Callum Au Big Band – Something’s Coming
(Self Produced. CD Review by Matthew Wright)
Callum Au is an ambitious man. The challenges, both musical and financial, of running a big band have arguably never been greater. Only in his early twenties, the trombone-, euphonium- and tuba-playing Au has already led his band for four years. Despite their youth – many members are NYJO graduates – they have a deeply impressive list of credits.
Tony in West Side Story sings that ‘Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is/ But it is/ Gonna be great!’ If Au’s debut album Something’s Coming – 60% West Side Story adaptations – stirs up the big band scene anything like Tony’s relationship with Maria, jazz lovers are in for a treat.
The album opens with Au’s arrangement of Harry Warren’s ‘September in the Rain’, a slickly swinging rendition featuring Au himself soloing on trombone. He plays with the kind of fluent elasticity only the best trombonists can coax from the instrument. He also includes a couple of original compositions: flautist Gareth Lockrane’s ‘Roots’, a meaty, Mingus-inflected piece, in which Lockrane’s flute and Robbie Harvey’s trombone offer an intriguingly balanced underpinning, over which sax and guitar dance.
The album closes with trumpeter Freddie Gavita’s ‘Beloved’, a piece of soulful close-harmony brass playing; and finally, Au’s ‘Gentleman Jack’, a dazzling band showpiece, featuring an imperious Gavita trumpet solo, with Lucas Dodd in lyrical voice on alto, and some intriguing sonic texture from Chris Eldred’s keyboard in Hammond organ guise.
The main business of the album, though, is Au’s arrangement of six numbers from Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 West Side Story. It’s a bold choice, given that Buddy Rich and Stan Kenton have both recorded successful adaptations.
The album as a whole is characterised by a kind of lustrous urbanity, with fingertip-accurate playing. The rhythms can swing, though more often they’re taut and restrained, with the knife-edge atmosphere these pieces demand arising from Au’s precise arrangements. Title track ‘Something’s Coming’ switches the melody restlessly among lower brass, especially Au’s trombone and Tommy Laurence’s tenor sax, with rhythm pattering anxiously beneath, all building Tony’s nervous expectation.
‘Cool’ – with some very cool alto and baritone solos from Jim Gold and Richard Shepherd, evoking Lee Konitz’ and Gerry Mulligan’s playing in Miles Davis’ nonet – is a great piece of crackling mood, while ‘Somewhere’ is an achingly lovely statement of yearning, Emma Smith’s vocals a compelling balance of innocence and ennui.
Occasionally, though, Au is perhaps just a bit too smooth for the raw emotional and political edge Bernstein’s originals demand. ‘America’ has some suitably angry rhythms, though the brass sounds just a bit too burnished and genial. Henry Armburg Jennings’ flugelhorn is beautifully played, but the instrument is perhaps not the obvious choice for such a bitterly ironic song, where a cornet’s bite might be more appropriate.
‘Tonight’ offers fine technical performances from both Emma Smith and Iain Mackenzie, but by giving us only Maria’s and Tony’s hope, without the Jets’ and Sharks’ angry posturing in juxtaposition, the mood is subtly unbalanced. The band sets the scene to some extent with some intricately menacing rhythms and sour chromatic harmonies, but the mix of innocence and nastiness isn’t quite there. ‘Maria’, too, feels too knowing; Mackenzie has a great jazz voice, but the sound, here, is too worldly. There’s too much of the cocktail bar, and not enough of Tony’s haunting innocence.
In these numbers, Stan Kenton’s version of West Side Story offers a little more bite and anger. That said, Au’s arrangements stand up well, overall, in comparison with any of the other versions; what he lacks in raw anger, her makes up for several times over in cool, intricate and deeply impressive compositions. This is an (amazingly, given the band’s youth) mature and sophisticated exploration of the Bernstein’s musical themes. Something, indeed, is coming.