REVIEW: The Royal Bopsters with the Nikki Iles Trio and Frank Griffith at Pizza Express Dean Street

L-R: Nikki Iles, Dylan Pramuk,
Holli Ross, Amy London, Pete McGuinness,
Frank Griffith, Rod Youngs

The Royal Bopsters
(Pizza Express. 3 July 2017. Review by Peter Jones)

Lord knows jazz singing is hard enough, but close harmony jazz singing is just so appallingly difficult that very few attempt it. So when it does come along, it’s worth checking out. The Royal Bopsters appeared on stage at Pizza Express on Monday night as the living embodiment of this art form. Bejewelled and besuited, the very essence of sophisticated Manhattan, they unwittingly made us all feel rather shabby and suburban.

Much of the set consisted of tunes featured on the Bopsters’ eponymous album from a couple of years ago. As their name implies, the group’s recording project benefitted from the involvement of the last generation of authentic bop royalty: Mark Murphy, Annie Ross, Jon Hendricks, Sheila Jordan and Bob Dorough. Sadly, none of the above made it to Pizza Express, and Murphy has now left us altogether. The original Bopsters acted as backing group to these jazz deities. Tenor Darmon Meader was replaced 18 months ago by Pete McGuinness, but otherwise the singers were the same – Amy London (soprano), Holli Ross (alto) and Dylan Pramuk (bass).

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Each tune was followed by an illuminating anecdote about composers and/or performers: we learned that the risqué Annie Ross composition Let’s Fly, which she wrote with a schoolfriend as a 14-year-old in Los Angeles, was entered into a songwriting competition, and won. The prize was to have it recorded by none other than Johnny Mercer on his newly-founded Capitol label.

Just to make close-harmony jazz that bit more challenging, tonight’s performance included plenty of scat improvisation, sometimes with an improvised close harmony backing. The Bopsters are at their best when they loosen up and enjoy themselves like this. Familiar standards like Invitation and On The Red Clay were interspersed with relative obscurities like Gigi Gryce’s Basheer’s Dream, here retitled Basheer, The Snake and the Mirror. They ended with a version of Dizzy Gillespie’s Blue’n’Boogie, featuring a lot of spontaneity and a great faux-trombone solo from McGuinness – who also plays real trombone. Although he didn’t bring one to the gig, it mattered not, since there was enough instrumental talent on display: Nikki Iles (piano), Mark Hodgson (bass), plus American expats Rod Youngs (drums) and our very own Frank Griffith (tenor saxophone), all provided very fine, sympathetic accompaniment, and dealt magnificently with charts that were sometimes many pages long.

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