Somerset: the jazz capital of Europe

Miles Kington
Thursday 04 November 2004 01:00 GMT

From time to time I have to convince myself that moving out of London was not a mistake, and one of the best places at which to do that is a small town south of Bath, not far from Frome, called Nunney.

From time to time I have to convince myself that moving out of London was not a mistake, and one of the best places at which to do that is a small town south of Bath, not far from Frome, called Nunney.

It has a stream ambling through the middle in a very photogenic manner, under houses and little bridges and even on to the road in rainy weather. It has one of the biggest and best-preserved ruined castles I know, sitting in its own moat bang in the middle of town.

It has an extraordinary music instrument workshop where you can get almost anything mended, including a beat-up old euphonium of mine, and where the boss makes Gascon bagpipes for fun.

For a long time the most notable thing about Nunney was its most famous resident, Anthony Powell, but now that distinction is borne by the quite extraordinary Jazz Café which takes place on the first Sunday of each month. The words "Jazz Café" conjure up metropolitan images of late nights and smoky rooms, so it comes as a pleasant shock to find that the Nunney Jazz Café takes place in the village hall in the middle of the day.

Doors open at noon, there are three sets of jazz, a great lunch (if you get there in time) and good local art on the walls. People spread along the long tables in communal fashion, reading the Sunday papers, chatting to neighbours and vaguely keeping an eye open for errant children - yes, children, because this is really a family affair. When my wife and I went along to the last Jazz Café, I felt vaguely guilty that we weren't taking a brood with us. I also felt vastly relieved, of course.

On that occasion the star attraction was saxophonist Iain Ballamy, who has been in the forefront of British jazz ever since he was a member of Loose Tubes with Django Bates. He lives locally in Frome, but even so it was a coup for Keith Harrison-Broninski to get him along. Keith Harrison-Broninski? Who he? Well, he is the guiding light behind the event, along with wife Ann. It is a melancholy fact that almost anything worthwhile happening in jazz is made to happen by the energy of one lone lunatic fighting against the world (examples are Ronnie Scott, Peter Boizot, Norman Granz). Keith is a composer/musician/ organiser who lives in Nunney and not only madly keeps the whole thing going, but plays pretty good piano in the resident trio, along with Bristolians Dave Griffiths on bass and Andy Tween on drums.

In order to stop it being just a drifting jam session, Keith likes to impose a theme on each Sunday and this Sunday it aims to be the tango music of the great Astor Piazzolla. People are encouraged to dance. You don't dance the tango? Then come to the tango lessons in an adjoining room at Nunney Village Hall, whose door occasionally opens to reveal people having fun to a quite different music.

As a contrast, there will also be a star guest appearance by local ex-James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, but I think it's the tangos I would be going for. The house band already boasts a violinist in Mike Evans and a fine accordionist in Karen Street, so it should be a humdinger of a session.

On the website ( Keith says he aims to reproduce the spirit of the "guingette" as seen in Monet's paintings of lazy summer music gardens, but it reminded me also of an interview by the black American altoist Steve Coleman when he first came to Europe. He couldn't get used to us Europeans sitting in silent rows, enjoying music by not moving. It was unnerving. In the clubs he was used to back home, music was one part of the whole set-up, another element along with talking, flirting, drinking, networking, scoring, laughing, joking ... Wasn't there anywhere in Europe like that, he wanted to know?

Why, yes, there is, Mr Coleman, and it's in Nunney, Somerset.

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