bud Powell in the 21st century (2018). I have lost track of the number of times that I have listened to this album. I can think of no equivalent musical enterprise that so brilliantly captures the sensibility and brilliance of this tragic and too often forgotten bebop master. Also, his recordings with such luminaries as guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel on saxophonist Steve Wilson.
So it was with little prior knowledge that we arrived at the remodelled Vortex for Ethan’s early evening set lasting barely an hour. Accompanied by a British rhythm section comprising Conor Chaplin on bass and Andreu Pitarch on drums. The exquisitely crafted set comprised a simple blues, a bebop original, another blues with echoes of Nat King Cole, a remarkable treatment of Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly, a short excerpt from his latest album and Ethan’s tribute to TV show themes of the 1970’s.
We were both struck by Iverson’s pianistic mastery, his dynamic range and sensitivity, his openness to free jazz and classical influences and the intense focus and listening involving all three musicians. This latter point particularly notable since it is unlikely that the three of them had met prior to the gig. Iverson’s announcements between numbers were interesting and his praise for his bandmates was fulsome. To hear music of this range and quality in such intimate surroundings….well, that’s the quintessential jazz experience.
The playlist demonstrates the range of Iverson’s jazz bandwidth through his 15 years with The Bad Plus-surely some of the quirkiest original titles in jazz, through to some more recent trio recordings with bassists Ron Carter and Larry Grenadier and drummers Nasheet Watts and Jack de Johnette (who this month celebrated his 80th birthday ). The playlist concludes with a couple of collector items jazz standards bringing Lee Konitz on alto sax together with Etna, Larry Grenadier on bass and Jorge Rossy on drums.
And here’s a review from London Jazz News of Ethan’s second set at Vortex last week…