Preview / Interview with Alison Rayner: Blow the Fuse 25th Birthday Celebrations

Alison Rayner

Rob Edgar spoke to bassist Alison Rayner about the 25th Birthday celebrations of Blow the Fuse with concerts from February to July at the Vortex (Dalston) and St Mary's Old Church (Stoke-Newington).

Rob Edgar: ”Blow the Fuse”, “Tomorrow the World”, “Where young meets old”, “where East meets West”. Tell me about this.

Alison Rayner: Blow the Fuse, based in London, is a partnership founded 25 years ago with Deirdre Cartwright and myself to promote and showcase the very best of live music. Since 1989, we’ve provided a focal point and performance opportunities for a small but very significant group – women jazz musicians – across the country.

Blow the Fuse runs regular jazz club nights and have produced UK jazz tours, larger scale events, educational projects and music workshops. We also created a record label – Blow the Fuse Records – with 10 CDs released to date (the 11th is due for release this summer).

Blow the Fuse Jazz Club is still the only jazz club in the country to consistently feature women jazz musicians. Dave Gelly wrote in The Observer that it is “… the friendliest and most attentive jazz club crowd in London”.

Tomorrow the World is the latest incarnation of our successful Tomorrow the Moon series of gigs which ran in 2011, 2012 and 2013 at the Vortex Jazz Club, featuring cross-generational double bills of women-led jazz projects. In the last three seasons of Tomorrow the Moon, we have programmed groups led by composers and performers Andre Vicari, Karen Sharp, Laura Jurd, Yazz Ahmed, Deirdre Cartwright, Vicky Tilson, myself, Laura Cole, Diane McLoughlin, Dee Byrne, Nora Bite, Lauren Kinsella, Karen Street, Jo Fooks, Michelle Drees, Roz Harding, Nikki Iles, Jan Ponsford, Chelsea Carmichael, Janette Mason and Shirley Tetteh. Needless to say, there are plenty of women jazz musicians out there!

Young meets old ... two generations. The cross-generational double-bills have age ranges spanning some 40 years between younger and older performers!

East meets West – this refers to our new project Tomorrow the World where we are presenting an amazing range of music from across the globe – Klezmer, Balkan and gypsy music, Indian sitar-led melodies and rhythms, Latin and European inspired compositions and South African influenced jazz – all including the ever-important jazz element of improvisation.

RE: It's a celebration of 25 years since you started your jazz night. What was the original idea behind it?

AR: Throughout the 80s, Deirdre and I were touring Europe and internationally with Jazz-Latin group the Guest Stars. When the band folded in 1988 we realised a need to reestablish local contacts and carve our niche in the London jazz scene again. On a trip to New York I saw Mike Stern playing his regular gig at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village, his haunt when not touring. This planted a seed. And so we began a regular night where we could invite other musicians to play with us and learn new repertoire in the theatre of the Duke of Wellington Pub in Balls Pond Road. Blow the Fuse was born!

RE:How has it changed over the years?

AR: Initially, we ran a weekly gig with a house trio and a featured guest, at the Duke of Wellington. It then moved to the Kings Head Theatre in Islington then the Samuel Pepys next to the Hackney Empire, finally arriving at the Vortex – the original one – in Stoke Newington in the early 90s – then owned by the wonderful David Mossman. We changed from a weekly format during the 90s to a programme with a season of dates, using venues such as the new Vortex in Dalston, Chats Palace in Homerton and our latest venue, St Mary’s Old Church in Stoke Newington.

Programming style has shifted too – we have a number of formats with most recently, with double-bills which has been fantastic. So the first set includes a new band alongside either a more established group or the traditional format of a guest featuring with the house band in the second set. It’s a great melding of the old with the new!

One of the biggest changes has been in the audiences – in particular the size of them! There were times in the early days when you could count the audience on one hand. These days, thanks to a lot of marketing and accumulating a significant database, we can ensure a decent audience for all our gigs. I think one of our strengths has been a desire to communicate with our audience – through the music, of course, but also maintaining a strong relationship beyond the stage. We have a great deal of personal and now remote contact with them and have known some of them for over 30 years.

RE: Which are the oldest musical collaborations will you be presenting...?

AR: There are two evenings featuring collaborations between Deirdre and myself – we have played together since 1976! There will also be a concert in February featuring Laka D who we met in 1977, leading a new choir with Deidre and I accompanying her in the first set. The May date at the Vortex features Louise Eliot and Cheryl Alleyne who played at the first Blow the Fuse Club night in May 1989 – this will mark our 25th anniversary and will be a celebratory evening to boot.

RE: ...and the newest?

AR: There are a number of performers who we have not previously programmed – the wonderful bass player and composer Daphna Sadeh is bringing her group, The Voyagers, in March. Vocalist and sitar player Shama Rahman will bring her quartet to St Mary’s in April and the July date at the Vortex features a trio led by Flo Moore, a brilliant young bass player currently studying on the Academy jazz course.

RE: You have been a big supporter of women in jazz. This year, you're also including a world jazz aspect. What can we expect from this?

We have a 25 voice choir led by the charismatic vocalist Laka D, a night of Balkan, Klezmer Middle Eastern and jazz, a collaboration on the April date between guitarist Deirdre Cartwright and sitar player Sanjay Guha and then in June, a South African and Ska influenced world music workshop band led by trombonist Annie Whitehead. That’s just for starters.

Although initially from classical and rock and pop backgrounds, Deirdre and I have been influenced by a wide range of ‘world’ music including Santana’s Latin-rock, the Brazilian influence of say, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie’s use of Afro Cuban rhythms and the huge contribution made by South African musicians on the London jazz scene. Jazz is such an open and wide-reaching music genre, always absorbing other influences and re-inventing itself.

RE: You're working with PRSF and Jazz Services?

AR: We have been really fortunate to be receiving funding for the 4th year now from the Jazz Services and PRSF Small Promoters Fund. This is what has made the double-bills – a rich and diverse aspect to these projects – possible. We have thoroughly enjoyed mixing with younger musicians and their audiences along with our regular supporters. Every aspect of this coalescence has been very positive.

Rob Edgar: Finally, tell me about the choice of venues.

Alison Rayner: We decided to run this series across two venues – The Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston and St Mary’s Old Church in Stoke Newington. We feel the acoustics and space of the medieval church will really suit the choir concert and also work well for groups featuring acoustic instruments such as sitars and horns. It’s the first time we have used the church and we are very excited about the possibilities there. The Vortex is always a great place to play – intimate and in a funky area – with incredible support from all the volunteers who help make the evenings there terrific.

More information from the BLOW THE FUSE WEBSITE

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