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Big Band Britannia

Big Band Britannia
(Big and and soloists directed by Guy Barker, Barbican Hall, June 19th 2010,
all photos: Roger Thomas)

Jazz is the lived in the moment, and when that moment is gone, it’s normally gone. It’s something probably pointless even to mention, and it’s definitely a lost cause ever to regret it. But when such an astonishing roll-call of great figures of British jazz gets booked for an event like “Big Band Britannia” at the Barbican, when you get to hear of the sheer amount of preparatory work which, among others, Guy Barker and John Cumming of Serious had put into it, it would have felt quite wrong for the whole thing just to die as soon as it had been born. Luckily, this show was recorded by Radio 3’s Jazz Line Up , and will be transmitted at the end of the year.

Each of the fascinating and cunningly selected big band charts seemed to have its own story to tell, about how it had got to the Barbican stage. One had been tracked down in an attic in Harrow. Another had been found after an endless game of telephone tag. A third had been transcribed off Spotify. All were copied and edited and prepared for performance by Guy Barker, himself and by the likes of Alan Prosser and Colin Skinner. The whole thing was a massive and heroic endeavour, but the sheer quality of just about all the music on offer made that effort worthwhile.

The evening built to its culmination, a tribute to Sir John Dankworth. Like many others, Guy Barker is thankful to JD, and paid him a personal tribute, acknowledging that “he gave me my very first gig.” Wynton Marsalis then guested on two movements from Dankworth’s Zodiac Variations, relishing with sincerity the rising major sixth which started the tune, finding playfulness and happiness in the three falling note motif which runs right through the suite.

But the loudest, longest and most heartfelt applause of the evening was, understandably, for Cleo Laine, on her first major appearance since the day of JD’s passing. She, and John Horler on piano, brought deep emotion and subtlety to Mark Nightingale‘s big band arrangement of Cy Coleman’s self-deprecating “It Amazes Me,” and then wonderful panache to shoo-ing the blues away in JD’s virtuosic and triumphant “Hallelujah.”

If the Dankworth tribute was the high point of an extraordinary evening, the ascent to get to that point had been a succession of happy encounters. The show started with a specially written overture by Guy Barker, combining arrangements of charts by Dankworth, Tubby Hayes and Stan Tracey, and then stepped back in time to an arrangement of the 1928 show tune Crazy Rhythm. The early numbers had period jazz specialists Martin Litton on Piano and Richard Pite on drums. Jack Hylton’s Melancholy Baby had Alan Barnes on tenor sax stepping brilliantly into the burly shadow of Coleman Hawkins. Other first half highlights were a wonderful chart by Victor Feldman, elegy, written before he emigrated to the US, with a fluent solo from Denys Baptiste. Joe Temperley, with his magisterial baritone sax playing made a guest appearance on Tommy Sampson’s Four o’ clock Jump. Temperley had been the soloist as a teenager (on tenor?) on the original recording in 1948.

There was a brief tribute to the Ted Heath band, the parts of the original lead trumpet Kenny Baker and the drummer Jack Parnell being occupied energetically and precisely by Mike Lovett and Ralph Salmins respectively. Two veterans of the Heath band, Stan Reynolds and Eric Blair, were in the audience, and Guy Barker in his introduction duly saluted these two British trumpet icons.

The first-half closer, Tubby Hayes’ “Suddenly Last Tuesday brought to the fore – from left to right in RogerThomas’s photo- alto legend Peter King, trombonist Elliot Mason, Denys Baptiste on tenor sax and Guy Barker on trumpet for an uptempo roast on Tubby Hayes’ Suddenly Last Tuesday.

The second half opened magically with the rhythm section of Stan Tracey, Alec Dankworth and Ralph Salmins balancing perfectly, and letting that uniquely haunting sound of Bobby Wellins waft mysteriously in “Starless and Bible Black.” Wellins, who will be 75 next January, then zipped athletically through Rhythm changes in Tracey’s Afro Charlie.

Then a rarity: Dejeuner sur l’Herbe by Neil Ardley, with a powerful and fluent Shabaka Hutchings on tenor sax, and Andy Panayi gorgeous-toned and inventive on flute. Stan Sulzmann directed the band in his own feisty Jack Stix. The mood then shifted radically into Loose Tubes territory with Shelley by Steve Berry. Sulzmann was the fine soloist on soprano sax, questioning, leaving space, altogether on wonderful form. The asymmetrical rhythms of Kenny Wheeler’s Gentle Piece brought beautiful balance from the band, fine piano playing from Jim Watson, and an all-too brief feature for Norma Winstone.

After the Dankworth tribute, the band plunged into one final number – the infctious township groove of Chris McGregor’s Andromeda, with Claude Deppa on stratospheric trumpet,and Soweto Kinch and Jason Yarde sparring on altos.

The band mixed the generations well. The rhythm section of Jim Watson, Alec Dankworth and above all Ralph Salmins deserve a joint Man of the Match award: they are all world-class. Geoffrey Smith compered with flair. Guy Barker directed proceedings brilliantly. It seemed a far shorter evening than it was.

And the last word? The critic next to me, who only rarely writes about jazz had a sentiment which I definitely can’t wait to hear again: “I don’t know what I’ll write about, I was enjoying it all too much.” This had been a very special evening.

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