The“House Full” sign on the icy pavement outside Ronnie Scott’s said it all. On a day when absenteeism from the workplace in London is alleged to have hit 20% of employees, the Frith Street club – and particularly its stage – were completely packed. This was the third night of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra ’s BP-sponsored three-night January residency. Their twentieth stint there, we were told.
Warmers-up on a cold night in W1 were Alex Garnett on tenor, with a trio of Leon Greening at the piano, Sebastiaan de Krom on drums and Adam King at the bass, squeezed up alongside the big band‘s stands.
What caught my ear from Garnett last night was not his normal fluency or agility, but rather the beauty and balance and projection of his tone, particularly low-down, and especially on the seldom-played verse to Autumn in New York. Greening is always a very positive presence, and his three-into-four stuff on Tristano’s Victory Ball had a kicking energy about it. Adam King produced some good solo moments. But it was Drummer De Krom who rose to be the star of the hour. He went for it, and completely grabbed the attention of the whole audience. Not with Krupa barn-storming or deJohnette dervishings, but by going boldly to the opposite extreme, with a near silence that the audience had to- and did- strain to hear: a sensitive, less-is-more moment, conjuring quietly jumping cross-rhythm octaves from impeccably tuned tomtoms.
The first NYJO set consisted of Paul Hart’s six-movement suite A Christmas Carol, commissioned by NYJO, with an actor (the urbane James Smoker) reading extracts from the novel, plus two singers and the full band directed -from memory -by the composer himself. Highlights for me were Tom Walsh ’s fabulous high trumpet work on the opener, Bah Humbug, the humour of Ghost of Marley with its swaggeringly cheeky reggae backings, and then Ed Barker’s alto solo on in Long Forgotten. I found that the suite slightly outstayed its welcome, but I did enjoy the fleet, angular, Dankworth-ish writing on Tiny Tim, and also hearing NYJO showing off its chops as a show-band on a rousing closer, God Bless us, Everyone.
The second set included two fine, busy charts from trombonist Callum Au. It also brought a number of promising young soloists to the fore: singer Emma Smith was particularly impressive on the late Steve Gray’s Summer Sundays. Kwabena Adjepong has varied and characterful vocal timbres which were making me think simultaneously of Kurt Elling and Mel Torme on Paris is for Lovers. Tom Stone on tenor sax was powerful and persuasive on Mistral, and teenage drummer Scott Chapman impressed, both in his solos and when powering up the band. The published programme built to an impressive close with NYJO alumnus Gareth Lockrane ’s Groove Rider featuring mellifluous flautist Helen Wilson. Emma Smith was then summoned to round off the evening with an arrangement of Chick Corea’s Spain.
NYJO has a strong programme coming up in its 45th year. There is also some (very promising) news concerning its future just about to break.