In the middle of the afternoon, an outsized multicoloured scarf walked through the door into the Vortex, playing an alto saxophone. It turned out, after he had unwrapped himself, to be Xhosa Cole, who carried on playing as he made his way to the stage. There he fitted seamlessly into a free improvisation being devised by the trumpeter Chris Batchelor, the tenorist Julian Siegel, the cellist Shirley Smart and the pianist Liam Noble as part of a three-venue benefit for the saxophonist Jason Yarde.
Yarde, who is one of Britain’s very greatest jazz musicians, collapsed on stage in south-west France in mid-October after suffering a massive stroke. The presence of a couple of medics in the audience may have saved his life, and the process of treatment for a bleed on his brain continued at a hospital in Toulouse. He is recovering at home now, but an appeal for funds to meet his costs has met a predictably warm response, leading to the three jazz clubs in Dalston — the Vortex, Café Oto and Servant Jazz Quarters — getting together to organise a highly unusual benefit.
Starting at two o’clock in the afternoon, several dozen musicians of diverse age, gender and ethnicity spent two and a half hours migrating between the three adjacent venues, joining up for collective improvisation in spontaneously self-selected ensembles. I began my listening at the Vortex, where a group featuring the altoist Caroline Kraabel, the tenorists Dave Bitelli and Harrison Smith, the guitarist Dave Okumu, the bassist Dominic Lash and the drummer Sebastian Rochford surged through free passages into a charging section of unruly swing that reminded me of Charles Mingus’s “Hog Callin’ Blues”. Later Cole joined a group with Loz Speyer (trumpet), Neil Charles (bass) and Rochford again on drums, whose interplay was agile and intuitive.
Arriving at Café Oto, I discovered I’d just missed a line-up featuring Evan Parker and Eddie Prévost. Instead I heard a set by a group including the singer Cleveland Watkiss, the baritone saxophonist Cath Roberts, the trumpeter Charlotte Keeffe and the violinist Benedict Taylor, in which the pianist Veryan Weston played a duet with the improvising tapdancer Petra Hasler. As I was leaving, a re-scarfwound Cole was marching towards the Oto’s entrance, accompanied by Kraabel, together creating al fresco counterpoint for two altos.
Next, over in the basement at Servant Jazz Quarters, I had said hello to the pianist Steve Beresford and heard a couple of minutes of a set featuring the tabla player Ansuman Biswas and several string players. But then, with a loud BANG, the lights went out and the music stopped dead. A water leak from adjacent building works had found its way into the club’s electrics. No injuries but plenty of confusion. End of music.
Back at the Vortex, the altoist Dee Byrne, the pianist Laura Cole, the guitarist Daniel Thompson and the drummer Mark Sanders, with Taylor on violin and Lash on bass, had just got started when Charlotte Keeffe and Cath Roberts arrived to join them, already playing as they made their way up the stairs. Soon they were joined by another violinist, Sylvia Hallett, and together they conjured something that soared at first noisily and then gently before floating to earth in the sort of inspired ending that is one of the joys of free improvisation.
It was the kind of a day when the music really does turn itself into a common property, its barriers dismantled and prejudices abandoned, available to all. A day that fully reflected the qualities of the inspired and inspiring musician to whose recovery it was dedicated.
* For those who didn’t know about Jason Yarde’s stroke, or who couldn’t make it to the benefit, and would like to make a donation, here’s the crowdfunding link: https://www.gofundme.com/f/jason-yardes-stroke-rehabilitation-journey?utm_campaign