A visit to London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club makes for a truly unique live music experience. Located on Dean Street, in the labyrinthine heart of Soho, it promises understatement, intimacy and cool. Upon entering one would instantly assume they’re in any other bog-standard Pizza Express in London. Descend into the restaurant’s nether regions however and you’re taken back to 1920’s New York, as the moody lighting sets in and an elegantly dressed ensemble appear from behind a small curtain.
Initially founded as the Pizza Express Jazz Room, the club first opened its doors in 1969, and from its outset was host to all range of talent from around the world. Early acts included UK Pianists Lennie Felix and Brain Lemon, with later representation from the US arriving through Buddy Tate, Benny Carter and Bud Freeman. Stars down years have included Dick Morrissey and Yank Lawson; to more recent visits from Norah Jones and Diana Krall. Along the way, the venue has been associated with a number festivals, including the Pizza Express Jazz Festival (1979-1981), The Soho Jazz Festival (1986-2002) and The Steinway Festival (2009- present).
It follows that my first visit to the venue has come unsurprisingly through the London Jazz Festival- as held every November across London’s many clubs, theatres and concert halls. In keeping with my love of Bossa Nova, I decided to check out an act with some south American flavour to offer, and in doing so, stumbled upon the sensational Heidi Vogel. A lead singer for the Cinematic Orchestra, London born Vogel fuses Jazz, Soul, Latin, Funk and Samba to create a sound that conjures to mind the spirit of Brazil so acutely that you’d swear you’d died and woken up on a beach in Rio. In recent years she’s toured extensively, played at some of the biggest and best Jazz venues, and come to be acknowledged as “surely one of the great jazz voices of modern times, on songs of her own choosing.”, Vamos, London. And as I discovered, she was to be performing at the Pizza Express Jazz Club on Sunday 23rd November 2014.
Proving her worth on the day, Vogel’s performance was nothing short of incredible. Glancing up from my pizza as she took the stage for her lunchtime set, I was instantly captivated by her rich, husky sounding voice, which filled the room and sent a sharp chill up the back of my neck. Supporting her was an ensemble of Bassist, Drummer, Pianist and Guitar player, as the set moved through various strains of Jazz: Swing, Blues, Bossa Nova. Stand out performances on the night included a haunting cover of Frank Sinatra classic, It’s Alright With Me, and a delightfully impromptu drum solo- as wild and unrestrained as the very curls on Vogel’s head. Not a stranger to the big stage, there was a strong sense in which Vogel’s towering presence struggled to be contained in that pokey Pizza Express basement, but this only added to the sheer exhilaration one felt in close proximity to her performing.
Thinking back, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the Pizza Express Jazz Club, or indeed a more heartfelt insight to London Jazz Festival for the first time. Together, the venue and show exceeded expectations in what undoubtedly proved to be most unforgettable Sunday afternoon.
For further details on the Pizza Express Jazz Club, see: http://www.pizzaexpresslive.com/