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Jazz Flourishing at Bull's Head, Barnes

Visitors to London interested in hearing good jazz are greeted by a rich and diverse scene. There are, as in the US, too many good musicians chasing too few gigs, but while this may be bad for musicians it provides many good choices for jazz fans. Tourists tend to gravitate towards Ronnie Scott's club (www.ronniescotts.co.uk) and Pizza Express (www.pizzaexpresslive.co.uk) in the West End. While these are fine venues, Ronnie's has become rather corporate since Scott's partner Pete King finally retired and sold out in 2005, and it has always been quite pricey. Both tend to feature musicians Americans can hear back home. For those who want to hear local talent, however, a little more effort will be richly rewarded. The best way to start would be to go to Ray's Jazz Shop on the second floor of Foyles book store on Charing Cross Road (near Leicester Square tube station) and meet the manager Paul Pace who can tell you what's going on in town and who runs a club called Spice Jazz (www.spicejazz.co.uk, www.spiceoflifesoho.com) in a nearby pub that offers jazz several times a week.

For those who are willing to venture out of the West End and take the Tube (subway) to Hammersmith Station and a 10 minute bus ride, the The Bull's Head is the obvious next choice. A traditional British pub, located on the Thames river-front near Barnes Bridge (scene of the annual Oxford v. Cambridge boat race, recently run for the 154th time), the Bull's Head (www.thebullshead.com) was originally established in 1684. Rebuilt about 1845 it became a well-known staging post for travelers on their way to Hampton Court and beyond. None of these events are recorded in the history of jazz, but 1959 is because that is the year the Bull's Head began offering jazz virtually seven days a week -- plus a lunchtime session on Sundays -- in an attached meeting room set up to provide what they describe as an "informal and friendly" environment for jazz performance. Seating around 90-100 people, the room has its own bar where drinks are sold at regular pub prices -- an attraction for locals. The pub serves traditional British food and Thai cuisine is available in an attached restaurant. More to the point, the room has good sound and an excellent piano provided through a sponsorship from the Yamaha company.

After almost 50 years the room has gained a wide reputation for modern jazz. A who's who of British jazz artists have performed there, including Ronnie Scott, Peter King, Humphrey Lyttelton, Stan Tracey, Dick Morrisey, Don Weller, and Art Theman, and the room has also seen appearances by Americans George Coleman, Billy Mitchell, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Shorty Rogers, Charles Rouse, Bud Shank and Al Cohn.

It is ironic that I had not visited the Bull's Head for many years, considering that when I visit London I stay with a cousin within walking distance of the pub. But on my last visit I finally found time to drop in on a Sunday evening where I was rewarded with two fine sets by alto saxophonist Jake Goss (www.myspace.com/ajakegoss) and his quartet: Kit Downes on piano, Tom Mason on bass, and drummer James Maddren. Another irony is that Goss, although born in London, moved to the US at the age of four and grew up in Bethesda Maryland, about 15 minutes from my current home. He began playing saxophone at age 10, and performed extensively around the greater Washington DC area while in high school, securing the lead alto chair in the Maryland All-State Big Band, and receiving the Outstanding Soloist Award at an invitational music festival in Chicago and first place at the Chantilly Tri-State Music Competition in Virginia. Returning to the UK at age 18 he attended the University of Leeds and then the Royal Academy of Music, where he obtained an MMus. He now lives and performs in London with his own quartet as well as with such musicians as Stan Tracey, Gerard Presencer, Soweto Kinch, Dave Whitford, Spike Wells and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra.

Goss has put together a quartet that reflects his aesthetic admirably, both as performer and composer; Downes and Maddren are currently studying at the Royal Academy of Music, while Mason is one of the most in-demand bassists on the London jazz scene. It says something for the situation in London that Mason told me he works almost every day (or night) of the week, and that Goss is able to maintain this quartet as a working group, which was evident from their cohesive performance on this occasion.

In front of a small but appreciative audience, Goss presented four of his own compositions, "Banyan," "Palekastro," "Hmm, Hmm, Hmm," and "K.O.," along with jazz classics "Spontaneous Combustion" by Cannonball Adderley, Fats Waller's "Jitterbig Waltz," "Recordame," (sometimes known as "No Me Esqueca") and Coltrane's "Equinox," and the Vernon Duke ballad "Autumn in New York." It was a well balanced program that gave each of the group members a chance to shine. Goss is a fluent, often fiery soloist with a post-bop orientation, who also understands how to tackle a ballad. Downes demonstrated a lovely touch, both as accompanist and soloist, clearly enjoying the fine instrument supplied by Yamaha. He is definitely someone to watch. The rhythm team provided solid support throughout, and contributed some solo time of their own, Maddren demonstrating a youthful exuberance nicely tempered with good taste, and Mason showing why he is in such demand.

Britain has always produced excellent jazz players. On this evidence, the emerging generation is no exception. And the subway and bus rides to Barnes are definitely worth the effort.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Jake Goss
  • Concert Date: February, 2008
  • Subtitle: West London Venue in 49th Year
  • Venue: Bull's Head
  • City State Country: Barnes, London
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