Jay Rayner: Jazzing up the ’80s

As well as a lifetime of food expertise Jay Rayner has jazz in his bones, too. Melissa Blease chats to him ahead of his appearance at Komedia Bath with The Jay Rayner Sextet, and discovers the sextet’s secret ingredient…

Music: the art of arranging sound to create a combination of form, harmony, melody, rhythm, or otherwise expressive content. Swap the word ‘sound’ in that sentence for ‘food’ and surely it still makes sense, for indeed, there are inextricable similarities between the effect that both good music and good food have on the soul. Yes?

“People want that to be the case, but I’m not sure it’s true; to me, music and food are very, very different.” Oh – okay. But if I’m going to meekly acquiesce my grand theory to anybody, that somebody would be Jay Rayner: a man whose vast experience of both food and music is infinitely greater than… well, mine at least.

Over the past three decades, Jay has written extensively across the British and international media, focusing his razor-sharp wit and inimitable way with words on all manner of topics from politics to fashion, crime, the arts and – of course – food. His legendarily forthright restaurant reviews have been published in The Observer on a regular basis for 25 years, he has hosted BBC Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet since 2012, he broadcasts his own podcast (Out To Lunch) and he has four novels and seven non-fiction books in his bibliography. Meanwhile, on the music front…

An ardent pianist, Jay formed The Jay Rayner Quartet in 2012. You know those celebrity ‘sideline’ projects (pop stars buying vineyards; models launching a range of cleaning products; film stars selling dubious candles; etc)? Well the JRQ most definitely isn’t one of those. Jay’s band has performed at some of the most prestigious music venues in the UK, including Soho’s iconic Ronnie Scott’s and the cultural destination that is Snape Maltings. “As confident and fluent at the grand piano keyboard as he is at a QWERTY work-station,” one music critic wrote; “unremittingly excellent? Unquestionably!”

In 2022, the quartet celebrated a decade of gigging by becoming a sextet, adding drummer Sophie Alloway and guitarist Chris Cobbson to the existing line up of Dave Lewis (saxophone), Robert Rickenberg (bass) and, of course, Jay Rayner at the piano. Perusing the sextet’s biogs prior to their forthcoming Jazz Up The 80s gig at Komedia this month is like reading the nominations list for some kind of jazz/blues/rock’n’roll hybrid Hall of Fame. But one name in particular stands out: the sextet’s outstanding singer Pat Gordon-Smith who trained with legendary jazz vocalist Liane Carroll and has, in Jay’s words, “been singing for much longer than I’ve been playing.”

“One of the joys of doing the live tours is that my wife can’t complain about me being away because she’s on the road with me,” says Jay. “Oh!”, I exclaim; “is your wife a big fan, then?”. “My wife is Pat Gordon-Smith,” says Jay, super-patiently. Aaargh! Ever had one of those moments where you simply don’t want to be in the world anymore? This was one of those, for me. But, ever the gentleman, Jay allows us to move swiftly on.

“Pat and I have been married for 31 years,” he says. “She is, quite simply, a brilliant singer (and a brilliant academic publisher too, as it happens). Obviously I’m biased, but she’s our secret weapon. She’s worked with some very good people, in loads of very good places. You can’t fake the chemistry between a couple – and our chemistry is good. But the key thing here is that Pat and I met around 1986, 1987, and there’s always been a conversation about those 80s tunes that were going up in the charts then: songs with jazz in their bones. As we headed towards the 10th anniversary of being a quartet, we decided to move it on a bit, and the obvious way was to become a sextet, so we added drums, and guitars. And we unpacked some songs…”

Now it may surprise readers who aren’t of a similar vintage to Jay and I that ‘typical’ 1980s music didn’t all and only revolve around the likes of Wham!, or Tiffany, or even Depeche Mode. Remember Sade, Matt Bianco and Everything But The Girl? Ooh, now we’re talking! And Jay is talking to a beat revolving around his sextet’s new repertoire of new arrangements of classic songs by those bands and more, tossing artistes such as Donald Fagin, Herbie Hancock, Tom Waits and Joan Armatrading into the distinctly muso mix too.
“The key purpose of the show at Komedia is to celebrate certain chart hits from back in our day, our way. But we’re most definitely not a covers band; we’re essentially a jazz ensemble and it’s very much an acoustic set, apart from an electric guitar. We’re all in sync with the generation who’ll get what we do; we’re looking backwards in order to look forward, and I think there’s an audience for that.”

Weren’t we lucky, Jay, to grow up against the backdrop of a 1980s soundtrack? “I think everybody thinks their generation was cool,” he says. “Every generation has new things, new music, to discover and get excited about. But today, platforms such as Spotify allow multiple generations to go off in multiple directions. A couple of days ago, my eldest son Ed was playing The Clash’s 1978 album Give ’Em Enough Rope. I actually felt quite emotional! I hope that he’ll be taken on an interesting journey; that’s what we all want to do, through music.”

Through music – or through food? “People often ask me if I had to make a choice between the two,” he says. “But to be absolutely blunt, I would have starved if I’d have chosen music as my main forte. I am, and always have been, a writer. But I don’t write songs, and never have. I arrange music and I’ve written novels, screenplays, restaurant reviews, whatever, but I’ve never been driven to compose or create my own, original music. Being a musician isn’t a sideline to my ‘proper’ job; it’s a lovely – and very important – part of my life. Music affects everybody around you, much more than writing, and I adore that. But today, I’m working on my next book. On Friday, I’ve got a restaurant column to write. We’re all capable of doing more than one thing.”

And although Jay’s music is, of course, the ‘thing’ I’m talking to him about today, I can’t help asking: you mentioned that next book you’re working on, Jay?

“I’ve been reviewing restaurants for The Observer for 25 years – I mean, nobody does one of those jobs for 25 years!”, he says. “So, my next book Nights Out At Home, due to be published in September 2024, is basically me revisiting some of those reviews to reverse-engineer my favourite dishes. Yes, it was difficult to choose which dishes, and remember the greats. But I’ve learnt a lot from the chefs involved, who have helped me do it. The recipes are included, and of course, there’s a lot of memoir in there as well.”

But we don’t have to wait until this time next year to enjoy more of Jay’s memoirs; as the billing for Jazz Up The 80s with The Jay Rayner Sextet goes, “it all comes liberally seasoned with extraordinary, often outrageous, sometimes filthy stories from Jay’s life in the worlds of food and journalism.”

“Yes indeed,” he laughs. “I tell lots of stories and anecdotes from my life, so it’s a full show in more ways than one. But I’m forever conscious of an audience making a commitment to come and see us, and buying tickets. They’ve chosen to spend their evening with us, and it’s my responsibility to make sure that they have a bloody good time. In some ways, that’s the one thing that I would say is similar to writing: nobody has to read a single word of what you write, not even your mother. Your job as a writer is to make people want to read what you write; the same applies to a job making music.”

Regardless of his protestations to the contrary, I believe that Jay Rayner does indeed prove the inextricable similarities between the effect that both good music and good food have on the soul.

Jazz Up The 80s with The Jay Rayner Sextet, Komedia Bath, Thursday 12 October; komedia.co.uk; Jay Rayner: jayrayner.co.uk