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Review: Dankworth tribute plus Whitehead/ Wheeler

“Tribute to John Dankworth and the Big Band”

Photo credit: Roger Thomas

“A Tribute to John Dankworth and the Big Band” / Tim Whitehead and Kenny Wheeler
(Queen Elizabeth Hall, part of “Best of British Jazz” sequence.  And Purcell Room, both concerts Southbank Centre 25th July 2011)

Is there something surreal about the South Bank Centre, or is it just me? It hires its space out to commercial/retail tenants,  runs a car parking operation in a prime site in central London, and yet it is in its totality a registered charity, and pays a rent of just one peppercorn per annum to its landlord, the Arts Council.  It has a “Development Department” which laughably fails to cover even its own operating costs. And it puts on very few jazz gigs. In August its three stages will put on virtually no performance events at all. And yet this Monday it managed to produce a scheduling clash, with two very high quality and significant jazz gigs –  both supported by landlord Arts Council England –  pitted against each other.

The two concerts were a major retrospective entitled “A Tribute to John Dankworth and the Big Band” in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, running at exactly the same time that one of the major creative talents of our time, Kenny Wheeler, was making his first apearance as guest with Tim Whitehead ‘s “Colour Beginnings” project.

One commentator was apoplectic and went on Twitter: “Privileged few at @southbankcentre got to marvel at Tim Whitehead’s Turner tribute. Was next door to a *best of British Jazz* event……so why didn’t @southbankcentre think Tim Whitehead & Kenny Wheeler were *best*? Pah! #inexplicablemarketinggaffes”

Not wanting to miss either completely, I attended the first half of the Dankworth show, and the second half of the Whitehead/ Wheeler gig.

“A Tribute to John Dankworth and the Big Band”

There’s always a guiding spirit of gentle mischievous good humour hovering over gigs involving the Dankworth family. The first musical sound from the stage was Andy Panayi checking the reed his clarinet with the theme from Hancock’s Half Hour.

The idea behind the programme was to go back and tell some of the Dankworth story through performing pieces from different eras. The opener was one of the movements from “World Jazz Suite” (did all twelve ever get finished?).

This was a stunningly good big band. Just about every player in it is a bandleader in his or her own right. You’d go a long way to hear a better sax section : Tim Garland, Jamie Talbot, Andy Panayi, Julian Siegel and Karen Sharp. Dankworth writes punishingly for saxes. The trumpets made the most of his typically bright sound he requires. They were on form, if not ideally balanced, from my seat.

The big band then gave way to one of the key groups, the Dankworth Seven. Two of its original members – Tony Kinsey (his drum chair occupied by the impeccable Ian Thomas – and Eddie Harvey – represented by Mark Nightingale on trombone – were in the audience. Musically Alec Dankworth was in charge, standards were high.

Alec Dankworth
Photo credit: Roger Thomas

There were surprises (for me), notably how readily Tim Garland was able to roll back the clock and play pure 1950’s tenor. And high points: a hushed decelerando ending to Ellington’s Mood Indigo featuring Henry Lowther wonderfully mellifluous on trumpet. The applause from the end of that number was starting to wane when the it startedto grow again, suddenly and more insistently, as Dame Cleo Laine made a particularly well-timed entrance.

Cleo Laine introduced Frank Holder with great affection, and he launched gleefully into “Too Marvellous for Words.” Holder’s bounce, energy, capacity to swing hard, talent as a powerful “conguero,” and above all sheer presence and energy are something astonishing. He was born in Guyana. It is known that he joined the Dankworth Seven in 1952 (!), so he must be in his early to mid eighties. He is astonishing.

Other highlights were a call-and-response chorus from Cleo Laine and Andy Panayi on the Ahlert/ Young 1935 standard I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter (lots of “shooby-doobies” as Laine calls them), and a typically unusual Dankworth instrumental trope stretching the sound palette of the big band on African Waltz: piccolo, vibes, congas and tuba.

But the abiding memory is of a mood, not exactly of nostalgia, nor of pure partying, but a particular atmosphere in which both the talent – there in abundance on stage – , and the going-for-it are encouraged, nurtured and valued.

Tim Whitehead’s “Colour Beginnings Quartet with guest Kenny Wheeler 


Tim Whitehead’s artistic responses to Turner are personal,  often paradoxical, always deply thought. Some of the heavier grooves come in (surprising) response to pictures where Turner has hardly alowed the paint and water to come into contact with the paper. Whitehead intersperses the pieces with a wide range of different perspectives on Turner’s life and work from art critics and contemporaries. Some of the numbers involve him singing – wordlessly –  rather than  playing. But there is a strong and thought-through aesthetic in what Tim Whitehead is doing. He has dwelt on, thought, lived through the whole creative process of absorbing a cloudscape with the eyyes and mind, and then of painting. There is a high degree of  integrity and authenticity about the whole venture.  For example, a sudden unison passage for the whole band,  an upward flurry, brought sudden urgency at the end of  “Skies Sketchbook 1810s page 3.”

What stays in the mind above all from this gig is how innately Kenny Wheeler goes with, understands, responds to Tim Whitehead’s very individual response. Wheeler’s discourse is often about unpredictable intervals giving unusual perspectives on a line. Inthe context of Tim Whitehead’s group, he just catches the updraft, and goes higher.      
Two very different concerts demonstrating, as ever, the sheer range and vitality of British Jazz
“A Tribute to John Dankworth and the Big Band” was produced by Serious as part of the Southbank Centre’s Great British Jazz series. http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/

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3 replies »

  1. I couldn't help noticing your comment about the Tate refusing to allow reproduction of the Turner on your site, How short sighted! Surely the whole point of these pieces by Tim Whitehead is the relationship with Turner's works held by the Tate. His performances at Tate were based in the galleries amongst the paintings and he talks on film about his feelings for the art and the artist which derive from his experience at the Tate in the public spaces and going through their archive collections. If the Rights people at the Tate can't see the benefit to the Tate of allowing the image to appear on your site, then all I can say is that they are shooting themselves in the Tate's collective foot. Perhaps we are seeing the picture rights equivalent of political correctness – a failure of initiative and understanding of the unique circumstances which make up a specific situation. Maybe they should review their decision!

  2. I didn't try that hard. I just rang up and explained the circs and was told in two different places that the answer would be no unless I was prepared to (a) enter into lengthy correspondence and (b) definitely pay.

    Whatever. A couple of Tate paper-shifters and their ingrained habit of saying “no” shouldn't deflect from what the Leverhulme Trust and Arts Council England have achieved in backing Tim Whitehead to develop his individual response to the work.

    There are also some great, extraordinarily knowledgeable people at the Tate like Turner curator specialist Nicola Moorby.

  3. Frank Holder has just released another album called Interpretations Frank Holder Shane Hill with special guests Peter King alto sax , Dick Pearce flugel horn and Peter Cook violin. Frank is 87, so he is absolutely incredible being able to maintain very fast tempos as a percussionist as well scat most younger singers into oblivion. Check out album link

    http://cdbaby.com/cd/shanehillandfrankholder

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