Review: NYJO at Ronnie Scott’s

(Ronnie Scott’s. 3rd January 2012. 2nd night of 3. Review by Sarah Ellen Hughes)

Sir John Dankworth famously said of NYJO, “Forget the word ‘youth’, this is one of the best bands you will ever hear,” an apt tribute for a band that’s as innovative and important as this. Innovative for the fact that the entire program, save two tunes, was either arranged or composed by current or past members of NYJO; important for creating such opportunities in a young jazz musician’s development, something that isn’t necessarily available in other big bands in this country.

For two hours the orchestra delivered a punchy programme, entertaining a packed house with the best of this country’s young musicians.

Particular highlights were a beautiful arrangement of I Loves You Porgy, opening with a beguiling texture of vibraphone, guitar, muted trumpet and flute over which the alto solo soared. A high tempo Lady Be Good allowed the band to show their own appreciation for their colleagues with cat-calling for some particularly tasty solo breaks.

One thing worth mentioning was the superb sound, which isn’t easy to achieve with the Ronnie’s stage squeezed full to bursting with musicians and instruments (even the MD had to stand on the floor). Quite often a big band can be too loud, but on this stage it was perfect – probably thanks to founder Bill Ashton’s son Miles on sound.

In this 25-strong band, each and every member made a valuable contribution, but there were a few stand-out individuals who deserve a mention: lead trombonist Callum Au, who has a bright future as a composer – possibly a film scorer if his arrangement of Something’s Coming is anything to go by; Lucas Dodd – a terrific solo on Caravan; Nadim Teimoori – whose tenor solos rose up above the band while still responding to their every twist and turn; drummer Scott Chapman – playing some impossible rhythmic solos and driving the band throughout; and the charming flute of Helen Wilson.

There weren’t a lot of songs – only two shouts each for the female and male vocalists – which isn’t surprising with only enough room for 13 tunes and so many musicians to feature. But the few we got were a treat. Kwabena Adjepong – with a luscious low range and faultless delivery surely is a star in the making. Emma Smith really stole the show with an irresistibly funky Feeling Good.

Over the last year I understand that NYJO has been exploring new repertoire and branching out in its collection of music. One focus for Musical Director Mark Armstrong is to include tunes from other big bands’ pads, the choice last night being Groove Merchant: a Jerome Richardson tune from the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band which was brilliantly suited to this orchestra, the sax section making child’s play of the challenging soli section.

As well as other orchestras’ music, NYJO has commissioned several works from leaders of the UK jazz scene.

We heard Hush by Nikki Iles – a haunting waltz drawing out textures and voices that aren’t often found in a big band. Beautiful. This was possibly in part owing to the fact that NYJO unusually employs a permanent French horn player and flautist, which, when added to the regular guitar, vibes, and array of woodwind available in the sax section, means that you can create something rather special.

The printed program promised another two new commissions from Julian Joseph which I’m sure could be the start of something good.

Overall, a superb night of big band jazz proudly showcasing the individual and collective talents of a unique institution in British musical life.


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