Jack’s been thinking….about young UK big bands

Our Friday columnist, trumpeter/ bandleader/ composer/ promoter Jack Davies writes about the vibrant young big band scene in the UK.

The young jazz scene in the UK is strong, and growing. And, although there appear to be no viable statistics anywhere, the number of big bands – and young big bands in particular – is increasing too.

Given that the conservatoires are turning out large numbers of incredible and (despite what some critics may assert) individual players, and with a myriad of British role models, such as Kenny Wheeler, the London Jazz Orchestra, Django Bates and Colin Towns….. perhaps this contemporary big band boom should not be a surprise.

Speaking personally, I am grateful that my big band has given me the chance to work with large numbers of players I really admire. If I use the saxophone section as an example, the band has allowed me to write for and work with players such as Martin Speake, Mike Chillingworth, Josh Arcoleo, Joe Wright and Rob Cope. Each of these guys has such a strong musical personality, it makes writing for them a pleasure. I’m able to leave gaps for them to fill with their musical wizardry – an example of which is a new piece which will feature Joe Wright and his saxophone / electronics setup, something he has also honed in a duo with drummer James Maddren.

When there is such an incredible depth of enthusiasm to draw on, and very little expectation of money, who could resist?

Some audience members are still surprised by the contemporary big band sound (one gentleman once said to me post-gig “I thought big bands were supposed to sound like Glen Miller?”), but the same aesthetic that permeates modern small-group jazz can be found in the music of John Hollenbeck, Mike Gibbs, Hans Koller, the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra amongst others.

The Manchester-based band Beats N Pieces, who released a new EP yesterday, have received glowing press reviews recently, including this from John L Walters:

“Movers and shakers such as [Colin] Towns, Matthew Herbert, Darcy James Argue and [Ben] Cottrell demonstrate that large ensembles remain a vital force in contemporary jazz.”

But there are many other young, adventurous bands out there. To name a but a few of the band leaders: Matt Roberts, Calum Gourlay, Freddie Gavita, Jay Phelps, Callum Au, Tom Hewson, Pete Ibbetson, Reuben Fowler, Ben Cottrell…….

My own band (along with 3 other big bands – Stan Sulzmann’s, Ed Puddick’s and Gareth Lockrane’s) is in the Spice of Life’s London Jazz Festival programme. The London Jazz Festival also features the Matt Roberts Big Band, and a set from Hermeto Pascoal with a British big band including Julian Siegel, Chris Batchelor and Henry Lowther.

Jack Davies Big Band at the London Jazz Festival

Categories: miscellaneous

8 replies »

  1. Charles Alexander has written:

    I agree with Jack – there are several very interesting big bands comprising the many talented young players on the UK scene.

    So there's another category of big band – “the graduate big band”.

  2. Yep there's some great stuff around at the moment – as well as the guys you named (cheers for the mention btw!) check out Sid Peacock's Surge from Birmingham whose CD is amazing (also appearing on Jazz on 3 soon), and although I haven't yet had chance to hear them live myself yet I've heard really great things about Tommy Evans' orchestra from Leeds…

    Great to see so many people making things happen despite the obvious logistical nightmares involved in running a large ensemble!

  3. So nice to see someone focusing on an often undervalued part of the jazz scene. The further we can move away from the Glen Miller assumption the better and indeed these “graduate big bands” and some superb arrangers are only helping with the move. Perhaps it is a pity that such visible big bands as the BBC and Ronnie’s still clearly need to toe the pre-1950 line the majority of the time. (Or is it preservation of an art form..?)

    Having run the ULU big band for years I saw a great number and variety of players come through the door and there was always a strong feeling that big bands were one of the few places that a great number of diverse players could meet and appreciate each other's talents- a glue which holds the London scene together.

    Delighted to see big bands are going to be prominent at this year’s LJF-will be intrigued to see their positioning and the programmes proffered however. I think there's still a feeling of “the light option” when it comes to Big Bands and jazz festivals…

    Well written Jack, a great read!

  4. Hi Jack

    an interesting piece, many thanks. However, is it a male-only British Big Band scene? Don't women run bands any more?! Your article doesn't mention a single woman, not even a vocalist! (unless I missed it, put me right if I did). I doubt very much that you planned it that way, but it's a shame & a sign of the times when women get absolutely no mention in an article about the contemporary jazz scene.

    Just saying!


  5. Hey Gail,

    As far as the younger generation of big bands goes, I'm aware of Sarah Ellen-Hughes' band (more of a straight ahead affair), but don't know of any other female-led big bands of that generation. There are various other people with large ensembles (Trish Clowes' Tangent springs to mind). Am I being woefully ignorant? Would be interesting to know ..

  6. Hi all,

    Speaking of young big bands – just a heads up that my band has a gig at the Spice of Life on 24th November (two weeks today!), featuring amazing singer Kwabena Adjepong. Would be great to see some of you there (or indeed anyone there at all).

    Full details can be found here: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=250892881630139

    There's some clips of the band here:

    And a review of our last gig by Edward Randell (sometimes a writer for LondonJazz) here:

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