All the music performed by Frank Griffith’s nonet with Iain Mackenzie was recorded in 1960 by Mel Tormé and Marty Paich on the album Swings Shubert Alley. So, it’s all been done before. Therefore a legitimate question is: why do it again? Isn’t this just another example of nostalgia in a world with far too little innovative and original jazz?
I happen to know the answer to the first question: because I asked them to. Griffith is a gifted arranger who really has his pen on the sound of that ultra-hip era of jazz, the 1950s and ‘60s. Loving his work with his Nonet, I suggested he get together with Iain Mackenzie to do a ‘concept’ gig: the music of Tormé and Paich.
No singer in Britain can do justice to this music better than Ian Mackenzie. He is that rare combination of a passionate singer who is (as Tormé was) also a sophisticated musician. Moreover, he also makes no attempt to sound like Tormé. Yes, he reproduces some of the scat lines but that is out of respect for the music’s creators. He knows that some of those lines are essential elements of the arrangements. But his tone and phrasing are all his own. His dynamic voice has a solid masculine snap that truly whips the band into the groove as he nails the rhythmic figures onto the stage like a jazz Martin Luther.
Griffith and his band have also done a masterful job, recreating Paich’s arrangements for this superb Nonet. The soloists, including Frank Griffith’s velvet-cool tenor and strong alto playing from Alex Garnett , are clearly enjoying a brief journey back to a time when hipness was the point.
Going back to attempt to answer to the question of why they did it again,it ain’t the money. The band will have walked out of these two gigs with minuscule fees.
No, the answer is in more questions: where else in the current jazz world can the public hear sophisticated arrangements performed with such love? Where else can people go to sit in a club and experience ensemble performance at this level?
The answer to both of those questions is ‘nowhere.’ I believe this band is serving a desperate need. Their gigs give musicians and music lovers a chance to connect with this music by performers who really understand and care about the music. We cannot move forward in jazz (or any other cultural area) without a serious understanding of the past.
I often see my students lamely re-inventing the wheel or copying something they heard last Saturday because they have never been introduced to the lineage of geniuses which jazz has produced.
And there’s other reason to do all this again. Look to the smiles on the faces of the audience. Their lives were not only enriched by this band, they were also entertained. And there’s nothing cooler than that!