I love jazz. A hep cat singing scat, a low-slung trumpet slurring over a double bass beat. It unhinges structure. It loosens up the hips and the mind. And it’s pretty hard to find in Medway at the moment outside of a Sunday afternoon in The Eagle. Which was why I was intrigued to be sent a message from a friend on The Daily Telegraph’s music desk: “You need to see Kai Hoffman. She’s playing at a jazz club near you.” I message back: “Where did you meet her?” She replies: “With Liza Minnelli.” That’s not your everyday Medway jazz tip. I get googling and find the venue.
The club in question is the 144 Club. A monthly night held at The Roffen in Rochester. Jazz, it seems, has always been full of secrets. A nod to the doorman by a dirty basement door, a knocked-out neon sign halfway signalling a secret space down an alley… it’s always been something a little underground, something you need to know the spell to unlock. And so it would seem to be here, although in this case, it’s past the ivy-clad hotel-proper and up the dated cream stairwell to the mock-tudor side suite.
It’s not your usual jazz club decor. It’s essentially a badly-plastered mock tudor barn with patterned carpet (I feel compelled to order a Campari). But it’s been home to this jazz night for over a decade. A word of mouth success, which sees regulars coming month after month. And it’s a properly lovely night. You’ve got to love a gaff that can offer a decent restaurant menu and a bar menu that can see you right for egg and chips twice to go with your John Coltrane covers. It’s table service, no standing room, sit down and listen – really listen. There are signs asking patrons to whisper only, and to turn off phones – requests which are abided by.
There’s a reason for that. Club organiser Roan Kearsey-Lawson is a successful (and rather brilliant) jazz percussionist. Specialising in drums and vibraphone, he was tired of playing venues where the band would get twenty quid and a packet of peanuts for high calibre gigs, and resolved to start a night which would look after musicians properly – an attitude which ensures he shares a fulfilled wishlist of performers with the likes of Ronnie Scott’s. He leads the house band, and his mother and brother chip in with organisational duties – Margaret sorts the ticketing and Matthew hosts in a style somewhere between Alan Carr and a Butlin’s red coat – an unconventional but warm and funny approach which the regulars appear to love (as evidenced by some chorused catchphrases during the half-time raffle – a staple of the night.)
Chips and raffles aside, the musicians are top notch. Last month saw saxophonist Martin Hathaway (who has sessioned with Radiohead) play, and this month, it was Kent-based chanteuse Kai Hoffman’s turn to get the audience swinging.
An American who chose Herne Bay over Paris, she had a monthly residency at Ronnie Scott’s for nearly a decade. An assured vocalist, with a deep, sexy, swooping voice, she has the girlishness of Doris Day and the delicious sass of a dirty martini. She’s pure class, with rich low notes to rival Cassandra Wilson’s and an absolute control of phrasing. She can belt, but it never feels forced. Hearing her is like watching every New York Christmas film you ever saw.
‘Caravan’ is practically roiling with a dusty heat, and she graces the house band with solos throughout. The drums clatter through their solo on this one, fast and hypnotic, mesmerising as a snake charmer. She’s a consummate band leader, setting the tempo and conducting with a gentle hand. The band are as tight as the drumskins behind them. Old pros, for whom music is as second nature as breathing. (The house band changes to fit the artist. Roan draws from a pool of dependable musicians.)
She knows all the standards and adapts them to swing or samba as she sees fit. She scats her way through ‘I’m Beginning To See The Light’ with a light tripping of the tongue akin to Keyop from ‘Battle of the Planets’, and a playful vocal nod to Billie Holiday. ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ is slowed right down to a louche 12/8. It gains the weariness of a 45 played at 33, a slouch that fits the honest depression of the words better than the skipping swing we’re used to.
There is a confidence to her. A brightness. A smoke, a smooching, a sultriness. She sings from her soul, and boy, what a soul. Nat King Cole’s ‘L-O-V-E’ proves she really is the V – very, very extraordinary. Catch her if you can.