Writer Henry Hanssen / Photographer Celcio Santos
The hip and exciting sounds of fresh jazz can now be heard all through the Custard Factory in Digbeth every other Tuesday. Roberto’s Bar and Tasting Club has become the home of a new local jazz night, run by Birmingham Conservatoire’s Henry Wakley.
Upon arriving, you are likely to be greeted by a stoic, impressively bearded man named Roberto. A purveyor of all things beer, Roberto stocks a vast variety of weird and wonderful refreshments. Follow a steep spiral staircase up and you will find your evening’s entertainment.
With the aim of showcasing young local musicians in the Brum scene, Wakley has put on a range of gigs so far, all featuring students from Birmingham Conservatoire and their budding jazz talent. The night feels homely and comfortable, made more wonderful by the addition of a raffle with a strange and surreal selection of prizes, from red wine to garden gnomes.
On this occasion, London based trumpeter Billy Rowlatt takes to the stage with the Roberto’s house band, Henry Wakley (drums), Tom Marsh (bass) and Ollie Canham (guitar). Rowlatt delivers a highly eclectic set, mostly consisting of jazz standards, with a sprinkling of more contemporary and original numbers.
The band sounds totally together, bringing an electric sense of freedom to each tune and Rowlatt interacts with each member of the band tastefully. Tunes like ‘Nica’s Dream’ and ‘Four’ have a particular feeling of progression as the band tackle them with ease.
Rowlatts’s tone is remarkable, comparable in quality to greats like Lee Morgan and Blue Mitchell. The sophisticated articulation that he achieves from both trumpet and flugel horn is truly admirable and rarely found in someone of his age. He sounds perfectly at home in Roberto’s.
The band itself provides a wonderful jumping off point for Rowlatt, allowing him to explore each tune until his heart’s content. Ollie Canham’s guitar comping feels so natural, adapting to every tune and never sounding lost. For my money, Ollie is one of the finest up and coming jazz guitarists in Birmingham. Henry Wakley and Tom Marsh form a powerful backline, having played together for years previously. They have an audible chemistry which progresses with each gig and this one is no exception.
Upon finding out that they had only a day to rehearse, I must say the band’s performance went swimmingly. The quartet weaved in and out around some of the jazz canon’s most sophisticated standards like ‘Darn That Dream’ and tackled two of Rowlatts’s original compositions which roasted the band on their reading ability.
Wakley has once again delivered an enchanting night of jazz, which leaves you on the edge of your seat while simultaneously lulling you into a feeling of relaxation. I eagerly await the next gig at Roberto’s, where maybe I’ll finally win the raffle and get that gnome I had my eye on.