National Youth Jazz Orchestra – NYJO Fifty
(Whirlwind WR4679, CD Review by Peter Jones.)
There’s been half a century of top-notch big band playing and recording since the organization which became NYJO was founded by Bill Ashton in 1965. In that time they have made well over 40 albums, performed live around the world, and on television at The Royal Variety Performance and the Royal Celebration of Youth. Ashton has even been awarded an OBE for ‘services to jazz’. So this is very much the establishment-approved jazz ensemble, and thank the lord for that, since the establishment has in all other respects failed to comprehend the importance of the arts in the UK.
It’s worth reminding ourselves of the jazz stars who were launched upon the world thanks to NYJO, not least Guy Barker, Mark Nightingale, Gerard Presencer, Pete Long, Dennis and Winston Rollins, and of course the 16-year-old Amy Winehouse, of whom Bill Ashton commented: ‘I can honestly say, she had the best jazz voice of any young singer I had ever heard.’
However, this double album release is not a retrospective, rather a set of new recordings, divided into ‘contemporary’ (disc one) and ‘traditional’ (disc two) material. One of NYJO’s recent roles in recent years has been to commission new work from leading UK jazz composers. Included here are tunes from the ubiquitous Kit Downes (Wintermute), Laura Jurd (No Man Is An Island), and Jason Yarde (Sub Hub Hubbub – great title!). And it’s appropriate that the final piece is one of Bill Ashton’s compositions – Finding My Feet.
Disc one kicks off with Mama Badgers, a bracingly percussive piece written by Julian Siegel, and giving early prominence to the excellent David Dyson on drums, Owen Dawson on trombone and Rob Luft on guitar. Luft surely deserves a special award for being on practically every British jazz CD released this year. Another musician vying for that honour is Gareth Lochrane, and blow me down, here he is again on Rush Hour.
It’s tough to pick out individual tracks when the playing is at such a high level, but I particularly liked a couple of the quieter tracks on the first disc – Chris Whiter’s lush, floaty Dreams and Owen Dawson’s No Pãu de Açúcar, both of these featuring the flugelhorn of James Copus. The second disc opens with St Louis Blues, a mixture of foot-dragging sleaze and finger- snapping helter-skelter swing. Favourites here include NYJO’s take on Lullabye on Broadway and What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?, both lifted by the velvety voice of Jessica Radcliffe. There has been a lot of excellent UK big band music this year, notably from the Birmingham Jazz Orchestra and the Patrick Hayes Electric Ensemble. This one is a fine addition to the pile: you get a lot of music for your money – 19 tracks in well over two hours – and it’s music of the very highest quality.