Carnegie Hall, the famous New York concert venue, has a proud history of jazz. In recent years it has launched its own classical youth orchestra and now with NYO Jazz, a 22-piece band made up of 16-19 year olds from all across America. Many of them come from specialist performing arts schools and are headed for jazz conservatoire but it is a stiff test of their musicianship. The band is led by Sean Jones a professional trumpeter and educator. They assembled for two weeks’ rehearsal in July and one Carnegie Hall concert before setting off on a European tour so this was only the third time the band had performed in public.
It has been done with a scale and ambition that seems extraordinary by British standards. The band were resplendent in vermillion chinos, black shirts and black ties decorated with gold stars. Their stands were decorated in banners with their logo. They sat on a compact, tiered stand that only took up half the Cadogan Hall stage, miked up individually and mixed to deliver crystal clear sound throughout. There were no concessions to their amateur status and a firm confidence in their ability to put on a show for the (almost full) Cadogan Hall.
The first set included golden era tunes, like Tiptoe, To You (Thad Jones), mixed with more modern pieces such as Brother, Mister (Christian McBride) and Speak No Evil (Wayne Shorter). It finished with Run With Jones, a new piece written for the band by Miguel Zenon that allowed Sean Jones to blow his own trumpet. It opened with a Flight Of The Bumblebee-paced theme before breaking into staccato rhythms under solos at breakneck speed, then Jones gave a masterclass in how to pace a solo economically. At the end of it, the man behind me in the audience said he was already exhausted (in a good way).
Shiny Stockings (Basie) opened the second half with Harmon-muted trumpets and trombones. It was followed by Giant Steps (Coltrane) featuring a bold unaccompanied solo tenor sax at the end, then Isfahan (Ellington/Strayhorn) which was carried by a lyrical alto sax lead.
Diane Reeves then took the stage for three songs – If I Were A Bell (an Ella Fitzgerald favourite) The Windmills Of Your Mind (Legrand/Bergman) and Make Someone Happy (from the musical Do Re Mi). After such a long and successful career there’s little I can say about her that has not already been said, especially over three songs. What stood out for me was her graciousness and generosity in fronting a student band and her sheer technical virtuosity which made it all look so simple – even though it was not. Although she always seemed relaxed, she still took a duet with the baritone sax that hardly anyone else would have dared contemplate. It is a rare treat these days to hear a singer of her class perform with a big band, and the audience responded with rapturous applause.
The arrangements were generally tightly structured but the concert finished with a looser piece, I Be Serious About Them Blues (John Clayton), which gave plenty of room for exuberant solos. The saxes borrowed from Kind Of Blue, the four trombones soloed simultaneously and Dianne Reeves returned for a Minnie The Moocher-style call and response with the audience who were soon dancing in the aisles. The encore, a gospel piece called We’re Still Here, continued the celebratory feel of the evening to the end.
The audience for this concert was not family, friends and well-wishers. It had paid good money for a professional standard show and that is what it got. The ensemble playing was precise, accurate and cohesive with a control of the dynamic range that makes a big band sparkle. The solos were fluent, confident and polished. Everyone had their moment, though space prevents me from naming them all. ( The band list can be found at https://www.carnegiehall.org/Education/Young-Musicians/NYO-Jazz/Roster)
How do they do it? Funding helps, specialist music schools help, the chance to play big band jazz from a relatively early age helps. In the end, though, what probably makes the difference is a deep sense of national pride in the tradition of jazz playing which shone out though the evening and is summed up in the phrase “Jazz is America’s music”.
Categories: Live review