Ryan’s gigs: Local (guitar) hero John Etheridge; Pat Metheny; Nat Birchall
28 August, 2021 — By Rob Ryan
John Etheridge: ‘One of the best guitarists in the world’
In 1965, Sonny Rollins played a three-week stint at Ronnie Scott’s with Stan Tracey, then the house pianist, Rick Laird on bass and Ronnie Stephenson on drums. Rollins, miffed at having to leave his own band behind in the USA, was initially sceptical about the home-grown talent behind him. But, a few nights into the residency, Rollins took the horn from his mouth, pointed at Stan and asked the audience: “Does anybody know how good he is?”
Well, it took a while for the wider public to catch on just how good Stan Tracey was, but I am always reminded of that now-legendary moment whenever I see guitarist John Etheridge play.
I suppose the equivalent to Rollins’ on-stage announcement for him is Pat Metheny’s quote that Etheridge is “one of the best guitarists in the world” but, somehow, we still don’t seem to have all got that memo.
Maybe because the guitarist, a resident of South End Green, is right under our noses (he has played all the regular London jazz venues plus, locally, Lauderdale House, the York Rise street party and the Parliament Hill bandstand – which he does again on September 5) and because there are so many incarnations of John Etheridge.
There’s the Django/Stephane Grappelli version, the Nigel Kennedy/Hendrix manifestation, prog rock with Daryl Way and Soft Machine, adventures in free jazz, his duo with singer Vimala Rowe, guitar duets with John Williams, his exuberant Zappa band, various solo outings… It’s a series of “parallel worlds”, as he puts it, and people don’t often connect the spheres.
Over coffee at the Parliament Hill Fields cafe, I suggest that he might be more of a household name if he had concentrated on any one of these worlds.
“Absolutely,” he says. “The way to be really successful in jazz is to find a niche and stick to it. You bring your own style and whoever you are playing with adapts to that. I don’t operate like that. I like to adapt to whoever I am playing with.”
As, indeed, the return of his annual mini-season of John Etheridge and Friends at the Pizza Express in Soho will demonstrate. First up, on September 8, is a night with Liane Carroll.
“I’ve known Liane for more than 25 years. She is a fabulous singer, able to do anything, apparently completely spontaneously and fresh, and she also plays dynamite piano, so it’s very easy for me to fit in with her.”
Then there are two nights (September 9 and 10) with the ever-youthful, there-must-be-a-picture-in-the-attic Paul Jones, late of Manfred Mann (although still touring with the Manfreds).
“It’s basically an organ jazz trio with Paul guesting on vocals and harmonica and it works really well.”
The run finishes with a rare appearance of his wonderfully raucous Zappatistas, an all-star band formed to tackle the music of Frank Zappa. “It’s great fun to play that repertoire. We’re not really a tribute band, we do it in our own style. But we only do one or two gigs a year, so it’s always a pleasure to come back to it.”
The Pizza gigs also mark 50 years of Etheridge being a professional musician. I ask him for his memories of his first paid performances.
“It was working at John Bloom’s club, The Rasputin, in Bond Street.”
Some readers might recall that John Bloom was infamous because of the Rolls Razor “washing machine wars” in the early 60s, but he was also a gangster.
“He certainly was. He ran a series of clip joints, proper clip joints. Every so often a Swedish businessman would wonder in, the girls would gather round, there’d be some laughter, drinks poured, then after an hour or so, two heavies would turn up with an extortionate bill and the poor bloke had to hand over a large amount of money. So we were the entertainment.
“We had a quartet of saxophone, guitar, organ and drums and our gig was to play continuous music from nine till three in the morning, no breaks. It was semi-lounge music-ish, but we got to improvise and anyway, the only people listening were those to make sure it was continuous, as JB demanded.
“The drummer eventually cracked after a few months of this and told JB where he could stick the drumsticks. Bloom’s expression didn’t change. He just turned to his henchman and said: ‘Get another band’. And that was the end of that gig.”
It was, I suggest, his version of the Beatle’s Hamburg, an extended period of paid woodshedding, honing his skills for a mostly indifferent audience – what Paul McCartney called “800 hours in a rehearsal room”.
“Yes, it was. That and my time in an Irish showband that followed.”
It’s not surprising he hasn’t invited any showbands to his Pizza residency, but you might have noticed one name missing from the festival that Etheridge is closely associated with: the mighty Soft Machine, the jazz/rock/prog band he first joined in 1975.
Well, fear not fusion fans, for they are at The 100 Club on September 20, a gig he is clearly looking forward to. “Playing with them reminds me of my heyday,” he says with a smile.
Etheridge shouldn’t rush to such self-deprecation. Listen to his solo on Hazard Profile Pt 1 from the Softs last album, Live at the Baked Potato and tell me that isn’t a man still at the top of his game, whatever the setting.
Talking of John Etheridge’s old sparring partner, Pat Metheny has a new album out. Nothing unusual in that, but it is part of an interesting project called Side-Eye, which sees the veteran guitarist teaming up with a rotating cast of tyro players to basically tour the world from next month until mid-2022.
The idea is that Metheny mentors these youngsters in the same way he was taken under the wing of older hands when he was honing his prodigious skills back in the early 70s. The Side-Eye NYC album features whizz-kid keyboard player James Franchies and another in the line of great drummers (including Antonio Sanchez of Birdman fame) that the guitarist has found, called Marcus Gilmore.
This live album finds Metheny in invigorating form, combining re-workings of older material (including two tunes from his first album, Bright Sized Life, where Francies has to dep the Jaco Pastorius role, and carries it off with aplomb and not a little funk) and new material, much of which features typical ear-worm Metheny melodies.
Although, refreshingly, one track, Lodger, sounds like a muscular blues-jazz power trio at work. It all makes me look forward to seeing him live again: a version of Side-Eye plays the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith, on June 12 next year.
Another person I am looking forward to seeing live is saxman Nat Birchall, one of our finest exponents of what has been dubbed “spiritual jazz” (now an over-used term, but it’s a furrow that Birchall has been successfully ploughing on his modal farm well before the current jazz revival).
Although he hails from the North West – he first came to my notice as part of Manchester’s Band on the Wall/ Matthew Halsall/Gondwana scene – he has played London plenty of times.
I last saw him at the much-missed Total Refreshment Centre in Stoke Newington, where he brewed up a spiritual storm with Adam Fairhall providing the drones from a portable Indian harmonium, as used by travelling preachers.
I was due to catch Birchall at Dalston’s Earth and Café Oto, but both dates got cancelled, re-scheduled and cancelled again. Now he is coming to London to promote a new album, Ancient Africa.
Like his last disc, Birchall plays all the instruments, literally a one-man band, with unison multi-horn overdubs as well as his usual masterly solos, especially on soprano and bass clarinet. This time, though, the synth is replaced by a real piano, giving it a far more grounded, classic feel which I thoroughly approve of.
If you appreciate John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Lonnie Liston Smith or Pharoah Sanders, you’ll love Ancient Africa too. So, after two years of trying to catch him live, he finally has a firm date at Café Oto on September 25 with a fine group of musicians, including Fairhall on regular piano.
And the kicker? I can’t go (I’m out of town). But you can. And you should.
• Pizza Express: https://www.pizzaexpresslive.com/john-etheridge-and-friends
• Soft Machine: https://www.softmachine.org/touring/on-tour/147-london-100-club
• The 100 Club: https://www.the100club.co.uk/events-calendar/
• John Etheridge also plays the Parliament Hill bandstand on September 5
• Pat Metheny: https://serious.org.uk/events/pat-metheny
• Nat Birchall: https://natbirchallmusic.bandcamp.com/album/ancient-africa
• Café Oto: https://www.cafeoto.co.uk/events/nat-birchall-quartet/