Ravi Coltrane at Bird’s Basement, Singers Lane, Melbourne on Sunday, March 6, 2016
IT HAS been said often in recent months, but there’s a lot of live music happening in Melbourne, plenty of it being jazz / improvised. That can’t be bad.
But as venues proliferate, the challenge remains to really get more Melburnians — and visitors to town — off their couches and out there listening, hopefully on a regular basis.
Change has been in the air for Melbourne’s jazz scene since the closing of Bennetts Lane Jazz Club after last year’s Melbourne International Jazz Festival and the shift of regular Melbourne Jazz Co-operative gigs to Sonny Rehe’s Uptown Jazz Cafe in Fitzroy. Then Bennetts staged its most convincing Lazarus-like recovery pending the advent of developer David Marriner’s planned incarnation of the iconic venue in Flinders Lane at a date to be fixed.
Early this month (March 2016) Albert Dadon launched his Bird’s Basement club in the appropriately named Singers Lane close to Flagstaff Station, opening with seven nights of “jazz royalty” as reedsman Ravi Coltrane played two concerts a night in the slick, custom-built basement.
There had been much talk in jazz circles about whether the Bird’s Basement model of an early dinner show and a separate supper show would work, and how long the extensive resources of Dadon could sustain the new venue if he built it and crowds did not come. Ironically, that question came up recently in the small venue Conduit Arts in Fitzroy, host to many creative and superb performances over recent years. Now, it seems, Conduit Arts will be closing.
In this context, it was with great interest that I took my camera to Bird’s Basement for the supper show on the final night of Ravi Coltrane’s stint with Glenn Zaleski on piano, Kush Abadey on drums, Dezron Douglas on acoustic bass. Coltrane played tenor and sopranino sax. (The names of Coltrane’s band members were not listed on printed material at the club, as far as I could see. I am indebted to John McBeath for letting me know that I had two members of the line-up wrong in this post earlier.)
A few remarks about the venue. After years of feeling familiar and comfortable in the two rooms at Bennetts Lane, at which patrons find their own way to tables or single seats, I felt strangely formal in having Bird’s staff conducting patrons to seats.
I can say without reservation that all of the many staff at Bird’s were unfailingly friendly, welcoming and helpful. Ordering and delivery of drinks was smooth and payment at or shortly before the gig ended did not disrupt the music.
Being on my own, I was initially taken to a seat at the bar, but a more suitable vantage point for taking photographs was soon found.
Ticket purchase and seat allocation are no doubt still evolving, but I found the Ticketek process awkward and unsatisfactory. In the process of registering I ended up with two tickets in my checkout basket with no obvious way to remove one. Also, seat allocation was impossible without knowing the seating plan at Bird’s, which apparently changes according to numbers booked.
As for ambience, it’s all very blue and a little shiny. It seems a pity that patrons and waiting staff have to cross in front of tables to get to the far side tables, and there is no standing area at the back where the press of punters can build the sort of excitement often felt, for instance, in the small room at Bennetts. Bird’s Basement has a refined feel that may appeal more to those used to dinner with their music.
But musicians and patrons seem to agree that the acoustics are good, as may be expected in a purpose-built space.
Now for a mention of the music. Given that this was the final night of seven paired performances, the attentiveness and enthusiasm of this quartet was pleasing. I was mightily impressed with Kush Abadey at the drum kit and Glenn Zaleski at the piano.
With Coltrane on tenor for his originals Coincide and Candlewood Path, Ralph Alessi’s Who Wants Ice Cream, and another brief piece, the quartet delivered compelling, intelligent jazz in which the leader left plenty of space for his young rhythm section to show its undoubted prowess. Abadey often seemed to drive proceedings.
Coltrane’s tenor forays included brief statements that said a lot without any attempt to dominate, leaving us wanting more. He closed the concert on sopranino, firing up on Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life and John Coltrane’s Equinox, appropriately resisting any temptation to announce the latter with a paternal reference.
Bird’s debut week must rate as a success, but the real tests will come when international artists are not on the bill. And it will be interesting to see whether this venue linked loosely to New York’s Birdland will attract new patrons to live music or tap into the numbers already turning up to Bennetts Lane, Uptown, Paris Cat, The Brunswick Green and other Melbourne venues.
Bird’s Basement has a long way to go before it develops the rich history that adds significantly to a well-established and much-loved venue. But the music is what counts and nostalgia should not be overrated.
Rightly or wrongly, I felt that I ought to dress up for Bird’s — that it possibly was a bit flash for my taste and may attract a different crowd. If so, that could work and would help provide work for local musicians as well as imports. But let’s see.
Meanwhile, the following night I sat in a familiar chair in the small room at Bennetts Lane to hear Tim Stevens deliver 13 brand new and unnamed compositions with help from Dave Beck and Ben Robertson. It had a different feel.