Ravi Coltrane gets newest jazz mecca off to a classy start

Jazz venues in Melbourne appear to be going through a re-shuffle: the long-established Bennett’s Lane held a closing down session then re-opened with a makeover under a new owner.

That club’s previous owner is working on a new jazz venue in the Brunswick area, and the smallish Uptown Jazz Cafe runs regular jazz sessions as does Dizzy’s in Richmond. But none of the existing venues can compare with the style and opulence of Bird’s Basement, which opened this week.

Devoted to jazz, Bird’s Basement has table seating for 200 and is designed to provide excellent acoustics and line of sight from every seat. Meals are prepared by Italian chef Gigi Buono.

It is literally a basement, in Singers Lane off Latrobe Street. The theme is a soft darkish blue with a reflective glass ceiling high enough to dispel any feeling of being below ground. It’s all down to the vision and financial backing of Melbourne developer and jazz enthusiast, Albert Dadon.

At the launch party on Monday night, Dadon introduced Gianni Valenti, proprietor of New York’s famous Birdland venue, with whom it will exchange artists. “This city now has a permanent jazz festival,” said Dadon, who later took the stage to lead his fusion quartet Urban Grooves Project on guitar. His group will appear at the venue every Sunday.

On Tuesday, the venue opened its doors to the public with a top jazz name from New York: Ravi Coltrane, whose quartet will be running nightly through until March 6.

There were a few predictable first night hitches in the kitchen, but this was overcome by the proprietor’s announcement that all dishes would be free of charge and also the compelling quality of Coltrane’s music.

Coltrane walks his own musical path with no hint of emulating his groundbreaking father, John, or mother Alice. Nor is there any need, since Ravi — so named for his father’s admiration of Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar — is uniquely talented in his own right.

They opened with Coltrane’s quick flurry of tenor sax notes in Ornette Coleman’s Bird Food, smartly punctuated by drummer Kush Abadey, before the theme was picked up, repeated and expanded by pianist Glenn Zaleski, all strongly underpinned by bassist Dezron Douglas.

A standout was the group’s arrangement of the Thelonius Monk standard Epistrophy. The quartet took the original theme and turned it inside out, driving the piece with powerful climactic tension amid a torrent of percussive invention, sustained ingenuity by Coltrane and a dazzling bass solo.

A slower tempo infused Coltrane’s original, Word Order, which gave a wide space to Zaleski’s marvellous piano structures of flowing melodic phrases and big strong chords. The finale, Charlie Parker’s, Segment, featured a speeding bass intro and Coltrane’s sopranino saxophone at high speed and high-flying notes, an absolute tour de force. 

Casting an eye over the basement’s future music reveals a spread of styles: guitarist Lee Ritenour, smooth jazz proponents Spiro Gyra, Joe Camilleri’s Black Sorrows, musicians from the Melbourne Jazz Co-Op every Tuesday, vocalist Chris McNulty, top guitar duo James Muller and Stephen Magnusson, Sydney pianist Mike Nock and many more.

Links to previous articles related to Birds Basement

Interview with Gianni Valenti and Albare Dadon
Melbourne Jazz clubs demystified

Article first published in the Australian

For just over 24 years I have been a freelance writer, publishing in that time a wide variety of genres: news items, live concert reviews, travel articles, features, personality profiles, and CD and book reviews. I have written for various in-flight magazines, The Adelaide Review, The Republican, The Bulletin, The Australian, The Advertiser, The Melbourne Herald Sun and several regional newspapers. In 1994 I won a national travel-writing prize sponsored by The Australian newspaper, which led to my writing regularly for that paper. Since 2003 I have been jazz critic for The Advertiser and The Australian newspapers, on average contributing weekly to each paper. In 2005 I won a national Jazz Writing Competition sponsored by the Wangaratta Jazz Festival.