(Ronnie Scott’s, Thursday 20th October, first night of three. Review by Frank Griffith)
I love Julian Joseph‘s music. It is essentially geared for small group improvisation with lyrical melodies, rich and provocative harmonies and compelling rhythmic grooves. These fully challenge the soloists and audiences alike yet avoid being over-complicated or clever. His big band assembled at Ronnie Scotts for three nights, starting 20th October, was packed full of top flight soloists to deliver the goods.
Joseph’s opening assertion, before a note was played. “I’m in awe of myself” was met with a few nervous laughs. He qualified that remark with how honoured he was to have such an exemplary cast of players clearing their diaries to play his music. This was evident in their commitment and diligence interpreting his charts at such a high and professional level. We, the audience, knew we were in for something very special that night, and he – and the band – did not disappoint.
The band’s front row boasted five saxes alongside three higher woodwinds (including the 606 Club’s Steve Rubie, on flute) adding further colours. These included internationally recognised faces, Jean Toussaint and Steve Williamson on tenors and Peter King on alto. Not bad for starters. Trombonist and section leader, Pete Beachill, (no mean soloist himself) was joined by the creative and angular trumpet stylings of Byron Wallen– also a formidable composer/bandleader in his own right. Hats off to top session man, Noel Langley, for his deft handling of the lead trumpet chores as well. The iconic rhythm section included bassist Mark Hodgson, drummer extradordinaire Mark Mondesir, and the powerhouse force (both as soloist and accompanist) of pianist Joseph himself.
His compositions which possess a somewhat dark and brooding quality about them included “Doctone” (dedicated to the late pianist, Kenny Kirkland), “Guardian Angel” and “The Firehorse”, the melodies of which hearken echoes of 1960s spy movie, film-noirish themes that develop into four and eight bar repeating harmonic sequences (vamps) that serve as excellent improvisaional vehicles. Similarly, his unique medium tempo treatment of Thelonious Monk’s ballad “Ruby My Dear” featured ex-Art Blakey tenorist, Toussaint, in a spirited and ebulliently victorious light.
While Joseph’s tunes are most suitable for the big band orchestration with their rich trove of harmonies and rhythmic grooves, his approach is more to arrange them for the big band rather than to create organic compositions specifcally built for the large ensemble. This is to say that the band provides a backdrop and supportive force for the magnificent array of solois, but a few more opportunities for the full band to explore the wider gamut of compositional exposition would have been welcome.
That aside, the overall effect of the band is one of a driving, powerful force (the interplay between pianist and the drummer compelling and riveting in itself) and really delivers the message in full colour. Joseph’s musical message is regularly accentuated and highlighted by the irrepressible large ensemble. A great night of modern jazz at a world-leading venue and let us all hope for an imminent return engagement.
ronniescotts.co.uk /The Frank Griffith Big Band’s CD “Holland Park Non-Stop” is out on Hepjazz. http://www.hepjazz.com/