La Venencia

Madrid has more bars per capita than any other city in Europe, but they aren’t all made equal. Find out what makes La Venencia, a historic drinking hole near Plaza Santa Ana, one of the very best.

La Venencia: The One Bar You Must Visit In Madrid

If you want to know what Madrid was like in the 1930s, there’s a bar on Calle Echegaray that you should visit. It isn’t somewhere you’re likely to stumble upon. It doesn’t have a prime location or a flash new website, and there’s nothing informing you that Hemingway once drank there, though he did. On the contrary, its owners shun publicity preferring to rely on the patronage of their regulars, word of mouth and the simple green and white sign that hangs above the lintel. But that’s all as it should be.

Step inside La Venencia and you’ll see that it’s more than just this marketing strategy that has remained unchanged over the years. The bar’s interior is much the same as it was in the days of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) when republican soldiers and supporters of the anti-fascist cause met to exchange stories of battlefield heroism and to lament the advance of General Franco’s forces, passing snippets of information to sympathetic foreign journalists like ‘Don Ernesto’, as Hemingway came to be known.

A wooden bar runs the length of the room and at the far end, by an ancient till with a handle like a one armed bandit, is a stack of barrels stained the color of molasses. Motionless wooden fans hang from the ceiling and covering the walls are shelves of dust-smeared bottles and faded posters for sherry festivals that have long ceased to exist.

On the raised level at the back, reached by a short flight of steps and separated by a white silk screen, is an assortment of antique tables and chairs, a wooden luggage rail, a glass fronted cabinet filled with tattered books and a heavy mirror, curiously angled towards the floor. But, of all the antiques in La Venencia, the bar’s namesake – an elegant silver serving device used for extracting sherry from the barrel – is the most fitting. Don’t come here in search of a beer, because carefully sourced Spanish sherry (jerez) is the only thing that La Venencia serves.

On a faded sheet of paper near the barrels there’s a poem and it goes something like this: ‘Manzanilla, Fino, Oloroso, Amontillado, Palo cortado’. Five Spanish sherries all for €1.70/€2 a glass or €11/ €12 the bottle, ranging from crisp and refreshing (the Manzanilla) to something more rounded (the Fino), with nut brown Oloroso the darkest and richest of the five and Amontillado and Palo cortado somewhere in between. There’s nothing else to drink. Just sherry (jerez) and tap water, but with wines as good as these, from selected bodegas in Andalucia, that isn’t the slightest bit of a problem.

Then comes the tapas; crisp, emerald green olives in herb scented oil that arrive with your first drink; slices of pale manchego cheese; preserved meats and chorizo sausage marbled with ivory coloured fat; and leathery mojama – cured tuna the colour of red wine. Sufficiently saline to make you drink like a fish, all of it is delicious, not to mention cheap.

Manzanilla sherry and olives at La Venencia

You can watch the barmen write up your order in chalk on the surface of the bar, but don’t expect much in the way of conversation. Just as in many of the best places in Madrid, the staff at La Venencia are as brief and uncompromising as the menu, elderly Castilians who pride themselves on their surliness and work, as far as possible, in silence.

When they do say something it’s usually to cut you down to size. On this, my second visit, in the company of Gonzalo (a friend and La Venencia regular) we come to the aid of a group of American tourists looking for the sweetest sherry on the menu. “We don’t have sweet sherries,” comes the barman’s curt reply. Gonzalo smiles weakly and recommends the Oloroso. “Technically they wouldn’t consider any of them sweet,” he says.

The staff will speak up to enforce the rules of the house too, rules that have their origins in La Venencia’s Civil War days. There’s an outright ban on tipping, in line with the socialist principles of the Spanish republicans, and taking photographs is frowned upon because La Venencia’s clientele once had to be wary of fascist spies. Thankfully, the final rule, ‘no spitting on the floor’, now seems like common sense. Some things are best left in the Thirties.

If anything has changed over the years, aside from attitudes to hygiene, it’s the people who drink here. On a typical night, you’ll find elderly couples clutching slender glasses of Fino and groups of Spanish students gossiping over plates of salsichon. Socialites and flamboyant thespians prop up the bar and well-informed tourists snap furtive photos of the black cat, which stalks between the chair legs.

The quality of the air has improved a little too. “You used to be able to smoke in here,” says Gonzalo, motioning to the leathery, nicotine-stained walls. “It was like entering another world.” Though the fug of tobacco smoke and the republican soldiers may be gone, it still is.

– Thomas Rees

– Photos by Thomas Rees and Krista/Flickr

La Venencia, Calle de Echegaray 7, Madrid, Spain, +34 914 29 73 13 Open daily between 12.30 and 3.30pm and from 7.30pm until around midnight

Review: Avishai Cohen’s Triveni, The Vortex, Dalston

Chords. They’re overrated. Or at least they ought to know their place. It’s hard to imagine “A Love Supreme” without McCoy Tyner pounding away at the keyboard but that doesn’t mean that chords should be a given. You don’t always want some lumbering ivory contraption or a stick-in-the-mud guitarist weighing you down. Sometimes you want something sleek, agile and just a little bit dangerous. A white-knuckle ride in a stripped-down rally car not a Sunday morning cruise in a Rolls.

Sonny Rollins knew that way back in the Fifties when he started “strolling” with just a bassist and a drummer and it seems that trumpeter Avishai Cohen knows that too, because Triveni are that rally car. They’re the musical equivalent of something powerful but perfectly balanced, something with a roll cage, no carpet and those flimsy racing seats that look as though they’re probably quite uncomfortable.
They’re relaxed, responsive and frighteningly on it. They slip in and out of melodies, slide between abstract time and broken swing and then, just when you think they’re in the depths of free improvisation, that they’ve left the tune far behind, they’ll come together on a groove or a hit and prove you wrong.

Last night, as they made their London debut at The Vortex, it happened time and time again, amidst the moody noir of “Dark Nights, Darker Days”, the title track from their latest release, and the klezmer-tinged rough and tumble of “Safety Land”. The best of Cohen’s originals, it had Yoni Zelnik wrenching at the strings of his bass and saw Nasheet Waits drop out, relish the silence and then barge his way back in with stuttering, parched snare drum work and the odd brutal swipe at his crash cymbal. For the record, he has a handshake like a vice. Best to stay on his good side.

It’s clear that Triveni know a thing or two about flexible, calculated anarchy, but don’t think that they’re all about being modern and edgy. They opened with Don Cherry’s “Art Deco”, closed with Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings” and returned for Dizzy’s “Woody’n You” when the crowd demanded an encore. Cohen dedicated a tune to Ornette Coleman (“One Man’s Idea”) and he paid tribute to both Mingus and Strayhorn with a rendition of “Lush Life” and an unpredictable account of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” delivered in a smoky bar-room whisper.

To say that he’s well-versed in jazz tradition would be an understatement, and amongst the careering lines, bends, shakes and rasping, flutter-tongued holds that made up his solos, there were plenty of quotes to watch out for. Snippets from classics including “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Manteca” all reared their heads and there were unmistakable references to great trumpet players, too. On “Art Deco”, Cohen’s tight, breathy tone evoked Chet Baker and lent the tune a vintage, “old record” feel. His playing on the smouldering “October 25th” had a touch of Wynton Marsalis swagger, while his cutting staccato and elastic phrasing recalled the virtuosity of Clifford Brown.

All in all, there wasn’t a great deal that Cohen and Triveni didn’t have under their belts and it certainly didn’t feel as if there was anything missing. In fact, they might just put you off chords for good.

– Thomas Rees

– Photo by Philippe Levy

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Review: Enlightenment Ensemble Evoke The Spirit Of A Love Supreme At Union Chapel


They say that fortune favours the brave, and right now in jazz circles they don’t come much braver than flautist Roland Sutherland. Let’s keep things in perspective. To my knowledge, he hasn’t taken a bullet for Sonny Rollins or waltzed through a North Korean minefield to spread the word about Jacob Collier. But, he has had a crack at John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, one of the most revered albums in the history of jazz. Not only that, but he performed it in front of a sell-out Union Chapel crowd 50 years to the day since it was recorded at the Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey.

In my book, that deserves respect. Even if the whole thing had come crashing down around him and had veered towards lacklustre, cheap and nasty, everything for a pound imitation, he should still have got a pat on the back, a gold star for effort and a voucher towards a five star police protection programme. But fortunately it didn’t come to that, because, not only is Sutherland brave, he’s also a man of impeccable taste and formidable musical ability.

If anything, his re-envisioning of the legendary saxophonist’s magnum opus, arranged for the 15-piece Enlightenment Ensemble, went the other way and for the first ten minutes it was hard to find anything resembling A Love Supreme amidst the thrumming of Senegalese kora and Indian percussion. Still, there was plenty to enjoy in the tribal vocals and galloping rhythms of the bata drummers, the treasure trove of exotic instruments on stage and the long white robes worn by the performers (black embroidered with gold in the case of xylosynth player and MD Orphy Robinson).

Nor was it long before Coltrane’s music began to emerge. At first there were just glimpses of it, allusions to the familiar four-note riff from ‘Acknowledgement’ in Nikki Yeoh’s piano and in the horns. But, when a slinky reworking of ‘Resolution’ broke through some furious Mark Mondesir cymbal work, the references began to come thick and fast.

Intricate, percussion-heavy cross-rhythms came to recall the dexterity of Elvin Jones. Yeoh’s pounding block chords and side-stepping motifs were the real McCoy Tyner. Yaron Stavi’s pedal-to-the-metal swing and boozy, slide guitar-like bass feature channelled Jimmy Garrison and there was spirituality in the recitations of vocalists Juwon Ogungbe and Cleveland Watkiss, who delivered passages of Coltrane’s psalm from their perch in the heavy stone pulpit.

Sutherland’s manipulations of melodies sometimes rendered them a little less intense and a little more carefree than the originals but there was more than enough anguish in the solos to compensate. Nostrils flaring, Steve Williamson (above) wrestled with his tenor, Pat Thomas’ keyboard yelped and Shabaka Hutchings’ bass clarinet sobbed and wailed.

By the end, as the lights went out and the cheers went up, most of the band and half the audience looked like they’d been through the mill. But so they should. A Love Supreme is about an arduous spiritual journey, not some happy clappy walk in the park. It’s about effort, frustration and faith learnt the hard way. It’s an offering of thanks by a recovered heroin addict and a reassessment of just how precious life is. Sutherland and the Enlightenment Ensemble understand that. Better still, they’re brave enough to play like it.

– Thomas Rees

– Photo by Roger Thomas

This article was originally published on


Review: Nat Birchall Quartet, Leafcutter John And Andreas Schaerer Make For An Irresistible Jazz In The Round

Less than 24 hours after the finale of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival you would have thought that live jazz would have been the last thing on most Londoners’ minds. But a ticket to Jazz In The Round, a monthly event held at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone and hosted by Jazz on 3’s Jez Nelson, is a difficult thing to resist.

Informally dubbed the Jazz In The Round Christmas Party but mercifully free from festive repertoire, this month’s triple bill opened with a set from Swiss vocalist Andreas Schaerer who performed to a packed house. Schaerer is part standup comedian, part beatboxer and part singer and his immaculately paced introductory spiel and vocal trickery had the audience in fits of giggles from the start. (I won’t spoil it by telling you why). Those giggles turned to murmurs of disbelief in the following number as he sang a simple township melody while beatboxing over the top, throwing in an assortment of effects that ranged from trumpet and rattle noises to the sound of a squash ball ricocheting around the room. A ‘stereo’ rendition of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ sung across two microphones came next and then it was time for some participatory drones from the audience while Schaerer added a haunting near-eastern melody and hammed up his role as conductor.

Just as engaging was an appearance from Polar Bear electronicist Leafcutter John (pictured above) who arrived armed with a sparkler, a candle, two bike lights, a camera phone and a lighter, with which to conjure fizzing, ambient soundscapes from a perspex box full of light sensitive electronics. By altering the settings on his painstakingly pre-programmed laptop and varying the intensity and the position of the lights, he produced a mesmerising array of sounds, layering pitch bends and distorted vocals over muffled drumbeats and trembling washes of church organ before handing things over to headliner Nat Birchall (pictured top).

Performing alongside pianist Adam Fairhall, bassist Michael Bardon, drummer Johnny Hunter and an animated, barefoot Corey Mwamba on vibraphone, the Manchester-based saxophonist offered up a series of impassioned, musical prayers set against smouldering modal backdrops. Among the highlights was a unnamed track from the group’s forthcoming album, which floated an imploring sax melody over throbbing bass and punchy piano and vibes.

The saxophonist makes no secret of his love for John Coltrane and, though his soprano sound (at times uncannily like that of a cor anglais) is very much his own, both his tenor playing and his compositional style owe a lot to the great man. A rendition of Bill Lee’s ‘John Coltrane’ was a fitting tribute, opening with gravely piano and bass before launching a solo for Birchall that merged seamlessly with the opening line of a blistering Mwamba vibes feature. Closing with the title track from their 2011 release Sacred Dimension, the group brought the house down. Jazz festival or no jazz festival, there’s always room for more good music.

– Thomas Rees

– Photos by Steven Cropper

Jazz In The Round returns on 26 January 2015 – for more info go to

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