New Jazz in Old Poole
A venerable maritime town such as Poole would seem to be an unlikely venue for a high-quality jazz club, but this is exactly what Rob Palmer has established at the Blue Boar. He told his story to Colin Trueman.
Published in March ’15
The modern part of Poole may be a little too urban and fast-paced for some, but surely the old town appeals to all, with its Georgian houses and intriguing back streets. The waterfront, too, with a history going back centuries to the days of trading with Newfoundland and even before that, is always fascinating.
So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that one of the pubs in the old town is a hub of contemporary jazz and world music. For the brick-lined cellar of the Blue Boar plays host to some of the biggest names and brightest stars in the jazz world. They come at the invitation of guitarist Rob Palmer, who set up SoundCellar five years ago and has seen it grow from small beginnings into a platform for musicians of considerable stature. Luminaries of the musical world such as Jason Rebello, Theo Travis and Nicolas Meier have all performed in the atmospheric depths of Old Poole.
Rob Palmer has been a music fanatic for as long as he can remember, but the inspiration for him to take up music was the American jazz rock band Steely Dan, of which he is still an obsessive fan. He took up the guitar when he was still in his teens, but he did not become a fully professional musician until his day job as a printer ended when he was made redundant: ‘I like it when life makes choices for you,’ he says, positively.
For two decades he has collaborated with the saxophonist Jon Lloyd who, as a teacher during the day, was able in his free time to indulge in creating music at the more avant-garde end of the jazz scene. Twelve years ago they decided to share their enthusiasms with the wider world and formed a group called the Southern New Music Collective. Once established, they were able, with the help of some National Lottery funding, to put on a series of concerts at the Russell-Cotes Museum and, subsequently, other venues in Bournemouth. Their idea was to provide a platform for many different types of creative music and with this in mind they called on the services of a wide variety of musicians, such as the Alani String Quartet, the improvising duo of Cathy Stevens and Udo Dzierzanowski, and the well-known improvising jazz pianist Keith Tippett, with the artist Frances Hatch frequently contributing to the ambient atmosphere by sketching the participants. One of the early concerts featured a performance by Jon Lloyd and nine others of the legendary hippy classic of the 1960s, Terry Riley’s ‘In C’. One of the first minimalist compositions, it consists of 53 short musical phrases which can be played by any number of musicians as many times as they want at whatever speed they want.
It was a brave and exciting venture, but inevitably the money ran out and the concerts stopped. However, it had given Rob Palmer a taste for promoting music. Remembering that some friends had previously organised concerts at the Study Gallery on the North Road campus of Bournemouth and Poole College, he approached Jem Main, the then curator, and offered to do the same. ‘It was a nice arty environment, very suitable for the music-making I had in mind.’ The gallery gave some financial help and Rob charged door money. As before, people came to listen, and the experiment was deemed a success; but this time there was a snag of a different nature. The Study Gallery, which had by now been reinvented as the Kube, was closed by the college when the Arts Council’s ten-year covenant expired and the building became the college’s Digital Design Centre. So once again Rob was looking for a space for his music.
At this time, the Blue Boar was putting on Sunday afternoon jazz concerts in its cellar, and Rob knew from having taken part in a few of them that it was an excellent venue. The audiences were small, however, and Rob offered to take over the management. Realising that the day and time were not best suited to the type of audience he was trying to attract, he reassigned the concerts to Thursday evenings. Moreover, thanks to his mailing lists from Russell-Cotes and Study Gallery days, he now had a long list of contacts in the jazz world, including some bigger names, and he proceeded to invite them to the Blue Boar. Honouring the nature of the venue, Rob named his new project SoundCellar.
One of his first guests was Asaf Sirkis, an Israeli drummer and composer who has collaborated with many other leading jazz musicians, notably the saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, a later performer at the Blue Boar. A concert which aroused huge interest was one given by the Olatuja Project, a group featuring the bassist and composer Michael Olatuja and his wife Alicia, a classically-trained singer who shot to fame when she sang at President Obama’s inauguration ceremony. ‘This is the only gig where I’ve actually had to turn people away!’ says Rob. ‘The cellar can actually hold eighty, but we managed to fit in ninety that night and still stay within the fire regulations! Normally, though, the numbers are rather less than that. I have an extremely supportive core audience of about thirty, but of course I’d like that to increase.’
This supportive core has grown simply because the quality of the musicians who come to SoundCellar is so high. Even the band for the Olatuja Project contained musicians of the calibre of the keyboard player Jason Rebello, who has not only played for the likes of Sting, Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel but has also recorded several albums of his own music – and has played for Rob Palmer at the Blue Boar. ‘I get the cream of the British jazz scene here nowadays – Jim Mullen, Martin Speake, Dave O’Higgins, Mike Outram – and also musicians from further afield, such as Will Vinson and Phil Donkin, both originally British but now based in New York.’ Rob, a talented musician himself, also plays at the Blue Boar, a fact that, modestly, he barely mentions.
Rob is keen to encourage younger musicians to play for SoundCellar, but this in no way reduces the quality of the musicianship, for many of this new generation of jazz musicians have a classical training and are as much at home in the jazz world as they are in a symphony orchestra. In fact, it was not Rob’s intention that SoundCellar should be purely for jazz but as an outlet for non-mainstream music. ‘There’s a lot of music nowadays that is difficult to categorise and doesn’t have a home,’ he explains. Hence concerts from the likes of World Service Project, a quintet described as ‘post-prog funk’, ‘serious skronk jazz’ and, intriguingly, as resembling ‘a scientist at work on some mad scheme in a garden shed absent-mindedly applying jump leads to an unsuspecting squirrel while listening to Keith Emerson’.
This is light years away from the sleepy Sunday afternoon sessions of the past. The musical boundaries are certainly more blurred than ever before: a recent performer at the Blue Boar is Nicolas Meier, who trained at the Fribourg Conservatoire in Switzerland and now regularly plays for Jeff Beck. In Meier’s own band is the cellist Bernard Gregor-Smith, who for forty years played with the Lindsay String Quartet, specialising in Beethoven and Shostakovich; now he has achieved a lifelong ambition to play jazz. The pianist Ivo Neame, another SoundCellar regular, studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, as have many other young jazz musicians.
Many of the bands who come to SoundCellar are on tours often funded by Jazz Services, a charitable support organisation for jazz. When they come to the Blue Boar, they only receive the money taken at the door, but because of the nature of the venue, with its excellent acoustics, attentive audience and vibrant atmosphere, they are content with what are often small pickings. ‘In fact,’ says Rob, ‘there are so many people wanting to play here that I don’t have enough hours in the day to answer all the emails!’
So the present is very much a success story – but what of the future? ‘I’m hoping that more and more young people will come to the SoundCellar sessions. As a teacher I’m involved with several schools and I’ve started a “Jam Collective”, a big band for children which focuses on improvisation. Maybe I can organise an early evening gig here for a younger audience. My hope is that they – and also the people who come to hear the big names – will think, “Hey, this is great – I’m coming here again!” I’ve never known such a buoyant time for music – but I’ve also never known a time when there’s been such a shortage of gigs for people to have a platform for what they’re doing creatively – and that’s what I’m trying to provide.’ ◗