The Jazz Repertory Company’s latest project in recreating memorable moments from jazz history has strings attached. Peter Vacher explains:
Richard Pite’s Jazz Repertory Company has long since made London’s Cadogan Hall its home from home. Steadily but with purpose, Pite has built an audience there for creative explorations of key moments in jazz and swing history. Now comes his most ambitious project to date. Entitled Swingin’ With Strings, it seeks to recreate the timeless conjunction of Nelson Riddle’s string arrangements with Frank Sinatra’s vocals from his Capitol and Reprise recordings of the 1950s and 1960s. Add to that a re-visiting of Billie Holiday’s heartbreaking Lady in Satin album, the irresistible joys of Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown’s With Strings albums, Artie Shaw’s Concerto For Clarinet and you have a veritable surfeit of strings ‘n’ jazz pleasures.
How timely that this substantial production, the JRC’s biggest ever, should be a highlight of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival. Inevitably these well-researched replications require an ensemble and an array of solo skills that are of the highest order. As is now customary, the all-star 17-piece Pete Long Orchestra is at the heart of things, but augmented this time by 22 string players, oboe and harp. Iain Mackenzie takes the Sinatra role and Claire Martin, Britain’s premier jazz vocalist, will perform pieces from the Billie Holiday album. Scots trumpeter Ryan Quigley is set to recreate Brown’s music and bandleader-clarinetist Pete Long is Artie Shaw for this night only as he essays the great man’s concerto. The fine alto-saxophonist Sammy Mayne is to tackle the daunting task of emulating Parker – look out for Just Friends, a hit in the day – in that most famous of ‘with strings’ encounters. It’s pertinent to remember that Parker’s dates with strings were the first of their kind and initiated the idea for others to follow, notably Clifford Brown, of course.
So just what is the allure for jazz musicians as they seek to combine their improvisations with the sweeping sounds of a string ensemble? Put simply strings add class and a unique coloration, described by one commentator as ‘a resplendent sheen’ to the overall experience. When I put these thoughts to Claire Martin, she answered, “It’s always a very lush sonic experience and one I find deeply enjoyable as you are swept away with the beauty of the strings and everything sounds so rich and full as well as achingly romantic! I have had the great fortune of singing with many orchestras over the years, including the John Wilson Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Hallé.”
Our conversation then turned to Billie Holiday and Lady in Satin. When had Martin first become aware of Holiday, I wondered? “I first heard her in my teens when I was discovering all the other great singers of this genre. It took me a few years to actually ‘get’ what she was all about as she had such an individual sound. I think I almost overlooked her on purpose as I was trying to mimic all those other legendary stylists at that time an and she was off the chart with individuality and sound,” she said.
As time passed and her tastes evolved, Martin found herself more at one with Holiday’s vocal approach. “As I grew older and life ‘kicked in’ and I started to understand the history of Billie’s life and times, I appreciated her more. Her sense of time is impeccable and of course the depth of emotion is totally evident. She was a victim of many dark circumstances and this is expressed in her singing. I think you can only appreciate this when you’re a bit older. Well, that’s how it was for me anyway!”
Lady in Satin is late-period Holiday, so what is special about it? “It was the last album released in her lifetime,” Martin said. “Her voice had lost much of its upper range but she still had great rhythmic phrasing even if some critics claimed her ‘punch was gone’. I disagree and think that her emotional delivery is even more powerful on this album. You can hear the tears in her eyes. It was Holiday’s most expensive production with a 40-piece orchestra, horns, strings, reeds and even a three-voice choir. For me each song is a masterpiece of arranging by Ray Ellis who frames each song perfectly!”
It’s usual to see Claire Martin OBE, with 22 albums to her name, in a small group context, so are there pitfalls to appearing with a full orchestra? “I don’t think there are any vocal challenges singing with a big orchestra,” she suggested. “It’s the same deal with a small band. As long as you have a good sound engineer who will take time to work on your monitor sounds and your hearing on stage, you should be fine. Cadogan Hall is very large and I think the orchestra will sound amazing in there.”
“Pete Long is a force of nature so with him at the helm we are all in good hands. It’s a great sweep of music and a great part of the history of the genre will be showcased at the concert. I can’t wait to hear the rest of the tunes. I’m a great fan of Iain Mackenzie who I’m sure will do a stellar job on the Sinatra classics.
“It’s going to be a night to remember!” © Peter Vacher (pp)