Updated: Sunday, 17th December 2017 @ 10:59am

Matt and Phred's funky shakes: Jazz, cocktails, salsa and other attractions at one of Manchester’s coolest clubs

Matt and Phred's funky shakes: Jazz, cocktails, salsa and other attractions at one of Manchester’s coolest clubs

By David Keyworth

A string quintet is playing Dvořák on a Tuesday evening, Manchester poet Steven Waling is having a drink before going on stage.  Just a minute.  Isn’t Matt & Phreds supposed to be a jazz venue? 

It’s a notion which Claire Turner, who runs the Tib Street club, is keen to correct. Claire’s family bought it 18 months ago from the original owners.  She says that the philosophy is to put on a lot of good music, predominantly jazz.

If you drop by on a Thursday evening you might even end up joining one of the Salsa classes.

Having said that, the genre of music that Matt & Phreds is most closely associated with is jazz.  The club is nestled amongst the bars, cafes, florists, craft shops, hairdressers and sex shops of the Northern Quarter.

Previously it had been a soup-kitchen, a tea-total tavern, a Yates Wine Lodge (frequented by folk legend Ewan MacColl), a music venue called PJ Bells and then another music club called Kaleida.

Two musicians met at PJ Bells - Matt Nickson and Phred (a family nickname that stuck).  Matt recalls working there as an invaluable education.

He says: “It was where I met most of the people I still work and play with and was a really brilliant opportunity to cut our teeth.”

After Kaleida went into liquidation, Matt and Phred seized the opportunity and, in 1999, opened their own club.

Matt says: “Every other major European city had their jazz club and we didn’t. I didn’t want to leave and go to London.”

For Matt it must have seemed like destiny.  He says: “My brother took me to Band on the Wall when I was 16 and says my words walking in were ‘great bar’ and then, about 10 minutes later, ‘I’ll have one of these one day mate’.”

Later Matt and Phred parted company but Matt is still a DJ, flautist and saxophonist.

It’s Saturday night at Matt & Phreds.  A waitress weaves between candle-lit tables, holding pizzas aloft.  The red curtain is drawn across the window, although, through the gap, you can still glimpse the top decks of the Oldham Street busses. 

Stuart McCallum is performing with Szepessy String Quartet. It’s a preview of his forthcoming Royal Northern College of Music gig. It’s where his album Distilled will be launched at this month’s jazz festival.  The music is room-shakingly beautiful and it frequently silences audience-chatter. 

It’s nights like this, Claire says, that makes the hours spent in the office, listening to the CDs and websites of potential acts, more than worth it.  She says: “When it’s a Saturday night and the whole club is enraptured, I sometimes get goose bumps from how good the bands are.”

Matt echoes the sentiments from his own time.  He says: “The quality of the playing and musicians was high, very high and seldom disappointed.”

Stuart McCallum is also guitarist with the Cinematic Orchestra.  Their music is filed under ‘dance’ at HMV but many jazz fans would claim them.  Stuart plays fortnightly at Matt & Phreds under his own right.

He remembers the early days of the club when ‘nutters’ would often drop in from nearby pubs.  It’s also where Stuart developed contacts with kindred-musical spirits like Cinematic Orchestra drummer and club regular Luke Flowers. 

When I ask Stuart if there any challenges to playing at the club he concedes that not everyone comes in to listen to the music.

 It’s a thought that’s echoed by trumpet player Matt Halsall.  Matt went from winning a talent show at Matt & Phreds to being a regular performer and now a recording artist who performs at London’s Ronnie Scott’s, Pizza Express Jazz Club and across the country.  

He’s planning a return to the club for regular shows.  He praises the lay-out and acoustics, noting that the wooden floor doesn’t deaden the sound.

He adds: “I don’t have a bad word to say about it.  They are very encouraging to young performers.”

When some of the audience is occasionally noisy, he treats it as a challenge to get them to listen to a solo, whilst continuing to enjoy their night out.

Stuart says that even those who don’t come in with the main purpose of listening to the music are making a contribution by buying drinks.

Matt & Phreds’ cocktail selection includes names like Jazz Juice, Caribbean Curveball and Singapore Sling. Bar Supervisor Sonny Brindle stresses that original ingredients are used when making the cocktails.

He finds himself serving everyone from regulars, to tourists dropping by to jazz fans who’ve travelled miles to see a particular act. Even Will Young turned up when he was acting at the Royal Exchange Theatre and got on stage to sing a few songs. An upside of the job, Sonny adds, is that there are ‘no knobheads’.

Matt Nickson says that, in his time, you could virtually guarantee that musicians playing at the M.E.N. arena, Bridgewater Hall and other venues would call in after their gigs.

When I get back from talking to Sonny on that Tuesday evening, I put on Jamie Cullum’s Radio 2 show.  His management confirms that he too has played at Matt & Phreds although, due no doubt to the pressures of musical stardom, he’s too busy to give a quote.

The programme includes a Maida Vale session by Matt Halsall.  Let’s hope that in Manchester and elsewhere a teenager is being turned on to jazz and will one day cast a spell-bound hush amongst the Saturday night crowd at Matt & Phreds.

The Manchester jazz festival takes place 22nd – 30th July.  It includes a wide range of gigs at Matt & Phreds. For more information see www.manchesterjazz.com and www.mattandphreds.com

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