I enjoy listening to jazz. I know a whole lot of nothing about it, which is perhaps why I don’t offer to write reviews of Oxfordshire's jazz nights very often, but I know that I enjoy it.I’m also always a little nervous about small, local-village-hall-type venues too; worried that only a handful of people will show up, and that the whole event will be unbearably awkward. This is partly what has prevented me from nipping across the playing fields to Burwell Hall on the first Friday of every month to experience Witney Jazz Club. Quite frankly, I could kick myself for my foolishness.
On Friday evening I was warmly welcomed in the small foyer of Burwell Hall by husband-and-wife hosts Paul and Jayne Jefferies. Jayne explained the seating (cabaret-style with candlelit tables) and who I would be sharing a table with, and I immediately rocked the boat by asking if it would be okay to be seated instead with my in-laws who had bought tickets separately. Thankfully, my hosts and original table companions were very amiable and happy for me to disrupt the carefully-planned layout by moving a chair and descending upon a different table.
My concerns about attending this kind of evening at this kind of venue were completely unfounded. The hall quickly filled up and there was a lovely buzz of chatter in the air, as people met up with friends and found their seat, or strangers introduced themselves upon joining a table. Speaking to Paul during the interval I discovered that around 70% of the guests are regulars, which highlights the popularity of the evening, and goes to show that it’s just what is needed in Witney: since its inauguration in 2016, the event has gone from strength to strength.It’s easy enough to find jazz nights in Oxford, just down the road, but why bother when carefully-selected guest performers are booked even closer to home?
Paul is himself a musician - an accomplished bassist - as well as a teacher.He performs with a whole variety of acts, as well as with his own trio ‘Tantrum’, featuring Tommaso Starace. On Friday, as well as performing his duty as host (and what a lovely, witty, welcoming host he is!), he joined the guest headliner on stage with his double bass.The guest was London-born Alex Hitchcock, a young but massively talented - and award-winning - saxophonist. He was joined by Will Barry on piano and Boz Martin-Jones on drums: also, even to my untrained ears, hugely talented individuals. And that’s putting it mildly.
The full hall was treated to a very entertaining couple of hours of fabulous live music and very funny on-stage banter. Hitchcock is an engaging and genuine performer, not only when blowing and flapping (his words) his instrument, but also when addressing the audience - whether he is unapologetically flogging his CD (just in time for Valentine’s Day, folks) or sharing that he’s very hot, but couldn‘t possibly take his jacket off for fear of showing us all his prison tattoos.
The quartet showcased a wide variety of pieces, including George Gershwin’s S’Wonderful (with a nod to saxophonist Eddie Harris), The Jitterbug Waltz (Fats Waller), Duke Ellington’s All Too Soon and music by American jazz pianist Cedar Walton, with a great deal of enthusiasm and, of course, talent. I am always incredulous at musicians in general, but jazz adds a whole new layer to my awe; the intricate melodies and the way in which they are passed between performers with seeming ease and total confidence are only topped by the improvisational solos performed in amongst the main tracks, and how it is all coordinated with such ease (seemingly – I'm sure it takes a massive amount of practice and talent to be that polished).
With drinks during the interval (provided by the very reasonably priced Oxford Bar Company) and a cheeky raffle raising money to allow Witney Jazz to continue purchasing such luxuries as show lights, and microphones with a switch, this monthly event is a must-visit for anyone who enjoys live music in an intimate setting with a whole bunch of lovely, welcoming people, and talented performers. I’ve already put my name down for tickets to next month’s event (It’s Trad Dad, Ian Bateman’s Septet, Friday 6th March at the Corn Exchange in Witney) and am looking forward to continuing to learn more about the art form with each future visit.