Sarah Ellen Hughes writes:
The Worshipful Company of Musicians presents two awards annually to jazz artists in the UK. The first is the Jazz Medal for Lifetime Achievement, previous winners of which read like a Who’s Who of British Jazz – Sir John Dankworth, Ronnie Scott, Humphrey Lyttleton, George Shearing… the list goes on. This year the medal went to Norma Winstone.
The second is the Jazz Medal for Young Musicians, the competition for which was hosted last night at the new Pizza Express live venue in Kings Road SW3, The Pheasantry.
This is a competition unique in the fact that the jury is the audience on the night. Six musicians are invited to take part in the competition, and have to perform together for two sets, playing music that has not been rehearsed. At the end of the evening, the audience cast their votes as to who has impressed them the most, not just with their individual musical ability, but more so with the way in which they accompany and support their fellow musicians on stage. I found this to be a relaxed and honest way of judging a competition – no row of judges scribbling notes at the back; just a room full of appreciative and attentive jazz lovers.
The musicians nominated for the chance to perform are initially chosen by a panel of respected persons on the UK jazz scene, who each put forward a young musician – ‘young’ being under 30. The nominated musicians are then whittled down to a selection of six musicians that will comprise a band – therefore giving equal opportunity to rhythm section players as well as horn players – to perform at the live competition event. (More information on the selection panel and the selection methodology can be found on the WCOMJAZZ website)
The very first winner of this medal was Tina May back in 1992 – when in fact the medal was decided in a different way; singers are no longer eligible for the award. Tina is now an important part of the competition, playing the role of ‘guesting singer’ with the band for one number, in order to demonstrate the ability of the band members to accompany a singer – an incredibly important skill in jazz. Tina also started off the evening with an enthralling set with pianist Nikki Iles. Wonderfully poised and with effortlessly soaring melodies, the pair set the scene for what was to be a most enjoyable evening of jazz.
The Pheasantry has a lovely music room, complete with grand piano. However, the stage – which is more suited for a jazz trio – heaved under the ridiculous squeeze of 6 musicians, plus instruments, plus music stands. As jazz musicians, they have all mastered the art of ‘coping!’
This year’s competitors were:
Nathaniel Facey (alto sax)
Tom Farmer (bass)
George Hogg (trumpet)
Daoud Merchant (drums)
Alex Munk (guitar)
Ross Stanley (piano)
The set was chosen by the musicians about an hour before the show – and they were late onto stage because they were still discussing things out in the stairwell! A few well-chosen standards, and some of the musicians’ own compositions made for an interesting and well-balanced set. The point of this competition though, is that the competitors should not have played together as an ensemble before – although only a small amount of research will tell you that Tom and Nathaniel are in Empirical together, and as they are all busy on the London Jazz Scene, it is unlikely that none of them would have met or performed together over the years anyway. Nevertheless, they had neither before played as a sextet, nor performed in this situation before.
While the votes were counted, we were treated to an impromptu jam session featuring some stars of the audience: Andy Panayi, Tim Garland and Norma Winstone who sang ‘A Timeless Place’ – a reworking of Jimmy Rowles’s ‘Peacocks’ that pianist Nikki Iles (who had been up since 2am) played entirely from memory.
The Young Musician’s Prize went to Nathaniel Facey, who will perform at a victory gig during Spring 2011 at a London venue with a band of his choice.