In the shadow of Benny Goodman: Bob Wilber will be leading the New York
Benny Goodman centenary tributes in May with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra
One of the first pieces I wrote for LondonJazz was a preview of the gig on Saturday night at Pinner Parish Church: here.
Stuart Nattrass and Peter Vacher organize the gig well, and there was a virtually full house. Wilber , looking good for nearly 81, was with regular top-notch British colleagues Richard Busakiewicz on piano, Dave Green on bass, and Bobby Worth on drums
Wilber tells fascinating anecdotes in between numbers, in which both his musical antecedents and his own distinguished, unique roles in jazz history come alive: as a pupil of Bechet, as a member of the Benny Goodman band, as keeper of the Ellington flame, and -this coming May – as music director at the Lincoln Center in New York in the centenary tributes to Benny Goodman with Wynton Marsalis gladly demoting himself to sideman.
He also spoke with real fondness for English churches, and with touching affection for the many British jazz musician colleagues who had come to Pinner to see and hear him play in the church.
The Pinner congregation was also asked to nod its assent to tenets from Wilber’s credo: that “the old tunes are the best ones” ; that “in the Fifties things went wrong” in jazz, the tune was jettisoned “as fast as possible so players could show off their technique.” Wise heads were nodded in dutiful agreement.
Wilber launched proceedings with Don Redman’s “Cherry.” That tune’s “medium swing” marking was precisely what we got. In the 1980’s Wilber – on clarinet and soprano and alto -would sprint through long phrases and hurtle through chorus after chorus throughout the gig. Wilber gives much more than mere glimpses of that energy nowadays, for example in the 1928 Harry Warren novelty number Nagasaki
and in Jumping at the Woodside. But deliberate medium swing is Wilber’s core tempo. As he approaches 81 next month, and leading a quartet, it’s understandable.
Indeed, occasionally it can lead to something very special indeed. Wilber produced a moment of quiet magic, on dark but resonant clarinet throat notes , as he band-led a carefully controlled and hushed decelerando ending to Ellington’s Creole Love Call.
Bassist Dave Green, aptly described as “everyone’s favourite bass player” was superb throughout the gig and provided his unique blend of communicative support plus rock-solid warmth. His feature, Oscar Pettiford’s Laverne Walk, was a highlight.
The organisers have improved sightlines by rotating half of the normal seating in the church, and sited the band half way down the nave, a labour of love for the church’s band of volunteers. Acoustics are good, but seats uncomfortably close to loudspeakers need to be avoided.