REVIEW: Stan Sulzmann’s Neon Orchestra at Karamel Restaurant N22.

Nick Smart directing Stan Sulzmann’s Neon Orchestra

Stan Sulzmann’s Neon Orchestra 
(Karamel Restaurant, Coburg Road N22. 21st January , review by Sebastian Scotney)

“Il miglior fabbro.”  The best blacksmith – or craftsman , wrote T.S Eliot of Ezra Pound. Stan Sulzmann‘s big band music is beautifully crafted. Hearing a full concert of it makes one aware of all the meticulous work, the intricate detail, the loving finesse that is in all his writing. And yet the music is melodious, easy to follow, just glorious. Melodic lines intertwine, or grew out of each other and grow back together. A melodic line is somehow never quite alone, there are backing figures, counterpoints, countermelodies, responses. And yet it is not crowded or over-written. In the solo sections a composer who was trying to save time might want to let the soloist and the rhythm section take care of business. In Stan Sulzmann’s pieces, the writing under the soloist consistently engages him or her in a dialogue. It is just as rich, subtle, crafted and characterful as the fully written-out band sections.

Most of the programme consisted of pieces from the the extendable suite of tunes which Stan Sulzmann has orchestrated by people he has worked with. He described them as the tunes he wants to hear. They are all originally written by people he has known well. This feels like one of the defining projects in British jazz. Each one is indeed a great tune. One day – hopefully – there will be a recording. It feels wrong that the best, the only CD of Sulzmann’s big band music is Birthdays Birthdays: that album is now more than a decade and a half old. The catalogue that has been written since then continues to grow, and it is beginning to take on the proportions of a real treasure trove, perhaps waiting to be discovered by one of the professional big bands in Europe or North America.

There is plenty for all of the sections in the band to do, and it is scarcely surprising that players as good as the members of the Neon Orchestra are eager to take it on. And it is also, as ever, miraculous what a group of top-flight London players like these, under Nick Smart’s direction, can achieve having had just one rehearsal.

The joys of this band are many. Perhaps the first sound one notices is that of four hugely characterful, strong, blazing trumpets, each one capable of telling their own individual story. The trombones are the best in the land –  Mark Nightingale was impeccable. In the saxophones there was a genuine surprise. I haven’t heard Josh Arcoleo for more than a couple of years, and the scale of his sound and the inventiveness and variety of his ideas were breath-taking.  This concert was also a landmark occasion: Stan Sulzmann said this was the first time he had ever gone out on a gig with his son Matthew Sulzmann, who contributed a couple of well-formed, almost urbane solos.  And then the rhythm section, with Nikki Iles finding resonance, space, emotion on John Taylor’s tune Between Moons.  Drummer Tim Giles, who had been discreetly propelling the band all evening was given his moment to give a firework display in a fermata before the full band’s final chord on Taking a Chance on Love (a stunning arrangement in 5/4), and he made it a moment to remember.

Karamel is a good room for a big band. With ceilings about five metres high, the band was not overpowering at all. It was also good to see the place completely full. And the food looked good, and was being gladly wolfed down. A special evening of music which definitely doesn’t yield all that it has on one listening.

Stan Sulzmann

Programme: Compositions and arrangements by Stan Sulzmann:  

First set

Clockmaker – Mike Walker
Alfredo – John Parricelli
Westerly – Nikki Iles
Suite: Up n Down – Stan Sulzmann
You’ll Never Get to Heaven – Bacharach

Second Set

Re-Cedar – Iain Ballamy
Between Moons – Taylor
 Choo-Choo – Stan Sulzmann –
Jigsaw –  Kenny Wheeler
I know you – Gwilym Simcock –


Taking a chance on love – Vernon Duke


Noel Langley, Tom Walsh, Henry Lowther , James Copus – trumpets
Mark Nightingale, Gordon Campbell, Robbie Harvey, Sarah Williams – trombones
Martin Hathaway, Marthew Sulzmann, Josh Arcoleo, Pete Hurt, James Allsopp – saxophones

Nikki Iles – Piano
Alex Munk – guitar
Ralph Wyld – vibraphone
Dave Whitford – bass
Tim Giles – drums

Categories: miscellaneous

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