|The Willie Garnett Big Band at Imber Court
Photo credit: Peter Vacher
Willie Garnett Big Band
(Imber Court, East Molesey, 6 February 2018. Review by Peter Vacher)
Imber Court is a sprawling sports and social complex, formerly the exclusive preserve of the Metropolitan Police but now open to all. Hard-working promoter Carole Merritt has been putting on jazz sessions there for a while, usually monthly, and often featuring musicians less often seen in the inner reaches of the Metropolis. This time round, though, it was the London-based Willie Garnett Big Band that had made its way down into leafy Surrey for what was the latest in a series of visits to Carole’s club. Set out in classic fashion in the main dining room, and with a pretty decent audience, they tore into an evening of hugely varied and rewarding music.
It had been years since I’d seen the avuncular figure of the leader and his array of the musicians. So there were plenty of unfamiliar faces in the line-up he brought this time. Still, the presence of players like Pete Hurt on tenor, Mike Coates on alto, trombonist Adrian Fry and the ebullient drummer Dennis Smith, plus Frank Toms on piano, served as promising indicators of quality. And so it turned out.
Garnett’s style at the mike verges on the minimalist: a number is introduced with the title and arranger with a cheery ‘one, two, three’ and off we go. Soloists are seldom credited, other than as ‘young Dennis’ or ‘young Phil’ or some such so the odd bit of detective work was required to pin down the identities. The first-half opener was Andy Anderson’s West Coast Junction which set things up well, via short solos by Toms and Rubie, the trumpet section led by Shaun Hollis hitting their marks every time. Good solid ensemble sound with Smith a smiling presence at the drums. I’ll Take Romance at up tempo gave even-toned tenorist Phil Mills a nice run over the fine bass lines from Jim Pharoah, ahead of a strong Coates alto solo, the Canadian leading the saxophone section with considerable verve throughout. You Gotta Try in Basie mode got Hurt and Mills to do their two-tenor thing, nicely contrasted, as the band swung hard. Fry got his turn on Denny Ogden’s soft-sounding take on Along Came Betty ahead of Anderson’s Andy Getting Along with another chance to hear the impressive Hills at length. I liked the band’s version of Norwegian Wood as re-envisaged by Bill Holman and an equally unlikely look at Stompin’ at the Savoy with more from Coates. The first-half closer was Hamp’s immortal Flying Home with Illinois Jacquet’s time-honoured tenor solo harmonised as a sax section chorus, the trombones resplendent and Hollis nailing all the high notes.
The interval over, Fables of Faubus opened with a display of considerable athleticism, both physical and creative, from bass-trombonist Alan Tomlinson, his proximity to Mike Rubie near to putting him into mortal danger, before the band came roaring in . Guildhall Master’s student Toby Brasier did well on Polka Dots and Moonbeams, and there were fine charts too from writers like Tom Kubis and the 92-year old trumpeter Stan Reynolds before a daunting arrangement by US tenorist Don Menza of his own Groove Blues. This was defined by Garnett as ’the one with blood on it’, given the finger-numbing complexity of the saxophone chorus. Coates and company met the challenge with aplomb and no little relief. With that and the enduring Sing, Sing, Sing, driven by the ever-enthusiastic Smith, the trumpets attacking hard, all was done.
So, an eclectic mix of the old and the nearly new, brim-full of zest and creativity, the section blends pretty well spot-on. Garnett founded the band in 1955 and like old Father Thames it just keeps rolling along. Seek them out: it’s worth it.
Trumpets: John McNichol, Toby Brasier, Shaun Hollis, David Mian
Trombones: Chris Lowe, Adrian Fry, Bill Symington, Alan Tomlinson
Saxes Phil Mills, Pete Hurt, Mike Coates, Steve Goddard, Mike Rubie
Piano: Frank Toms
Bass: Jim Pharoah
Drums: Dennis Smith
Director/ tenor sax Willie Garnett