Brilliant Corners: The East London venue making jazz sound better

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Thomas Rees swings by Dalston’s Brilliant Corners for the second event in their innovative Played Twice series, a new live music night where atmosphere and sound quality are everything and jazz cliché is left at the door

Last week during the EFG London Jazz Festival – as Tomasz Stańko took the stage at the Barbican, Chucho Valdés played to a sell out crowd at Kings Place and John McLaughlin rocked the Royal Festival Hall – a bar on Kingsland High Road held a gig that was every bit as momentous.

It’s a little place called Brilliant Corners, and if you haven’t heard of it that’s because it’s only just started hosting live music. Back in September, the venue put on the first in a series of events called Played Twice, a novel idea for a night that starts off as a record party and ends up as a gig. First there’s a playthrough of a landmark album on Brilliant Corners’ state of the art analogue sound system and then a band made up of top British jazzers reinterpret that recording live in the venue.

“We used to do a thing we called ‘Jazz Night’,” explains Amit Patel (pictured below), owner of Brilliant Corners along with brother Aneesh. “We’d take our speakers and all of the equipment that we had and invite people round to listen to a classic jazz album from start to finish. That was way before this venue, but after the success of doing it we realised that it just works. When we got this place, a friend of a friend knew [trumpeter] Quentin Collins and he was like ‘well you should take it one step further and play live music afterwards’. So we said ‘alright then, fine, we’ll do that’. I think it’s necessary in jazz,” he adds. “There are so many ideas, if you don’t give the audience a chance to hear it again I think a little bit of it is lost.”

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With that in mind, the series opened by giving Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz To Come the Played Twice treatment. Collins assembled an all-star quartet featuring trumpeter Byron Wallen, saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford and bassist Neil Charles and, by all accounts the venue was rammed. It was just as busy last week as I arrived for the second outing, a double play of Wayne Shorter classic Speak No Evil with Collins joining tenorist Tony Kofi, pianist Andrew McCormack, bassist Mark Lewandowski and drummer Enzo Zirilli for the second set.

After a delayed start and a charmingly amateurish introduction from the owners, the lights were dimmed, the kitchen was closed and the metal shutters at the front of the venue came down. “My brother and I think that if you create some kind of ceremony about listening to music it reveals itself better,” said Patel as he removed the record from its sleeve, and he was right.

I’m a child of the 90s, used to shutting out the world with a pair of headphones and listening to albums in fragments, confining them to the background or consuming them on the go. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve sat in the company of friends and listened to a album from start to finish. But for the next 40 minutes I found myself wondering why. As we sat together in the darkness and listened to the opening phrase of ‘Witch Hunt’ blossom out of the speakers, there was something intoxicating about the atmosphere, about the purr of the sleek silver turntable and the crackle and pop of the record.

It was only then that I understood why people are so fanatical about vinyl. It has a warmth and a softness that you don’t get with CD. It wraps the music up in cotton wool and it was perfectly suited to an album like Speak No Evil, emphasising the colour of Hancock’s harmonies, rounding out the harshness of Hubbard’s upper register and adding mellow undertones to the sound of Shorter’s sax. Brilliant Corners’ enviable sound system helps (you can find the full specs here if that's your thing), and I’m sure the team could talk your ear off about modified tone arms and copper wiring if you wanted them to.

But, refreshingly, there was nothing edgy or try hard about the event and when I asked if they were consciously tapping into the recent vinyl renaissance Patel cut me short. “We’re not consciously tapping into anything,” he said. “We just recognise that sonically it’s much better if you get a really good [vinyl] pressing, a really good needle, a really good amplifier and a really good set of speakers. We don’t do it to be trendy or fashionable.”

They take the same pretension-free approach to the music, and Patel was keen to tell me that he doesn’t “know shit about jazz”, pointing to my notebook and insisting I write it down. He and his brother are just amateur enthusiasts, he maintains, “the most forward thinking” of their friends.

It’s this relaxed approach, along with the deliberate omission of a certain four letter word from most the marketing material, which Patel attributes to the night’s success. “We pushed [the first event] hard because we believe in jazz and we think it’s sad the way it’s not really celebrated, but we did it in a way that’s not ‘jazzy’, so write that in your book,” he says with a smile. “We didn’t adhere to all those jazz clichés which put off so many people. Even the word jazz, it’s like ‘argh, God, jazz’.

“My brother works at a music law firm, but they’re like ‘hey, Aneesh. How’s your jazz bar going’,” he says, putting on a corny American accent. They make fun of him a little bit because jazz isn’t considered to be cool and it is cool. It’s the highest form of art. It’s just a matter of presentation. People think ‘I’m not clever enough for jazz’, but if you let yourself be disarmed and be primal and let it go straight in, then it all just makes sense.”

He may well be on to something. The crowd at the Wayne Shorter event certainly didn’t look like your typical jazz audience. Most of them were fresh faced East Londoners who were intrigued by the concept of Played Twice but knew little about the music itself. Yet after the playthrough they were hooked, and when Patel led an impromptu, jargon-free discussion about the importance of Speak No Evil and the challenges of recreating it, they seemed more than happy chiming in.

We talked about the album’s historical context (it was recorded in December 1964, the same month as Coltrane’s A Love Supreme) and about Shorter’s use of harmony, which was cutting edge for the time. Collins highlighted the strength of the ensemble playing (Shorter appeared alongside Freddie Hubbard in the horn section of the Jazz Messengers and had just joined the Miles Davis Quintet with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter) and then, with the musicians doing their best not to look daunted, it was time to find out if they could do the album justice.

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From the flaring lines of ‘Witch Hunt’ to the easy swing of the title track and the tranquility of ‘Infant Eyes’, everything was as it should be – faithful to the original but full of personality. Weaving in bluesy phrases and touches of modern harmony, Kofi used his solos to riff on Shorter’s melodies, while Collins (above) whipped up the crowd with his stinging high register. McCormack (whose solo on ‘Dance Cadaverous’ was one of the highlights of the set) put his stamp on the performance with stacked harmonies and twisting lines which he embellished with gracenotes and a touch of Hancock-style tremolo. Phrasing with the soloists and loosening things up with gutsy cymbal work, Zirilli played a storm, while Lewandowski had Carter’s sauntering style down to a tee.

As ‘Wild Flower’ came to an energetic close, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the room wishing there were more nights like this. Cheers and whistles broke into rapturous applause and the players seemed touched by the reception. Kofi thanked the audience for being so attentive and Collins took a moment to praise the venue. “I’m sure we all got more out of that one playthrough than we did from 50 listens on our headphones or in our cars,” he said. “Keep supporting the night. It’s about remembering how to listen to music.”

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

Played Twice returns on 19 December with Keith Jarrett’s My Song feat. Andrew McCormack (piano), Julian Siegel (saxophone), Sam Lasserson (bass) and James Maddren (drums). Nathaniel Facey will lead a performance of Coltrane’s Sound in February, with performances of Monk’s Brilliant Corners and Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda also planned for early 2015.

For more info go to brilliantcornerslondon.co.uk – photos by Miguel Echeverria