The Royal Albert Hall is no stranger to loud noise, but it is always a pleasure to hear it filled with sound as it was for Tuesday night’s The Story of Swing – a follow-on to last year’s highly successful Battle of the Bands Prom, and a celebration of the birth of Swing 80 years ago. Two bands featured, each led, as is traditional, by its namesake – The Guy Barker Big Band and The Winston Rollins Big Band – and when they played together in big up-tempo numbers such as Tommy Dorsey’s Opus One or Benny Goodman’s King Porter Stomp, the full-on sound of massed brass reverberating around the curve of the Hall achieved a hair-raising effect.
But the evening was not all a solid wall of sound, nor did it consist, as advertised, of entirely numbers by Dorsey and Goodman. The audience was treated to a trip along the timeline of Swing, including numbers as varied as Livin’ in the Sunlight, Lovin’ in the Moonlight, made famous by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra – with its 1920s-feel sousaphone bass-line and the snare-drum played on the rim – Glenn Miller’s unusual 1941 arrangement of The Song of the Volga Boatmen, and Cab Calloway’s 1931 hit Minnie the Moocher. The variation in texture was provided in several ways: bands alternated numbers (so Prisoner of Love was performed by The Guy Barker Band, while Sugar Foot Stomp was given to Winston Rollins); there were instrumental solos aplenty –a wow-wow trumpet in Jimmie Lunceford’s White Heat, a smoky trombone in Smoke Rings, and Benny Goodman’s signature clarinet solo in Why Don’t You Do It Right?
For a couple of the numbers, the big bands gave way to smaller ensembles: Count Basie’s Lester Leaps In was performed by a small seven-piece ensemble (including the saxophonist Denys Baptiste) in an up-tempo be-bop style, and Benny Goodman’s Handful of Keys was given to a quartet of clarinet, vibraphone, piano and drums. In the second half, the bands were joined by a string section that added a plusher edge to the mix, and for Glenn Miller’s I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo and Artie Shaw’s What Is This Thing Called Love? they were joined by the vocal group The Promunards.
The evening’s compère was Radio 2’s Clare Teal, who also added her voice to several of the numbers to great effect: Sing Me a Swing Song, I Got It Bad, Why Don’t You Do It Right?, and paired with trumpeter Mike Lovatt for a breathtaking duet in Let Me Off Uptown. Other singers added their voices to the mix: Clarke Peters had the audience in the palm of his hand for Minnie the Moocher and Andrew Playfoot provided a gentle 1920s croon in Livin’ in the Sunlight, Lovin’ in the Moonlight. Jamie Davis joined the Promunards for Kalamazoo, and sang solo for Billy Eckstine’s Prisoner of Love and Tommy Dorsey’s Marie; in the latter, his incisive tone didn’t quite fit – the song warranted, perhaps, a softer edge. Elaine Delmar’s rendition of the Billie Holiday classic Lover Man seemed also a little oddly matched – her resonant chest voice gave full weight to the low notes, but her upper register felt a little too unyielding for the song.
The only real flaw in an otherwise perfect evening was the Albert Hall’s sound system, which managed to lose all the bass resonance from the pianos, and drop the volume for half the vocals in the closing numbers.