The Big Swing featuring Emma Smith, Georgina Jackson & Vula Malinga
(Cadogan Hall, London SW3, 18 November 2022. Review by Len Weinreich)
The evening started with a bundle of promises as singer Emma Smith, vibrant in shocking pink and singer/trumpeter Georgina Jackson in electric blue, bounded onto a stage already occupied by a 16-strong big band buzzing with energy and primed to blow. We were promised an evening of swing ‘staying true to the old-school style, yet with a new wave attitude…a mission to reimagine everything you knew about the big band tradition’. And we were promised that we’d hear ‘the Great American Songbook brought up-to-date’.
Certain promised elements like ‘new wave attitude’ and ‘reimagining the big-band tradition’ were pointedly evident: in what used to be an all-male world (with extremely rare exceptions), half the band plus the two leaders and their two guests were females, the intentional plan by Smith and Jackson initiated during the pandemic.
However, intentions are one thing. Bringing them to fruition is an entirely different matter. To these ears, the big band sounded really good, sometimes powerful and screaming, other times smooth and mellow when supporting singers. But seldom departing from the classic tradition. For instance, while not a photocopy of the original, Frank Foster’s “Blues in Hoss’ Flat” closely resembled the Basie recording made in 1958. When Georgina Jackson, Wigan’s finest trumpet ace, growled with her plunger mute, she conjured echoes of 1940s Cootie Williams with Ellington. Open-horned, the results were more 1940s Billy Butterfield. While it was all welcome, it wasn’t exactly the promised ‘new wave attitude’.
Occasionally, more modern touches emerged particularly when Rachael Cohen’s soprano led the reeds on Callum Au’s (responsible for some excellent trombone and charts throughout the evening) attractive arrangement of “Get Out Of My Life Baby”, reminding us of the much-missed Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. And when Emma Smith scatted in unison with the reed section, we were reminded of the Vienna Art Orchestra.
Given that this evening was ‘Big Swing’s’ first ever gig, glitches in performance and repertoire deserve forgiveness. But, during the first half, the sound was so unbalanced that vital announcements were undecipherable and nearly every lyric unintentionally swamped by the energetic band. Which was a pity because the witty words of Emma Smith’s two songs, “Monogamy Blues” and “Sit On My Knee And Tell Me You Love Me”, from her terrific recent album, ‘Meshuga Baby’, were lost by Row M. The first guest artist, a young lady singer whose performance, accompanied by her own electric bass, will have to remain anonymous owing to her name and her song being totally obliterated by the errant PA system. Fortunately, by the second half, vital adjustments had been made.
We caught the second guest’s name: singer Vula Malinga, whose vibrant personality managed to conquer the dodgy amplification as she delivered Brighton-born Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought Of You” over Harmon-muted trumpets and succulent reeds sounding as richly comforting as a cashmere blanket. Then, over a backdrop of gospely chords, she wowed the room with Carole King’s “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman”.
After interval, with improved audio and a spangly wardrobe change by the two leaders, the band launched into “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” written by Louis and Lil Armstrong almost 100 years ago and possibly the evening’s best band number. The arrangement was full of smart touches: unison soprano saxophone and trumpet, well-rehearsed passage by entire reed section and a fine boppy trumpet solo from Alex Ridout. After “Barbecue”, the cracking rhythm section shuffled the band, crammed with talented and exciting soloists, into a hip-swinging boogaloo with booting tenor work, followed by Georgina and trumpet, urging the band into the wisest piece of life coaching ever offered by way of a swing song (always excepting Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Aint Got That Swing”), Trummy Young and Sy Oliver’s “T’aint What You Do It’s The Way Thatcha Do It”.
Then Emma Smith explained to a rapt audience some of the gender issues behind her planning of the Big Swing and the evening’s concert. For example, it would seem that her mother, Simone, a gifted alto player, had to drop the final ‘e’ in her name so band bookers would think she was a chap. Changing gear, Smith spurred the band into a frantic tempo for a dizzying version of “I’m Going To Live Till I Die”, a song made famous by someone named Frank Sinatra. Sinatra idolatry continued with “All The Way”, vocal and trumpet stylishly handled by Georgina Jackson before the whole band was bathed in an appropriate red-light glow for Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale”, featuring Jason Brown on drums. Judging by applause, the audience loved it.
Emma explained that her arranger father had fashioned a special version of Merrill and Styne’s “People”, raised to international hit status by her early icon, Barbra Streisand, to be publicly performed for the first time. Star bass player, Conor Chaplin, was given special mention and there was even a space for Georgina’s trumpet. All very emotional.
The effervescent Vula Malinga returned to the stage and enthusiastic applause to belt out Basie and Joe Williams’ rousing “Every Day I Have The Blues”, with Emma and Georgina standing in as backing singers. The evening wound up with all three singers and the band breaking into Thiele and Weiss’s “What A Wonderful World”, a song inextricably linked with Louis Armstrong. Audience delight was palpable.
Next time, more structure, more rehearsal and fewer promises. To quote the evening’s central text: “T’aint What You Do It’s The Way Thatcha Do It”. If you promise the Great American Songbook, dig deeper into the repertoire. And if you promise you’re revitalising the big band tradition, demonstrate it musically. If you’re really doing neither, elbow the promises.
The Cadogan Hall concert was an encouraging start and considering the orchestra is not a permanent organisation and was informally organised, it sounded pretty good and swung like the clappers. So, we wish The Big Swing great success. Only, next time, please spend some time checking the sound system.
Georgina Jackson bandleader/trumpet/vocals; Emma Smith bandleader/vocals; Vula Malinga guest vocalist; Gemma Moore alto saxophone; Rachel Cohen alto saxophone; Josephine Davis tenor saxophone; Nadime Theimore tenor saxophone; Jessamy Holder baritone saxophone; Tom Walsh trumpet; Craig Wild trumpet; Alexandra Ridout trumpet; James Davidson trumpet; Callum Au trombone; Carol Jarvis trombone; ; Daniel Higham trombone; Sarah Williams bass trombone; Nikki Iles piano; Conor Chaplin bass; Jason Brown drums