Duncan Lamont Big Band featuring Kenny Wheeler – As If by Magic
(Jellymould Jazz. JM-JJ025. CD review by Andrew Cartmel)
Clare Teal’s Sunday night program on BBC Radio 2 featured an interview last autumn with Duncan Lamont, alerting listeners to the existence of the Mr Benn Big Band project, and providing some tantalising examples of their music, which had been recorded back in 2011. With the release of the material on CD this terrific venture can at last be properly appreciated.
Mr Benn& was a kids’ cartoon broadcast by the BBC in the early 1970s. It was based on the children’s books by David McKee and featured music by ‘Don Warren’ — a pseudonym for Duncan Lamont. McKee himself invited Lamont to create the score for the show, and those original sessions nearly fifty years ago employed eight musicians including Kenny Wheeler. In the intervening decades David McKee and Duncan Lamont remained friends and kept in touch. And when McKee attended one of Lamont’s big band gigs, which included a theme based on a Mr Benn cue, McKee conceived the idea of a big band album of the music from the show.
David McKee heroically pushed this project forward and made it happen, and even funded the big band recording session in December 2011 out of his own pocket. Since then it’s taken some considerable time for the material to achieve a commercial release, but now that it’s here there is sizable cause for rejoicing. The eighteen piece band consists of four trumpets, four trombones, five saxes and Kenny Wheeler guesting on flugelhorn. The pianist is Brian Dee, Chris Laurence plays bass, Ralph Salmins is on drums and Frank Ricotti plays xylophone, vibes and percussion. All the tracks are written by Duncan Lamont (Senior — Duncan Lamont Junior is in the sax section).
The album begins with Mr Benn, a classic cartoon theme with a warm and agreeably crowded sound. Conjuring animated antecedents and in keeping with everything from The Simpsons to The Flintstones, the piece is ably underscored by Andy Wood’s melodious trombone.
As if by Magic… opens with Brian Dee’s springboard piano and Andy Panayi’s piccolo evoking a Red Indian dance. The skeleton-scampering of Frank Ricotti’s xylophone closely echoes the horn section, then breaks away from them at intervals, in a bristling, addictive, inventive arrangement that features Jimmy Hastings’s husky tenor sax and some brief but beautifully judged piano by Brian Dee. The Dragon’s Tale has a graceful and stately pace, with Martin Shaw’s trumpet leading the way into uncharted territory.
But The Balloonist may well be the loveliest interlude here. Its solemn see-sawing theme provides an elegant setting for Paul Jones’s gorgeous alto solo; Ralph Salmins’s drumming is taut and warm. Brian Dee’s articulate piano and Andy Panayi’s ethereal flute are also outstanding. On this track Frank Ricotti’s xylophone is strikingly different to his performance on As if by Magic…, fuller and richer, and Kenny Wheeler’s flugelhorn has some of the bereft lyricism of late-period Chet Baker. Particularly striking is the way the music modulates from a chamber piece with great solos to highly organised big-band playing. And then Brian Dee carries us back to the seesaw theme and the fadeout. Just wonderful.
Brian Dee’s piano next picks its way along stepping stones to the front gate of 52 Festive Road, a theme which conjures the cosy convictions of a 1950s domestic sitcom. The title is a playful reference to the road in Putney where David McKee used to live (perhaps Festing Road, near the Half Moon). And it’s Jamie Talbot turn to solo brightly on tenor.
Gently lovely, The Sea Monster, which is a feature for Kenny Wheeler on flugelhorn, calls to mind the arrangements of Johnny Mandel — especially The Sandpiper, The Shining Sea and The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea… all appropriately enough.
This is one of the most delightful and pleasantly surprising releases of the year. It repays repeated listenings, enriching and deepening, with fresh discoveries to be made each time. We can only thank David McKee for his intuition and persistence and Duncan Lamont and the musicians for the excellence of their work.