Live Music + Gig Reviews

Big Band Britannia @ Barbican, London

19 June 2010


On the penultimate night of the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra’s weeklong Barbican International Residency, it took a breather from the spotlight to let the Big Band Britannia with Guy Barker take centre stage.

In the same way that Wynton Marsalis and his band guided the audience through the history of American jazz over the previous two evenings, now Big Band Britannia highlighted developments on this side of the water with a wealth of special guests.

Stylistically, however, the evening felt different, and initially not quite as successful. In comparison to Marsalis’s free and easy manner, the compering felt wooden and staged, although it soon became clear why. The concert was being recorded for a broadcast on Radio 3’s Jazz Line-up at the end of the year, rendering a more formal style of introduction necessary.

Similarly, unlike Marsalis who explained how every piece fitted in to the wider picture, here we received the briefest of overviews of the development of British jazz in the 1920s and ’30s, before having the first five numbers blasted at us. This problem was remedied as the evening progressed, however, as the explanations grew fuller and radio presenter Geoffrey Smith proved to be an excellent compere, really bringing his knowledge to the fore.

The programming was also intelligent, introducing the majority of guest stars in the second half and giving Big Band Britannia a chance to shine in its own right. Highlights of the first half included Fats Waller‘s Bakerloo Non-Stop from his London Suite; Four O’Clock Jump, which featured a solo from the extraordinary baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley, and Victor Feldman‘s rarely performed Elegy of 1956. The final number, Suddenly Last Tuesday, also saw solos from saxophonists Peter King and Denys Baptiste, trombonist Elliot Mason, and Guy Barker on the trumpet. All enjoyed their moments in the spotlight, but the piece also gave the four the chance to blow us away collectively.

The second half picked up the story from the 1960s, when the intrinsically British big band sound emerged, and took us to the present day. Highlights included Neil Ardley’s multi-textured Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, which could be blasting one minute and melancholic the next, and Part Two, in which the trumpeters had a ball before handing over to the peerless Harry Beckett for the final solo. Norma Winstone also gave a magnificent performance of Gentle Piece, a song without words, with her incredible smoky voice.

The final section was reserved as a tribute to the late John Dankworth who himself embodied the last five decades of British jazz. It started with Wynton Marsalis taking us to heaven as the trumpet soloist for the opening and final sections of Dankworth’s Zodiac Suite from the 1960s. Then Cleo Laine sang It Amazes Me (which John had arranged for her) and Hallelujah to rapturous applause, and proved beyond doubt why this Dame is the First Lady of Jazz. She also gave a nice anecdote, telling how her husband had been known to deny highly accomplished performers a solo if they weren’t of the star sign that he written it for.

The concert ended with brilliant performances of World Jazz, Dankworth’s final composition, and Andromeda, from the South African jazz quintet The Blue Notes. Both left the audience wanting more, and Jazz Jamaica was on hand to deliver as they struck up in the foyer for their late night set.

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Big Band Britannia @ Barbican, London