The Pizza, now a much more corporate jazz entity than it ever used to be as the chain that owns it has mushroomed and tightened its management grip in enthusiastic pursuit of the bottom line, could have been fuller given the reputations for excellence of all four musicians here. There was enough of a crowd to encourage the band to play what seemed like an unexpected encore and the sound quality was characteristically good, only the muffled typewriter-like sounds spilling from the till breaking the spell.

Alessi’s band was the new Quiver line-up, the Baida band essentially with one change, pianist Gary Versace instead of Selma composer Jason Moran. Moran’s Bandwagon colleague Nasheet Waits (son of Blue Note and Motown drummer Freddie Waits) was the best thing about this gig in a number of ways including the sheer range of his percussive style: his high action stick drop and bustling assemblage of subterranean trembles of sound angling over in a bubbling-up from nowhere contrast to the more ascetic Alessi standing tall and whose precisely distilled rapier-like sound coiled around his highly evolved compositions that are very strong on structure and project a cerebral sense of unresolvable curiosity that draws you in as a listener.

The two sets included music from both ECM albums Baida and the new Quiver, the solemn ‘Maria Lydia’ from Baida one of the highlights for me; ‘Gone Today Here Tomorrow’ the best from Quiver in terms of the sheer arc of the improvisation and the journey from page to instinctive interpretation in real time a factor. Versace is a very different kind of pianist to Moran, less abstract in absolute terms and the Alessi writing angle has changed a bit, the pianist contributing some almost Romantic asides within the sweep of his rolling lines although the main hub and heat of the sound is essentially a conversation between trumpet, bass and drums in the more involved sections.

The second set was more open and better for it, full of greater freedom and gave double bassist Drew Gress a chance to came into his own. The way he can flatten out a groove and paint abstract colours is pure alchemy. Waits took a hefty drum solo late on and here he was able to slam on the brakes in a manner you’d never guess, just one obvious indication of his mastery of the kit as boss of the beat and the reactive qualities of his playing persona. Stephen Graham

Gary Versace, above, left-to-right, Ralph Alessi, Drew Gress and Nasheet Waits at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho. 

There are so many fine jazz-friendly places in Dalston, a district that is a significant match to Soho in both quantity and quality.

The latest that I discovered recently, on Blues Street, where else, near the well-stocked library, is a brasserie that features jazz on Sundays. Servant Jazz Quarters, a few streets away from the Blues on Bradbury Street, close to Gillett Square, is more of an out-and-out bar and even if the ‘Jazz’ in the venue name doesn’t always accurately describe its musical policy there is quality jazz regularly enough to make it worth hitting the spot. Chief among the must-hear acts the proprietors put on regularly is pianist Sarah Tandy. Tandy has a natural affinity for straightahead jazz, her sound splashed by the modern jazz approach of Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans as well as the spirit and taste of early Herbie Hancock easily conveyed and discerned. Away from a trio setting she appears in Jazz Jamaica depping for Ben Burrell.

Down a steep staircase performing on the bar’s basement ‘stand’ on this latest occasion (her trio partners vary) she was appearing with drummer Sam Gardner and double bassist Alex Davis whose rich vibrations warmed the room. Tandy takes her shoes off to play and eased into the classics, the set unfolding with a nicely undemonstrative version of ‘All Blues’ from Kind of Blue providing a lingua franca for jazz fan and neutral bar-goer, dipping their toes in jazz for the first time perhaps, alike. ‘My Shining Hour,’ called by Tandy in E flat, was also one of the tunes in the first set as was Monk’s ‘Straight No Chaser, each piece given time to marinate and when put to heat, simmer.

Later in the Culture House at the Vortex I picked up on where I had left off earlier in the week when I had been listening to pianist-composer Hans Koller’s Retrospection (new triple LP out next month on Stoney Lane) featuring Fish Factory and Hamburg NDR studio sessions recorded between June 2011 and 2014.

Three players from these larger group ensembles were here with the Birmingham scene New Cool School catalyst. US alto player John O’Gallagher, now studying for a doctorate in the city, has a very clear vibrato-less style that is very appealing. As an academic he’s interested in tone rows and has written a book on the subject while as a player he makes organic connections in real-time via Bird and Lee Konitz-accented priorities in the character of his playing personality. A Bach-ian discipline meanwhile runs deep down in the Koller musical profile comping here by injecting a crisp chunkiness to the big vamps that the Lee Konitz drummer Jeff Williams knows how to unloosen and shake free.

Williams has a fine new quintet record out on Whirlwind called Outlier. In the notes he mentions his wife We Need To Talk About Kevin author novelist Lionel Shriver who came into the club later and talked a little afterwards to the musicians and a few jazz fans as conversation turned spontaneously somehow to jazz in fiction and a mention of Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home. At this Williams’ eyes lit up, the image of the Tin Palace where the saxophone-playing bear and hero of the novel goes to play a vision leaping into view. 

Sam Gardner, top left-to-right, Alex Davis and Sarah Tandy at Servant Jazz Quarters the street sign of which is above. 

Story and pics: Stephen Graham