Review: Frank Griffith Big Band, The Bull’s Head, 14th November (LJF)

Frank Griffith Big Band
(The Bull’s Head in Barnes, November 14th 2012. Review by Andrew Cartmel)

Fifty-three years ago, almost to the day, the Bull’s Head became one of London’s leading jazz venues and it remains very much at the top of its game. Tonight the Yamaha room was playing host to a London Jazz Festival set by the Frank Griffith Big Band, one of the UK’s newest and most exciting large ensembles, with a CD and a busy touring schedule already to its credit. It’s a remarkable thing to be able to walk into a riverside pub and hear a polished and professional jazz band of this size and scale.

It’s an all-star outfit with a rhythm section consisting of Rick Simpson on piano, Spencer Brown on bass and Andy Ball on drums, a high-precision combination.

This evening’s program was a tribute to jazz composers opening with Silver’s Serenade by Horace Silver which immediately evidenced Andy Ball’s poised and judicious drumming and featured a full-bodied, fluttering tenor solo from the leader. Frank Griffith went on to provide a languid, descriptive intro for Oliver Nelson’s BBB, neatly echoed by the baritone sax of Richard Shepherd. And the noted jazz composer of the next number was Frank himself with Antonia, a track from the new CD. “A light, spicy, Latin flavoured thing,” said Frank. It also offered some top drumming by Andy Ball over an expertly made bed of piano chords by Rick Simpson. The marvellously tight unison playing from the horn section made it swing like the Dickens, and reminded us why big bands were invented. And that Latin flavour was served up by Robbie Robson in a joyful trumpet solo. Bob Sydor on tenor provided outstanding section playing while Matt Wates’ alto danced nimbly in a fast and elegant solo.

Besides being one of tonight’s distinguished composers, Pepper Adams was a notable figure in West Coast jazz and a titan of baritone sax, so naturally his composition Rue Serpente was a feature for Richard Shepherd. “Our very own Pepper Adams,” said Frank. Shepherd’s smooth solo offered velvet bebop contours that provided a surface for the sax section’s extremely tasty playing. Rick Simpson’s rolling, rollicking piano was accompanied by Andy Ball playing a whole battery of drums, then it’s the trumpet line (Tony Dixon, Tom Walsh, Ed Benstead and the aforementioned Robbie Robson), the saxes again (Sam Mayne, Bob Sydor, Matt Wates, Karen Sharp, Richard Shepherd) and then the trombones (Richard Pywell, Andrew Lester, Nick Mills and Adrian Fry).

This piece was a model of big band orchestration. Like most of the music played tonight, it was arranged by Frank Griffith. An exception was Green Dolphin Street in an inventive arrangement by Adrian Fry. It began with the entire horn section playing together, unified and immaculate, before Sam Mayne projected forth, like the Ace of Diamonds emerging from a cunningly organised pack of playing cards.

Sammy Nestico’s composition Fancy Pants was written for Count Basie and we get some Basie-style pianistic minimalism from Rick Simpson — short and sweet — and Tommy Walsh performs some great moody trumpet playing, swaggering, bluesy and vigorous.

On the second Horace Silver selection Strollin’ Robbie Robson plays a sweet, mounting solo accompanied only by the rhythm section, then the saxophones creep in followed by trombones and trumpets. Nicholas Mills has a swinging trombone solo then Karen Sharp’s full-toned tenor adds infectious rhythm, followed by Frank Griffith on clarinet.

It’s like getting samples of all the sweets in the sweet shop. Which is sort of the point of a big band, and it’s why the big band experience can never be fully replicated by smaller outfits. It is an amazing privilege to drop into a London pub on a Wednesday evening and hear music like this. There are only two things that aren’t great about big bands. It’s hard to mention all the fine solos (Bob Sydor’s powerful and pungent playing on Close Your Eyes — one of the highlights of the evening; Spencer Brown’s deft and selective bass on Pepper Adams’ Reflectory while Rick Simpson creates swirling sound pictures at the piano; Tony Dixon, Richard Pywell and Karen Sharp all excelling themselves on Gerry Mulligan’s Throughway — not to mention Frank Griffith’s sweetly piercing clarinet).

The other difficult thing is working out what all the players are called. After the gig I was jotting down names in a notebook and one of the musicians came up to me and joked, “You must be from the Tax Office, checking on all the money we’re making playing here.” If only it were true. Nobody deserves it more.

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