REVIEW Roberts Menzel/Clemens Poetzsch Quartet in Islington

Robert Menzel. Photo credit: Christian Debus
Review: Roberts Menzel/Clemens Poetzsch Quartet
(198, St. John St., 18th October. Review by Alison Bentley)

Have you ever imagined inviting your favourite jazz musicians to perform in your living room? Promoter and singer Alya Marquardt has done just that, organising concerts in her Islington apartment- and bringing in audiences to join her. It’s part of the Two Rivers Foundation for music, ‘…a space where musicians can experiment with new projects and get feedback…’ says Marquardt.

Among the anonymous windows of St. John St. there’s one that invites you in, with coloured lights, and the faint sound of a grand piano. This gig featured Berlin-based tenor-player Robert Menzel and pianist Clemens Poetzsch from Leipzig, augmented for the first time by the UK’s Calum Gourlay (bass) and Dave Hamblett (drums). They played unamplified in this minimalist space, chosen by Marquardt for its wooden floors and ceiling- a perfect acoustic. And there were soft, sprawling seats to enjoy it all from.

Menzel and Poetzsch have known each other since they were kids, and studied jazz together in Dresden. Their extraordinary rapport was evident from the opening Just in Tune (by Menzel). The rich tenor tone unfolded the Kenny Wheeler-like tune, and Poetzsch’ solo was full of glittering clusters of notes tumbled together. There were McCoy Tyner-ish robust chords and restless bass and drums. Menzel’s Kühl und Distanziert (Menzel translated it as ‘Very Distant and Cold’) had a triphoppy feel, as bass spelled out the harmony and Poetzsch played percussive single notes (he admires electronic musician Flying Lotus). Sax gusts blew over a spacey groove, the grace notes evoking Gabarek- but on tenor. Poetzsch’ composition Stange Ways drifted through dreamy b5 chords- Hamblett’s delicate brushes barely touched the cymbals, coaxing out the lightest of sounds.

There were folk and jazz covers. Poetzsch had arranged a traditional tune from a ‘German minority people’ Mej ty dobru noc (Night Song) had a gospel treatment with decisive bass strokes. Gourlay’s solo had a luxuriant Charlie Haden-like sound. The tenor tone was heart-melting, with its slow-burn vibrato. Beatrice by Sam Rivers (appropriately, a leading light in 70s New York ‘jazz loft’ gigs) had the most traditional sense of swing. Menzel sounded very like Joe Lovano, whom he admires.

Three unexpected covers revealed Menzel and Poetzsch’ playful and endearing sense of humour- and their musicality. The theme song to a German soap- Good Times, Bad Times- had been given a makeover. Menzel: ‘Now it’s very aggressive- it’s meant to be soothing…it has a nervous pulse, nervous bassline.’ The nervy groove was worthy of Steve Coleman as the gap between sweet piano and dark bass lines grew wider and wider- though neither sounded tense on its own. With delicious irony, the 90s Aqua hit Barbie Girl was renamed Barbie’s 55th Birthday. Bubblegum pop met dark modal jazz brilliantly- especially in the 11/8 bars! Menzel’s mahogany tone was punctuated with affecting high split notes. Nick Kamen’s pop hit I Promised Myself wrapped up their set in a funky minor mode far from the original. The audience loved it, as Hamblett and Poetzsch had a rhythmic conversation, the drums picking up the piano ripples in shivery cymbal sounds.

And there was more: Senegalese singer/songwriter Biram Seck's band were heating up- they were virtually playing in the kitchen, after all. No-one could resist dancing to the West African grooves- Seck mixed traditional instruments (talking drum on the shoulder, tall sabra drum on the ground) with deeply funky 6-string electric bass and drum kit. Seck accompanied his own beautifully fragile, throaty singing on acoustic guitar, while the electric guitarist played twirling soukous lines.

A momentous gig in a living room. Why not join them?

Next St. John St. gig, Sat. 1st November 8 pm: Sorana Santos. Details on Two Rivers Records Facebook page. 

Robert Menzel/ Clemens Poetzsch Quartet will be on 21st Oct at Luna Lounge and on 22nd Oct at the Ajani Grill & Jazz, London

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