“The band is sounding better than ever,” says Joe Pettitt, the ‘force of nature‘ who leads the Len Phillips Swing Orchestra. Known for their hit shows on Sky Arts, the Orchestra will be back at Cadogan Hall, Sunday 1 October at 3pm, with a new programme, “Another…100 Years of Big Bands.” Joe Pettitt explains the background. Feature/ interview by Kai Hoffman
One thing that’s really quite special about this show is that “you can hear the music evolve,” Joe Pettitt explains. “Whereas with a lot of concerts you’re just dipping in and out, one minute you’re playing something from the ‘50s, the next something from the ‘30s, then you’re playing something new, with this program, you can really hear how these arrangers cut their teeth, how they worked out what they were doing, how the recording techniques changed. You can hear how the singers went from doing novelty numbers or a quick vocal refrain to being the star of the show. Then you get the electric sounds that appeared during the ‘70s and the contemporary sounds that you’ll get from a big band today.”
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Starting out with the glorious sounds of swing from the 1920s, Joe Pettitt tells me how “the earlier decades of the program sample from the vast swing repertoire of the Golden age. This includes the ‘30s with Benny Goodman, the ‘40s Glenn Miller sound, ‘50s Count Basie, Peggy Lee, Ella and Sinatra ‘on fire.’ The ‘60s are cool and quirky with Sammy Davis doing great stuff. But when the ‘70s and ‘80s come along, big bands are certainly not top of the charts anymore”. When faced with this challenge previously, the LPSO added a Maynard Ferguson tune, or Harry Connick Jr., but it “got to a point where it felt like those were all used up. Where was the commercial, current sound of a big band? It’s in TV themes. It’s in the movies.” As Joe says, “We’re not trying to find weird and wonderful things that no one knows, we’re trying to find the real gold that drove the sound of the music through, and that’s where it is. The ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, today. If you think of The Incredibles films or The Simpsons, that’s a big band sounding amazing.”
Led since 2010 by force of nature Pettitt, the Len Phillips orchestra includes many of the UK’s top musicians, all hand-selected for their individual abilities. The upcoming Cadogan Hall concert includes Youtube sensation and high-note-wizz Louis Dowdeswell, who – as a trumpet player with 93.5K followers – has a spectacular range and stamina on the instrument, blazing ahead on music from Disney’s The Incredibles films and more. (If you have a moment, go check out Louis Dowdeswell’s channel – and then immediately thereafter book your tickets for Cadogan Hall, where he will be performing “Into the Unknown,” from Frozen.) Other band members to look out for at the show include new member Mike Smith on the drums, and top session players, from contemporary London jazz scene dynamo sax player Jon Shenoy, lead trumpet Russell Bennett (John Wilson Orchestra), trombonist Chris Traves– a specialist in the pixie plunger mute- and Gemma Moore, the best baritone sax you could ever wish for as the foundation of the sax section. “The band is sounding better than ever.”
Joining them at Cadogan will be singers Nicola Emmanuelle and Matt Ford. With a crystal clear voice which just sails over the band, Nicola worked with the LPSO for the first time during their Abbey Road livestream and has played Ella Fitzgerald in the Rat Pack in the West End. Matt Ford is one of the “best big band singers in the U.K., flawless every time,” and is famous for his appearances on Friday Night is Music Night amongst many other achievements.
Inspired by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis, Pettitt makes every effort to make the music feel incredibly alive, not nostalgic. With arrangements commissioned by experts including Colin Skinner, Callum Au, Phil Steel, and Pete Long, amongst others, the music might be seventy years old, but it is not played in a museum-piece sort of way. “You’re playing it with massive respect to the tradition, but treating it as an art form, like a symphony orchestra playing music that’s three hundred years old, but not as a nostalgia trip, it’s some fantastic music. Whether it’s ancient or new, our music is presented with some of the absolute best musicians, and it swings, it’s not apologetic. It grabs you and it goes ‘Yeah, wow!’ No one is pretending, it’s not just a bunch of great musicians playing well, it’s got that extra, out-of-this-world energy you only get when performers are really right in the moment and giving it their all.”
Originally starting out on the bass, Joe Pettitt was offered the position of bandleader in 2010 when Len Phillips retired. Although it was a big decision to make, as running a big band is a huge undertaking, Joe realised an opportunity to take over running a band with an audience, a full pad, and gigs in the diary was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. “An all-consuming passion drives you on, you have to keep reinventing things. People always say ‘That will never work, you can’t do that, no that doesn’t work’ and you just have to keep going. Everybody has those moments when you question yourself. Then, you stand in front of a band which sounds like that, you have the best seat in the house, and it is just exhilarating. You come off the stage and the audience tells you what a fantastic time they’ve had, and you’re on cloud nine. Also, you can’t underestimate the responsibility of keeping bands like this on the road. It’s important. It’s a musical tradition which needs to be kept alive. It’s some of the best music that’s ever been made.”
The upcoming show will be their third and final evolution of this particular concept of 100 Years of Big Band, which originated during the covid years when the band was forced to be exceptionally innovative over many long months and lockdowns, and was eventually supported by the Arts Council Cultural Recovery Fund. The orchestra live-streamed a myriad of concerts with whichever number of people were allowed to be in one space at a time – the rule of two, or six, or with the full band spaced two metres apart from each other and the audience socially distanced out in a field, under an awning in the garden in the freezing cold, etc. One highpoint which really stood out for Joe and the band was their livestream direct from Abbey Road Studios, with singers Matt Ford and Nicola Emmanuelle (both appearing soon at Cadogan); all of these shows can still be viewed on the Len Phillips Swing Orchestra Youtube channel. All of these streams have had thousands of views – and the tenacity of this band, and this particular bandleader, do not go unnoticed during this incredibly pressurised period of history. Thanks to the Arts Council support they had received, the LPSO recorded their first 100 years of big band show at the Cadogan Hall as the world was opening up again, and within weeks the film was taken up by Sky Arts and broadcast.
The LPSO is on top form and, with the brilliant acoustics of Cadogan Hall, “Another…100 Years of Big Bands” is certainly going to be a resounding success. Check out the Len Phillips Swing Orchestra website for the current tour schedule, including the Cadogan Hall show on Sunday 1 October.
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