I’m sure most of you have been in the scenario of trying to get a drink in a busy bar, with an overstretched barman (or maid) not having a clue who’s next in the unspoken queue. He looks around, and whoever shouts loudest gets served. You wonder if you will ever get your thirst quenched. And maybe you give up in despair and frustration.
That was the case with me in the strangely comforting bar and performance space called Club Inégales underneath a law firm in Euston. I gave up. And as for the very enticing food prepared by a jovial Afro-Caribbean lady called Comfort – well, you could get a generous plateful of it, but there was nowhere to sit or even perch to eat it. To get a space to stand to view the band was pretty tough too. In fact, I’m sure that if the Solicitors Regulatory Authority had paid a visit they would have closed the place down for there being too many people having fun.
Personally, all the conditions were set for me to walk out of the club before the gig even started. I stood by the exit, grumping. But something about the place made me stay, despite the late start. I somehow felt that we might be in for some interesting music, and the lack of beer and space might be worth putting up with.
Serendipitously, a seat became available in the front row at the last minute. Everyone thought that someone else had reserved it, but no-one turned up to claim it so the lady on the door suggested I grab it. I sat there uneasily for the first track, gradually relaxing as the house band improvised around a rhythm and an idea provided by a random member of the audience. The band, notes inégales, of two percussionists, a bass, lead guitar, two keyboardists (of whom one was the musical director) and a serious Swedish trumpeter, were clearly used to playing together, listening to each other and playing off each other just like a good jazz ensemble should. The fact that the number was improvised made the achievement even more impressive. The director, Peter Wiegold, gave cryptic signals as to who would have the next solo, how many bars remained before the next section, and other signs which the musicians understood but the audience could not fathom. It all added to the mystery.
The second number wasn’t so spontaneous: a track from their recently recorded CD in a tribute to Miles Davis. Here the band’s trumpeter, Torbjörn Hultmark, was allowed to shine, but not to the detriment of the other members. It was probably during the third number, another improvised number on a theme provided by an audience member, that I wondered what on earth I was DOING in a jazz gig without a pint of beer in my hand. And still thoroughly enjoying it.
We were soon at the first interval. There were now two barmen on duty, and people seemed to be getting their beers, but I stayed seated. I didn’t want to lose my prime position for the second set.
First up was Hyelim Kim, introducing her two bamboo flutes – the larger one for literati music, the slightly smaller one for folk music. And she then played them solo, one after the other, in an improvisation based on the two different genres. In the past I have struggled with both in their original form, but with the additional freedom of improvisation permitted in a jazz forum they suddenly made more sense. Kim was then joined in a duet with Byron Wallen, and the two instruments, so dissimilar, managed to balance perfectly thanks to the PA system, and the resulting improvisation – from which Kim retired half way through – was remarkably satisfying. Wallen was left on stage for a virtuoso solo featuring circular breathing and other impressive techniques.
It was the third set, though, that was the most magical. The house band returned to the stage with both guest soloists, and we were treated to some playing which, as music director Peter Wiegold had promised, had never happened before and was unlikely to happen again. More improvisation on ideas provided by the audience (one piece featured Nigerian rhythms), and more numbers from the band’s recent CD (printed that very evening to enable members of the audience to take away a souvenir). In each case the regular band was joined in the ensemble and solos by the two guests. To hear soprano trombone, daegeum and trumpet playing chord clusters together is not something you are going to hear every day of the week.
Both Kim and Wallen fitted into the band (and followed Peter Wiegold’s discrete hand signals) as if they were regular members. And the atmosphere was such that you just wanted to grab an instrument and go up on stage and join them. This was definitely music making not to be missed.
Hyelim Kim, Byron Wallen and Peter Wiegold’s notes inégales performed at Club Inégales in North Gower Street on 21 November as part of the London Jazz Festival.