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NYJO in Sunderland: ‘Amy Winehouse – A Celebration of her Life and Music’

National Youth Jazz Orchestra: Amy Winehouse – A Celebration of her Life and Music
(The Fire Station, Sunderland, 10 Feb 2022. Review by AJ Dehany)

NYJO in Sunderland. Photo credit: Ros Rigby

The death of the troubled English singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse in 2011 seemed to touch us all. Everyone knew, everyone was shocked and everyone was talking about it. Amy’s life was a head-on collision with fame, heartbreak and addiction, which was plagued by a media obsessed with the grisly and prurient details. But in the time since, the music she made has held up. The two albums Frank and Back To Black seem to deserve every one of their platter of Ivor Novello and Grammy Awards. 

Halfway through a tour that started last year to mark ten years since Amy Winehouse’s early death at twenty-seven, Winston Rollins and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) are well placed to offer a spectacular big band celebration of the life and music of Amy Winehouse, with less dwelling on the tragic. Trombone player Rollins worked with Amy on Frank, and Amy herself sang with NYJO for two years when she was only sixteen. By all accounts, even at that age she was already “Amy Winehouse”.

Lucy-Anne Daniels. Snap by AJ Dehany

With Amy-like confidence, singer Lucy-Anne Daniels is already Lucy-Anne Daniels. She is perfection in the daunting but impressive role of vocalist for the whole evening. She seems at home and confident despite the sheer volume and power of the young players. Olivia Murphy’s bombastic big band jazz arrangements come out of Ellington and Basie and lean more to instrumental big band jazz writing than the easier listening of most vocal jazz. It’s impressive but a challenging live mix to keep the vocal from getting drowned out. Some nice jazzy vocal syncopations worked well, though admittedly Amy never overdid the stylisation herself. There’s scope for making more of such ornamentations to both compete with and complement this massive wall of jazz sound.

The softer horn writing of a highlight arrangement for He Can Only Hold Her tended to be more sympathetic, catchy with a little dash of Curtis Mayfield in there. In the ska feel of Just Friends the more rhythmic brass led by the baritone gives more room for the vocal. Amy loved fusing genres as much as she loved jazz standards. The Boy From Ipanema reworks the samba in a sassy rendition of a sassy vocal part.

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By the time of the Zutons’ banger Valerie, most familiar in Mark Ronson’s motown pastiche for Amy, some people were up and dancing, from the opening group clapping a clave rhythm before the backbeat took it up, very fun and loose with a jam session-y feel. There are very fine solos throughout both sets, notably George Garford’s alto saxophone. Tears Dry On Their Own is another of the major bangers, during which the brass could be a little overpowering. I mean it’s magnificent, but it’s not war.

Love kind of is though, and as Amy wrote, love is a losing game. At the very start of the concert, when the beat came in for Back To Black, my eyes filled with tears. I wanted the concert to break me. I wanted to feel purged, emotionally exhausted, excoriated. I know I’m a tragic miserable old queen but the handful of sparser moments of piano and vocal reminded us that a good number of the clips you see of Amy performing are either solo with guitar or with one other instrumentalist.

Much of her power and personality, as well as, crucially, her tenderness and vulnerability, come from these jazzy but spartan arrangements. Even the high production values of the albums don’t reflect the complete picture, and perhaps any celebration of Amy that focuses on her raucous force of life risks overlooking the full extent of her tragic appeal. 

AJ Dehany writes about music, art and stuff.

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LINKS: Interview with Olivia Murphy and Lucy-Anne Daniels

Dates and background info on the tour

A tribute from 2011 from NYJO’s founder

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