‘Songs from The Golden Age of Swing’ (Down for the Count Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, 10 September)

The Down for the Count Orchestra and soloists will perform “Songs from The Golden Age of Swing at Cadogan Hall, London, 10 September 2023, start time 6.30pm. Feature – which also explains the origins of the band’s name… – by Peter Vacher

Down for the Count Orchestra and soloists. Photo credit: Marcus Charter

In these cash-strapped times, what better way to cast aside the tribulations of the day than to bask in the sounds of a 30-piece orchestra, with three fine vocalists out front, as they revisit the sights and sounds of Hollywood’s Capitol Studios in the 1950s.

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Are we describing some kind of dream sequence here? A fantasy, perhaps? Not so, for this is exactly what is promised at London’s stylish Cadogan Hall on Sunday, 10 September, with show-time at 18.30.

That expansive stage, already the capital’s prime location for vintage jazz and swing presentations, will be populated this time by the full Down for the Count Orchestra. Think a big band but with an added string section, conducted by the Orchestra’s Band Manager and great instigator, pianist/arranger Mike Paul-Smith, and with a trio of vocal stars, that’s Lydia Bell, Katie Birtill, and Marvin Muoneké. Yes, a 30-piece orchestra all set to give a discerning audience ‘a sonic ride back to the sounds of the 1950s’. Music in the grand manner, you could say.

In effect, the full Down for the Count orchestral experience is fine-tuned to recreate the sounds, instrumental and vocal, of that long-gone era when great songs, some from Broadway shows, were the lingua franca of our aural experience. We’re talking here of recalling singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Judy Garland, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole, their vocals cushioned by the peerless arrangements of Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins, and all marked by orchestral musicianship of the highest calibre.

When we spoke recently, Mike Paul-Smith told me first about the orchestra’s distinctive name. Was it to suggest an affinity for the Basie band’s repertoire, I wondered? “When hunting for the band name, we came across the Basie tune ‘Down for the Count’ and were just drawn to it,” he laughed. “We love Count Basie tunes and although we’re not a Basie tribute act, we always try and include some Basie numbers in our swing sets – especially when playing for dancers, who love that repertoire.”

Having started in his teens by putting small bands together for parties and weddings, Paul-Smith kept things going with a particular group of ten musical friends both before and after university, this assembly morphing eventually into the Down for the Count All-Stars mini big band, which continues and will be on the road on a national tour of its own later this year. Mike says he “always loved the ‘big band with strings’ repertoire, particularly Nelson Riddle’s work with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald in the 1950s. Over the years I learnt more about the work other arrangers such as Gordon Jenkins – probably my favourite – Billy May, Don Costa etc.”

“I always wanted to play that music and for years had the ambition of adding strings to our All-Stars line-up. We made that dream a reality in 2019 with a show in Notting Hill. We loved it and grew the orchestra so that now it really is a big band with strings: usually featuring 10 horns, 12 strings, rhythm section (including percussion), vocals and just for this Cadogan Hall show, harp. Our aim is to breathe new life in the best of this vintage music.”

“The show consists of some recreations of that Riddle/Jenkins repertoire (using charts from the original recording sessions) or my own transcriptions of jazz standards, written for big bands with strings in similar style. Adding strings to the big band sound creates a wonderful richness to the overall sound. And not many people do it! We love performing together and we don’t know of any other regular touring bands with strings, so we want to take it as far as possible. We currently do two UK tours a year and want to build on that and we’re looking to taking the orchestra on international tours to Europe or Asia. Our dream would be to have a show at the BBC Proms!”

For the insider’s view of this ambitious band and its repertoire, it was illuminating to talk with Alex Western-King, an outstanding jazz soloist in his own right but on parade here as the band’s lead saxophonist. “I play hundreds of gigs with the band every year,” he told me. “It helps that I love the music we play, mostly from the Great American Songbook and lovely early standards. You’re playing great music with great people and trying to do it justice. It’s something I enjoy very much.”

And it’s that balance between their sheer delight in the successful execution of this challenging music, and the team-work involved in achieving something distinctive that applies to the Orchestra’s entire musical output. Just the very qualities that made vocal star Michael Bublé enthuse – “Awesome,” he said – and compelled one commenator to note that the Down for the Count Orchestra ‘might be a potential rival to the John Wilson Orchestra.’ No contest, surely?

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The Down for the Count Orchestra will be back at Cadogan Hall on 28 December with their popular Swing Into Christmas concert at the end of a national tour.

LINK: Bookings for 10 September

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