It was billed as a prizegiving for student composers; but by the end of the evening at Ronnie’s, you knew you’d attended a celebration.
A noteworthy feature of the gig was the sea of young faces. Not just the entire population of the bandstand, but a significant proportion of the audience too. There can be no more encouraging or life-affirming sight in a jazz club than this.
The opening set was a quintet led by altoist Max Johnson, playing a mixed bag of originals and standards. Johnson’s confident, fluent soloing got the evening off to a very promising start. Another player standing out both in this context, and again later in the big band sets was bassist Fergus Ireland, a strong presence, playing with a fine melodic sense, occasionally loping intriguingly, creatively around the beat rather than merely nailing time.
The second set was the evening’s main course, John Dankworth’s Zodiac Suite. Malcolm Earle Smith’s spoken introductions to the pieces were informative, helpful, witty, and just right. Earle Smith has recreated and made editorial amendments to Dankworth’s fleet, angular score, and had clearly prepared the students to navigate its tricky corners securely. The Suite has a busy, bustling sixties feel based on descending scale motifs. Dankworth was on hand to dignify the proceedings, and also to confirm that the original players were indeed the likes of Phil Woods and Zoot Sims.
Not much chance for the Trinity cohort of soloists to stretch out here. But the instrumentation had some interesting colours: a strong voice on tuba, and a harp which in the unforgiving heat of a full club didn’t quite make it to the pitch of the band.
Trombonist Eleanor Smith, later heard to good effect as a warm-toned mellifluous soloist, handled with confidence trombone figures which lesser players would call unplayable. Smith’s fine playing turned many heads tonight, and will doubtless do so again.
Thanks to Earle Smith and Dankworth’s efforts, Zodiac Suite had its first airing of recent times with the Trinity forces in Blackheath last November, the second here, and Tony Dudley Evans has made the inspired decision to give the same band the opportunity to gallop through it again at the festival in Cheltenham.
Awards and envelopes were to the fore in the third set. Arthur Mead of JazzOrg, and the Worshipful Company of Musicians are in their second year of awarding a prize for a young (under 28) composer/arranger, and the winning compositions for small group and for big band from last year’s and this year’s composition were all performed, four pieces in total. The four featured composers were Nicole Jacques, James Beckwith, Matt Roberts and James Hamilton, all deserving winners. For my ears the stand-out chart was from Belfast-born Hamilton, ‘(Would Ya) Giz It,’ with clever and lively dialogue between sections, and an insistent, catchy bass figure, played good’n’loud.
Nigel Tully of the Worshipful Company announced that for the next three years the prize will be called the Dankworth Prize, will double in value, thanks to support from the Wavendon Foundation. The British jazz composer’s craft now has a really worthwhile prize.
The final work of the set was Dankworth’s rousing “Harvey’s Festival,” written – allegedly at white heat overnight – for the 80th birthday celebration of his long-time collaborator, the composer/arranger, and revered father figure of British jazz education, Eddie Harvey, in 2005. This Ronnie’s premiere brought some poetic justice at last: Harvey had held out for months to try to have his party at Ronnie’s, but that proved impossible in the middle of the transfer of ownership, and the piece received its first airing at Cecil Sharp House: never a joint in the habit of jumping. Harvey’s Festival at Ronnie’s was a homecoming, a fitting end to a great evening.