CD review

James Hamilton Jazz Orchestra – ‘Yorkshire Suite’

James Hamilton Jazz Orchestra – Yorkshire Suite
(New Jazz Records. Review by Adrian Pallant)

The premise of this live recording is heartwarming, and should be to anyone with an interest in the continuation of the British big band jazz scene.

In 2014, Belfast-born composer and trumpeter James Hamilton was commissioned to write a suite for the Yorkshire Festival to celebrate the life of Jazz Yorkshire (the funding body which merged with Manchester Jazz to become Jazz North). But this recording, captured a year later in front of a Seven Arts audience in Leeds, has lain silent for five years – until now. As seen in other releases this year, the Covid-19 restrictions provided space for Hamilton to revisit his archive. This resulted in the mixing and mastering of his Yorkshire Suite – a reflection of the people and places of ‘God’s own county’. Essentially it’s an EP of four tracks, though many an album has similarly veered towards the half-hour mark; and the thirteen horn players, guitarist, pianist, bassist and drummer of the James Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (JHJO) feature now-familiar names, including saxophonist Matt Anderson, trumpeter Kim Macari and trombonist Matt Ball.

Just as gladdening are Hamilton’s intentions for this music. Drawing inspiration from his youth-band years, the movements are intentionally crafted with increasing levels of difficulty, so they can be accessed by youth bands of varying abilities. Self-deprecatingly, he explains: “This isn’t a subtle nuanced work of contemporary jazz – there’s a back catalogue from JHJO where you can already find that. It’s an unashamedly ‘heart on sleeve’ tour de force of cheesy big band music”. In addition, study scores and parts will be available – just like the audio – on a pay-what-you-want basis.

So, “cheesy”? Not a bit. To these ears, only earnest music-making. This living, breathing performance might throw up a rare cracked note or insecure harmony; but what stands tall is this band’s fervency and improvisational freedom, sometimes imbuing Hamilton’s work with a hint of brass band colour. In fact, Hamilton researched his subject before writing, asking locals what their county meant to them, and his titles interestingly (even amusingly) reflect their replies.

The Dales’ awakening horn harmonies imply sunrise over an endless patchwork of lush green bound by grey drystone frames. But its statuesque confidence shifts with guitarist Harry Orme’s slick groove, while rollicking solos from trumpeter Simon Dennis, saxophonist Will Howard and trombonist Tom l’Anson could easily convey a charabanc’s jouncing, horn-tooting passage into the distance. The snappy about-town strut of Thrifty, bolstered by deep trombones, features sizzling spotlights from saxophonist Matt Anderson and trumpeter Kim Macari – a solid wall of ‘NY City in NY Moors’, if you will! A real highlight, Tell It As It Is (in other words, ‘call a spade a spade’) slowly unveils an upright Christmas hymn tune familiar to church organists as ‘Yorkshire’ – but taking it into a full-on township vibe is inspired, with exuberant solos from Ball, Dennis and saxophonist Mark Ellis. Finally, restating a piano figure from the opening movement, Home Is All A Place Can Hope To Be (what more could you ask?) basks with pride in the closely-meshed afterglow of ensemble horns and military snare.

James Hamilton is the recipient of a Jazz Yorkshire Award for Composition, a British Composer Award, the Dankworth Prize for Jazz Composition, and has been nominated for both Eddie Harvey and Ivor Novello awards. Other recordings of the JHJO are available, including The Causeway Suite and Lost Tapes.

As for that joyous hymnal transfiguration… it may well be ‘saluting the happy morn’ this 25th December.

Yorkshire Suite is released today, 7 December 2020, and available from Bandcamp

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