NYJO: it might get loud

What’s JazzJanuary?

JazzJanuary performance #1

National Youth Jazz Orchestra

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London, 7th January

JazzJanuary testers: Alex and Matt

JazzJanuary advisers: Joel (session drummer), Karen (music teacher)

Jazz music can damage you. There’s the first lesson. The ringing in the ears while you’re on the way home.  A little noise that says that you might have come to harm.

This music is supposed to be quiet, isn’t it? And the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) was supposed to have been a nervous gaggle of kids, out of their depth in a sold-out club. That’s why our table is at the front – to hear these timid juniors.

We are at the front, too. Without standing, we could offer our drinks to the five saxophonists.  Jazz-tester Alex touches the Conductor’s notes with his ear.  A squad of trombonists troops in behind the saxophones, poking through the gaps like soldiers with muskets.  Trumpeters next, until 16 instruments are pointing at us.  These aren’t kids, either. Nor especially nervous.  One of them – bigger than the doorman outside – takes a long slurp of beer.

Six seconds later, we’re edging our chairs back under the sharpest, crispest, brashest, hardest, loudest stabs of music, a firing squad of brass and woodwind in one monstrous voice. Under the whole thing is a baritone saxophone that vibrates collars against necks enough to actually tickle. Number 11 on the volume? This is number 11 on the Beaufort Scale. Fearsome. You could swear the straw in your drink is tilting backwards in the blast.  Alex is looking windswept, too, like Donald Trump. Advisers Joel and Karen – the people who brought us here – nod and smile.

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Tonight’s lesson: forget about amplifiers.  If the musicians are wearing hearing protection from themselves, you might want to move back a bit.

The setlist is what critics call ‘eclectic’.  Technically, is it entirely jazz music? The jazz-advisers laugh at the question. Meanwhile, that wild opening mellows and merges into beautiful, liquid combinations of sounds that leave you a little removed from the outside world. There are some weird and magical harmonic things happening. Musicians can make them, physicists can explain them, but here’s tonight’s good news: occasionally, normal people can sense them.  This is like floating under water without being frightened. It just might be what the experts mean, when they talk about “feeling it”.

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In his favourite seat under the Conductor’s armpit, jazz-tester Alex

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Satisfied so far: jazz-advisers Joel and Karen

Highs:

Mark Armstrong (Director). Compressed an average person’s lifetime expenditure of  skill, emotion and energy into a 2-minute trumpet solo. It wasn’t even loud. ‘Unforgettable’ is a strong word, but it was invented for things like this.

Nick Fitch.  Subtle, smooth little spoonfuls of guitar, stirred craftily into the ensemble sound.  More like a sorcerer than a musician.

Lows:

With loudspeakers behind us, our music came raw and unfiltered.  The downside was not hearing much from Rupert Cox (highly rated by the advisers) on piano, because he was at the far end of the stage.

Verdict:

Alex (Jazz-tester): I really enjoyed that. Go on, I’ll have another glass of the Malbec. I think I might have gone deaf, you know.

Joel (Jazz-adviser): Yes!

Karen (Jazz-adviser): That baritone saxophone is filthy.

Next up:

Gareth Lockrane Big Band, 10th January

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Story and photos: Matt Pannell

Gareth Lockrane Big Band: sleaze for all the family

What’s JazzJanuary?

JazzJanuary performance #2

Gareth Lockrane Big Band

606 Club, London, 10th January

JazzJanuary testers: Evie (6), Oliver (8), Sophie (9), Charlie, Emma, Matt B, Matt P (older)

JazzJanuary adviser: Karen (music teacher)

It’s a bit unsettling. “Who wants some more sleazy funk?” shouts an excited band leader to his audience.  Next to you, a 6-year-old voice replies: “Me!”

Gareth Lockrane isn’t short of sleaze.  He has more flutes than a Tory MP has mistresses, and he switches between them in the same way.  There’s usually one on the go, another lined up close by and a couple more just out of sight, waiting their turn for a breathy encounter.

This is a big band with a twist. Not so long ago, it seems, the flute wasn’t really a jazz instrument. There might have been the odd one here and there, but a band leader brazenly flashing four of them around? Unheard of.

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Yes, that’s a bass flute

It’s Sunday lunchtime here at the 606 Club in Chelsea, and our group of jazz-testers includes a trio of under-tens.  We’re in another underground venue.  It’s warm and friendly inside, but unlike Ronnie Scott’s, this place has the kind of entrance door you could walk straight past.  You reach through a mesh grille and press a buzzer to be allowed down the stairs. The Jazz-people complain about being stereotyped as remote and secretive, but so far, we’ve not seen any of of them above ground level.

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Jazz-tester Evie

The band – hailed as ‘ferocious’ and ‘unruly’ by the critics – certainly packs a punch.  This is exciting, accessible, original music, dished out at a crackling pace.  The first set ends with ‘The Strut‘, an instant, universal hit among the jazz-testers and with today’s Jazz-adviser, Karen.  In truth, her judgement might have crumbled. Her principal instrument at university was the flute, and as flute-demonstrations go, this would take some beating.

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The alto flute also saw some action

 

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The Jazz-testers: happy campers

The stream of colourful music about The X-Men and surfing keeps flowing after a break for lunch.  And there’s something else going on, too.  It’s a standard thing, apparently, for band leaders to give their best players a chance to stand up alone and do their stuff, supported only by the rhythm section. But Gareth Lockrane is making a very thorough job of this.  He has hand-picked these 18 musicians, presumably without committees, governors, or audition panels.  He wants to make sure that before we leave, we know precisely what they’re capable of.

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Methodically, he works his way around the players, pointing with flutes, allocating solos.  You’re still enjoying the band.  But you’re also being treated to a series of mini-masterclasses in instruments from guitar to flugelhorn.  Bass trombone and saxophones make the biggest impression on the jazz-testers.  Drummer Tristan Maillot somehow infuses a fluid, elegant, loose-limbed style with a feral bite. And he’s doing tricksy little things with time that can’t be explained (at least, not here) but are thrilling to listen to.

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The Gareth Lockrane band scored a direct hit on this jazz-tester

The band’s newest member – so new that he’s still wearing his parka – takes the last, extended, solo on saxophone. The face is familiar: he played in the Royal Academy Big Band in November, and with NYJO a few days ago. Twenty-odd, Jim Gold already has a musical CV as long as a microphone cable. Even to mere jazz-testers, it’s obvious these people are stars of jazz music in London, and this band gives them room to shine.

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The Jazz-people communicate: Jim Gold, “our newest band member” (right) enjoys a solo from Tom Barford “our powerhouse on tenor sax” (left)

 

Highs:

(1) Gareth Lockrane and his four flutes.  Bass trombone (Trevor Mires), flugelhorn (Tom Walsh).  Read the lists of artists they’ve recorded with, and you’ll realise that you’ve probably heard them quite a lot already.

(2) The 606 Club – friendly, good production.  (And lunch. Have you ever, mid-show, tried asking for a Sunday roast in the O2?)

 

Lows:

None reported.

 

Verdict:

Evie (Jazz-tester, 6, who thought the band lived in the 606 Club as a permanent, self-sufficient community): Please can we come back tomorrow and listen to the Jazz-people again?

Oliver (Jazz-tester, 8. No reaction for an hour after the performance, but enrolled in his school music club the following day):  My favourite was the last bit before the break.  I want to go again.

Karen (Jazz-adviser): Exhilarating, unpredictable and a sonorous delight.  A real joy to hear the flute in ways so foreign to the genre – from piccolo to bass, each was unique in its blend with other timbres and was a revelation.

Next up:

Ronnie Scott’s Blues Explosion, 10th January (evening)

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Story and photos: Matt Pannell

 

Ronnie Scott’s Blues Explosion: Sunday satisfaction

What’s JazzJanuary?

JazzJanuary performance #3

Ronnie Scott’s Blues Explosion, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London, 10th January

JazzJanuary testers: Andrew, Matt, Ziya

JazzJanuary advisers: N/A

“We’re going to funk things up in here tonight!” says Marcus Bonfanti, leader of the Ronnie Scott’s Blues Explosion.  If you’re a jazz-tester reeling from your first exposure to the Gareth Lockrane band a few hours beforehand, it’s hard not to feel a bit sceptical.  There just don’t seem to be enough bodies on the stage for it.

Tonight, though, isn’t about firepower.  This isn’t just a guitar band trying to cover Eric Clapton and calling it ‘Blues’. We’re listening to the music of Ray Charles. We’re enjoying boogie-woogie piano.  This is old-school.  And it’s a seven-piece, which means we have a rolling, tumbling trombone, saxophone and trumpet (led by Winston Rollins). Drummer Frank Tontoh sounds assured and muscular, though we’re concerned to see a series of holes in one of his cymbals.  We don’t know why – perhaps it was cheaper than the others. There’s never a jazz-adviser around when you need one to explain these things.

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Jazz-testers: no complaints here

Tonight’s testers are happy. For Ziya, it’s the venue.  Living and working in Zone 1, this is nonetheless his first visit to Ronnie Scott’s.  The same for Andrew. “This is how it should be,” he says.  “The musicianship is brilliant, the production is brilliant, the venue is brilliant.”  He’s particularly impressed with the rhythm section.  Maybe it’s just an evening away from his kids (they’re numerous, and he’s a schoolteacher by day) that’s making him so perky, but in any case, he’s enjoying himself.

There is one dark cloud on the horizon.  The ‘hold on, is this actually jazz music’ question is looming again.  Kool and the Gang crept into the NYJO setlist earlier in the week, and here we are tonight, arguing about whether the gritty Lee Dorsey song Get out of my life, Woman counts as blues or jazz.  Either way, the poor lady must have burned the dinner once too often, because the singer’s had enough.  “Get off the ladder, Woman,” he growls, “I’ve got to climb to the top.”  Perhaps she’s messed up some wallpapering, then. Like so many arguments (ours, not Mr and Mrs Dorsey’s) it is settled by Google.  Written on the original record cover is the line New Orleans Soul.  Soul, then. The further we go, and the more complicated this business is getting.

Highs:

Older blues music – this isn’t just rock music with a twist.

Lows:

None reported.

Verdict:

Whether this counts as jazz or not, it’s a sleek and satisfying demonstration.

Next up:

Alex Hitchcock Quartet, 14th January

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Alex Hitchcock Quartet: breaking through

What’s JazzJanuary?

JazzJanuary performance #4

Alex Hitchcock Quartet, Hot Numbers Coffee Shop, Cambridge, 14 January

JazzJanuary testers: Andréa, Jamie, Joff, Matt

JazzJanuary advisers: N/A

We’re halfway into JazzJanuary, and some things are looking clear. Whether they’re into jazz music or not, people will be impressed by a top-notch big band.  Maybe they’ll be captivated by some nuance of melody, but if not, they’ll be knocked off their chair by the energy of it all.  Either way, the music will make its mark.

Today’s performers don’t have the same options.  There are only four of them.  They’re in the corner of Hot Numbers Coffee Shop in Cambridge. There are no production people, no clever acoustic baffles on the ceiling, no stage, even.  That said, it’s local to all four of tonight’s testers. ‘Cycling to the jazz’ is convenient, even if the phrase sounds a bit Liberal Democrat.

This is a weekly jazz night, hosted by drummer Mark Hale. There are no tickets, just a ‘suggested donation’ of £5 for the musicians.  Happily – it’s 8pm – this friendly place sells beer as well as coffee.

If you’ve ever wondered what the Cambridge crowd of researchers does by night, they’re in here. With their laptops. Most are watching the band, but behind us, two women yibber and squawk. Doesn’t the lack of focus bother the musicians?  “Not at all,” says Alex Hitchcock with a cheerful smile.  “In the 1940’s, if an audience didn’t like a jazz band they would beat them up.  So it’s really not that bad.”

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Wine, candles, jazz, erm…laptops

The music’s not too intense.  But, Mother of Gershwin, it’s tricky to follow!   After a couple of minutes, you’re frustrated with trying to figure it out – though not with the sound itself.  When was the last time someone stood right in front of you, playing saxophone to the standard of a Royal Academy of Music student like this?  It’s quite beautiful. Drums, played on recorded pop songs in your car, are just dots of sound – bangs – like blips on a heart monitor. They serve to mark out points in time. They’re no different to parking receipts. Here, the drums sound not just live but alive. There’s a delicious woody resonance that could never quite be captured in a recording.  It’s a good moment to remember some earlier advice from a musician: “Stop trying to figure it out.  Just listen to it.  Enjoy it.”  Jazz-tester Joff is ahead of the game.  “It’s great.  When you listen to this music you can just empty your head.  Stop thinking.”

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Alex Hitchcock Quartet

The band is limbering up and finding a groove. It’s like watching a big cat on a wildlife documentary.  Although it’s yawning and stretching, there’s a certain anticipation that it might be about to kill something.  Jamie – who enjoys his music enough to build guitars for a living – is happy with this: “I love to hear a band playing within the limits…heavyweight players looking relaxed.”

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Jazz-testers Jamie, Andréa, Joff

Then they play something called The Stars Fell on Alabama.  It’s a jewel of a piece.  The music is exquisite. Here’s your fiver’s-worth, easily.  Andréa’s happy: her late grandfather used to play this with her on the piano.  If you’re older than these musicians, ask to pre-book them now.  They can play this while you’re on your deathbed.  If it’s the last thing you hear, you’ll die smiling.

Guitarist Michael De Souza doesn’t mind our questions during the interval.  Getting familiar with the more common pieces of jazz music – ‘standards’ – will mean you can follow it more often, he says. He gently points out that this goes for any music. For the players, it seems that self-indulgent solos are not seen as a sign of strength. “Everything we do, including our improvised playing, is meant to serve the music. If you’re focused on yourself – when you’re nervous, say –  you’re not playing well. Your aim should be to understand the piece so well you’ve internalised it.  Then, when you improvise, you’re listening to the rhythm section and playing for the music.  When you completely forget about yourself…that’s when you’re playing well.”

This won’t be news to musicians.  But it gives the rest of us a glimpse into the ‘bad jazz’ that’s scalded us in the past.  Those wildly flamboyant solos sounded detached from the music because – guess what – they were.  If a player takes to the stage with the aim of demonstrating his technical skills, he’s not doing it right.

Tonight’s a breakthrough in three ways.  First: a proper jazz quartet can bring listening pleasure to normal people who are new to the music. Second, it seems that even bigger rewards might be available to those who do a bit of listening in preparation. Third, the Jazz-people are not closed and remote.  They want you in. Ideally, they’d like everyone in.

Sometimes, when there’s a lot to think about, it’s good to have a bike ride home.

 

Highs:

1) Simon Read on double bass sounded “just awesome” according to jazz-tester Joff.

2) The Stars Fell on Alabama. A beautiful, delicate piece of music, played by experts, right under your nose, for a fiver.

3) The Jazz-people.  Enthusiastic, tolerant, friendly.  For the first time, we’ve encountered some above ground level (though we’ve still to see one in daylight).

 

Lows:

None reported.

 

Verdict:

Can there be a better use for £5 on a cold Thursday night in Cambridge?

 

Next up:

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra (House Big Band),  17th January

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Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra: first bump in the road

What’s JazzJanuary?

JazzJanuary performance #5

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra (house big band)

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London, 17th January

JazzJanuary testers: Andréa, Joff, Matt

JazzJanuary advisers: N/A

The traffic along Embankment isn’t such a grind when you’re this excited about the evening ahead. January’s Gareth Lockrane Band and National Youth Jazz Orchestra performances were, in the language of the Jazz-people, Killing. Big bands have so far scored a 100% hit-rate on our testers, old and young.  Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra is known for bringing together the cream of London’s jazz musicians which we’re going to lap up from the best seats. One of tonight’s jazz-testers hasn’t seen a big band, and I’m secretly wondering whether he’ll remember to put his glass down before he falls over.

We’re without the jazz-advisers again.  But our fortnight among the jazz-people is enough for us to be able to pick out some stars among the players ambling onto the stage.  There’s Callum Au, the trombone superhero.  Legendary drummer Mark Fletcher, already administering a fierce beating just to limber up.  There’s Alex Garnett, who’s rumoured to have played for the Rolling Stones. He’s holding a saxophone in one hand. With the other he’s deftly slotting together the sections of his clarinet, from his pocket.  He’s looking the other way as he does this, laughing with the guy next to him.  He’s done this before.  You know you’re facing a heavyweight band when it’s Mark Armstrong, Professor of Jazz at the Royal College of Music and Director of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, who’s standing with his trumpet in the far corner, like the new boy.

It’s another fierce big band.  For these jazz-testers, on this evening, maybe a bit too fierce.  Nobody could doubt the capabilities of these players. It’s not just a question of talent but of confidence, experience, and physical lung power.  They’re hard-wired into their instruments, their bandmates and their music (they’ve done the arrangements themselves, and composed a fair bit of it, too).  They’re the house band.  This is their territory, in every sense.

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The Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra

But there’s something that doesn’t quite hook up for the testers.  It’s us, not them.  This performance has two equally happy audiences.  The jazz aficionados are delighted to see complex arrangements being handled with such aplomb.  The tables of baby-boomers, retired early and here to blow the winnings, are enjoying the bonhomie and the booze.  We’re sitting, uneasily, somewhere in the middle.  It’s a superb performance, no question,  but we’re not clever enough to follow Herbie Hancock’s ‘Wiggle Waggle‘ at our first listen, and because its January, we can’t afford to get drunk.

Highs:

More stars than you could shake a drumstick at. If you see the names Alex Garnett or Dave O’Higgins (Saxophones), Mark Armstrong (Trumpet), Alistair White or Callum Au (Trombones) in a band lineup, go and watch.

Lows:

We struggled. Familiarity with the music would have helped, and so would a few bottles of wine.  We really missed the jazz-advisors tonight.

Next up:

Jeff Lorber Fusion, 22 January.

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Story and photos: Matt Pannell

Jeff Lorber Fusion: out of the shadows

What’s JazzJanuary?

JazzJanuary performance #6

Jeff Lorber Fusion

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London, 22nd January

JazzJanuary testers: Dan, Kate, Matt, Reena

JazzJanuary adviser: N/A

 

Ronnie Scott’s isn’t keen on photography.  It’s an odd thing, because the walls are covered with hundreds of David Sinclair’s beautiful prints.  Then again, clattering shutters and flash don’t do much for a live music performance.  And it’s no fun watching a band on the back of someone else’s iPhone.  This is why JazzJanuary photos come from a tiny, matte black, mirrorless camera that’s completely silent and emits no light – not even from an LCD screen.  Taking photos with it is no more intrusive than taking a sip from a glass.

Tonight, though, things have reached spy thriller-level. Warnings against photography are given by the folks who show us to our seats, and by the waiters, and then the guy who introduces the band.  Could Jeff Lorber be so camera-shy that he’ll flee at the sight of one, and take the first flight back to Philadelphia? Imagine being responsible for such a thing.  The lens cap stays on.

If you want to know what the man looks like, then: compact and friendly. His ears stick out slightly further than average.  In a musician, this must be a good sign. Sure enough, Jeff Lorber is a careful listener.  Just as Michael De Souza told us in Cambridge last week, jazz musicians play for the music, not for themselves. This master pianist is gently noodling away, facing across the stage and listening intently.  In the centre, under the spotlight, is the person he’s watching.  Andy Snitzer, saxophonist, is what jazz musicians call a “beast”.  Overcoming a tickly cough just into the set, he plays hard for 80 minutes, switching between alto and tenor saxophones, throwing in one fearsome solo after another, leaning and bending around like a willow tree in a gale.  He’s burning some energy – and there will be a late-night performance after this one, too.

‘Fusion’ is a new thing for all of us. It’s funky jazz, sort of.  In  pleasing way, it’s like sitting inside a 1980’s American television crime drama. The internet hasn’t helped us with the definition – in fusion, apparently, it’s up to musicians to decide what it is they’re actually fusing. We’re short of help from the jazz-advisers. Tonight, they’re nowhere to be found.  “Jeff Lorber? That’s…fusion” one had said, wide-eyed and wary, as though animals would be sacrificed on stage.

Jazz-testers Reena, Dan and Kate are too stylish and metropolitan to be scared – though Reena is concerned about the saxophonist.  “Really, he looks on the edge of dying.  He should pull one notch back.”  Everybody’s enthusiastic about the venue, especially Kate.  “I love the atmosphere in this place.  You can imagine it in earlier times.  It has that Soho naughtiness going on.”  And the band?  “Generally, I find jazz a bit hectic, except for quiet pianos which I can just switch off and listen to.  I’m also a bit worried about the saxophonist, but I love the rhythm and energy of this band.”

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Jazz-testers Dan, Reena and Kate. Photographed outside, naturally

For years, jazz-tester Dan has dedicated himself to computers, and the music that comes out of them.  Yet here he is, mouthing expletives at the crispness and verve of the rhythm.  It makes sense – Dan loves drum and bass music, and directly in front of him are drums and a bass.  His verdict is delivered a day after the show.  “I just can’t get over the gently bobbing head of the bassist, eyes closed in obvious delight coupled with the gleeful excitement of Jeff Lorber as he enthusiastically prods both piano and organ simultaneously. The music drifts out effortlessly with perfect timing and ever-increasing levels of funk. In the wrong hands or in the wrong place this could be musak for morons but in ‘Ronnie’s’ with a drop of wine, it’s elevated to magic.”

Highs:

(1) Lionel Cordew. Meticulous and savage, all at the same time.  A four-piece band leaves enough space to really appreciate what a drummer is doing. And just listen to how much this man cares about his cymbals.

(2) 80 minutes of sustained, driving saxophone from Andy Snitzer.  An impressive demonstration which split the jazz-testers (two loved it, two were concerned that he might not survive the night).

(3) Fusion. However it’s defined, this is a special sound – upbeat and fun.  A niche within a niche.

(4) Ronnie Scott’s.  Once again, a new group of jazz-testers loves this place.

Lows:

The curious aversion to photography.

Next up:

Royal Academy of Music Big Band, 29 January.

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Story and (just one, on the pavement) photo: Matt Pannell

Royal Academy of Music Big Band: back to where it started?

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What’s JazzJanuary?

JazzJanuary performance #7

Royal Academy of Music Big Band, Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London, 29th January

JazzJanuary testers: David, Matt

JazzJanuary advisers: N/A

 

If you’ve seen these folks play before and you think you know what’s coming, then you’re making a mistake.  This band doesn’t have a ‘signature sound’.  It aims to prepare students for life as freelance musicians – to get them into the habit of playing whatever’s asked of them by the most demanding customers.  The Academy invites celebrated musicians to spend a week with the students, immersing them in a particular musical style that ends in a performance like this one.

Back in November, pianist Benoit Sourisse and drummer André Charlier were the visiting experts. Their performance with this band moved the limits of what music could do, and triggered JazzJanuary. This week, the students have been working with American saxophonist David Liebman, an icon of jazz music who collaborated with Miles Davis and now claims to be ‘passing the torch’ down the generations.

From the start, things are lively.  Liebman sits centre-stage with his soprano saxophone, and makes his presence felt with fast, aggressive playing.  This comes against a background of already-busy music.  There are stabs of brass and stuttering, complex rhythms.

Thanks to a photography ban, the saxophonists who step up beside Liebman for their solos will never get to see his smile at their playing. Unconventional solos come from vibraphone, baritone saxophone and a guitar that has somehow been made to sound like an organ.

Things get more hectic.  Fracas is introduced as “sounding pretty much like the title.” It was arranged by a band leader from the US Air Force. It’s a musical version of a pub brawl. Combinations of instruments begin jockeying for space and then pile over the top of one another in madly conflicting ways.  Director Nick Smart begins to acknowledge a few players at the end of the piece, but quickly admits defeat:  “I think I’ll just introduce the whole band.”

Within a day of the performance, expert reviewers have given their verdict: ‘A blistering tour de force chart…what a night!’ writes Frank Griffith of London Jazz News.  Right now, though, both jazz-testers are struggling.  “I did try and pay attention to individual performers, but it became too hard to pick them out,” David complains afterwards.  “Every piece of music combines forgettable parts, enjoyable parts, but also some really abrasive parts.”

The final piece, Sing Sing Sing, is forceful, wild, and savage. Liebman’s solos are sounding like strangled yelps of fear. If the early part of this evening felt like riding on the back of a tiger, this feels like being eaten by one. It’s funny that all this should be happening in Duke’s Hall, a formal performance space that certainly wasn’t designed with jazz – or tigers – in mind.  Staring down on tonight’s anarchy are large paintings of Victorian scholars.  If they’re turning in their graves right now, the rotation will be jerky and erratic, in time with the music.

We find the bar afterwards.  Tom Ridout, who played an unorthodox, stabbing kind of solo on baritone saxophone, is now prodding at the jukebox.  Is that the Village People he’s repeatedly selected?  “Yesss,” he replies, with a satisfied smile.  “If we play this enough, we’ll have the place to ourselves.” This bar, it turns out, isn’t exclusively for the student Jazz-people. They don’t really have a home of their own.  Of the hundreds of students at the Academy, how many are on the Jazz Studies course, we ask.  “About thirty.”

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Jazz-tester David demands to know what was going on

We’ve been struck by the skill of this band, but we’re frustrated with David Liebman’s impossible music.  Too cowardly to challenge him, we confront the students instead. Why would someone write unfathomable music? Why would they do that to us? He’s endured a week of rehearsals and admits to having been “very frightened” ahead of tonight’s performance, but tenor saxophonist Tom Barford doesn’t bristle at the question.  If your goal is to hear something interesting, he says, is it really that hard to cope with some challenging musical moments along the way?  And if your music’s written in an entirely predictable fashion – if you know what’s coming around every corner – where’s the discovery?  Where’s the joy?
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Saxophonist Tom Barford explains

We jazz-testers must sound like angry toddlers. The day has come where we’re having to cut up our own food for the first time, and we’re feeling indignant about it. Perhaps we have indeed  been conditioned by years of orderly, predictable music. We can’t blame David Liebman for that, and the answer to our problem can’t be to demand a musical ‘safe space’ for ourselves.  Especially not in a music school.

November’s music is in the past. Get over that, and tonight’s radically different sound brings the versatility of these musicians and their Director into sharper focus. Maybe the breadth of their capability has something to do with age – they’ve simply not been alive for long enough to be stuck in a rut.  More likely, though, it’s all the standard things: talent, teaching, toil.  The student Jazz-people are an endangered minority – in the outside world and even here in this bar. To survive, they need to punch above their weight. That’s  exactly what they’ve been doing tonight.

Highs:
(1) The Academy Big Band.  More versatile than a Swiss Army knife.
(2) Nick Smart (Director). You can sense when someone’s a natural collaborator. Besides being loved by his students, he’s sympathetic to jazz-testers because he explains what’s going on.
(3) The students.  They’re not just musicians but teachers. They want to help you learn. Ask one why the music sounded so dissonant, and he’ll explain it to you. (For the record: “Dave’s chords looked like Amaj/Db#5/Amin/Ebmaj. Dave’s kind of chord has no set scale that works over it and makes some really interesting sounds. I think Stravinsky uses a lot of these in his orchestral writing.”)
(4) The Royal Academy of Music. It’s Victorian, so jazz breathes a bit of life into the place. Friendly bar, in which you can listen to YMCA after the performance. Bargain-priced tickets.

 

Lows:

(1) We over-reached ourselves with tonight’s programme. Large parts of this performance were beyond us.

(2) Another venue with an aversion to photography.

Next up:

Steve Gadd Trio, 8th February

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Story and photos: Matt Pannell

Bilcher, Hemmer, Gadd: calling time

What’s JazzJanuary?

JazzJanuary performance #8

Bilcher, Hemmer, Gadd.  Pizza Express Jazz, 8th February

JazzJanuary tester: Matt

JazzJanuary advisers: Joel, Nick

It’s 23:08.  Do you make a run for the last train home, or stay to the very end of the performance?  Tonight it’s a pointless question.  Whether you have a train to catch, work in the morning or a house fire to extinguish, to leave before this music finishes would be unthinkable.

Right in front of you is Steve Gadd, playing an ordinary-looking drum kit under ordinary-looking lights.  He’s supporting Michael Bilcher (saxophone, flute) and Dan Hemmer (Hammond organ) as they play some tunes.  This is what the world’s most influential drummer does for a living, and it’s clear that he doesn’t like to make a fuss. Unless you’ve seen this guy play before, though, the sound is like nothing you’ve ever heard.

Dr Gadd’s subtle enough to let you concentrate on the melodies, which are lilting and playful and pretty.  Bilcher explains afterwards that they’re as much inspired by folk and gospel music as jazz. Their frequent changes of pace draw you back to the drum kit.  It’s being carefully operated.  Gadd works efficiently and thoughtfully, with a real economy of movement. There’s nothing frantic or flamboyant happening.  The metal rims of drums are struck.  Sometimes the thick end of a drumstick is brought down vertically onto a cymbal which might also have been tapped horizontally, on its sharp edge, by the rubber handle of a brush. There are no great secrets being revealed – these are techniques used week in, week out by tonight’s jazz-advisers, a pair of session drummers. But it’s an unusual sound. In his workmanlike way, Gadd is making some special music.

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No energy is wasted at this workstation

It’s an exciting way to end Jazz January, especially for the advisers. “The kit sounds…amazing,” says Nick, shaking his head slightly.  Pressed for a bit more detail, the advisers turn to technique.  “His placement is perfect,” offers Joel.  In what sense? The place on the drum where the stick lands, or the place in time?  “Both.  And his placement of his sound within the ensemble.  It’s perfect in every sense.” It’s this, and his acute sense of time, that has made this man not just the drummer’s drummer but every musician’s drummer.

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Belcher, Hemmer, Gadd

Notes do indeed fall as delicately as raindrops.  It’s all drawn together with an unhurried solo in New Orleans. The drumkit becomes an orchestra. There are little clicks, licks and taps and sparkly shimmers from cymbals, and the drums themselves have expressive voices, clean and open-sounding.  Of course there’s swing and drive, but the aggression’s perfectly channelled into the song.  Even the missing beats – the ‘ghost notes’ – are a delight.  Patterns of sound are laid over one another in a way that pulls your view right back from this stage to your English lessons at school, where the romantic poets played with the rhythms of nature: seasons, tides, heartbeats, dusks and dawns.  This man can pull all those layers of time apart and then mesh them back together.  If you’re not a religious person, it’s like listening to nature itself.  If you are, you might use an even stronger comparison.

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Joel, Nick and Dr Gadd. The advisers become the advised

Tonight’s jazz-advisers have studied Gadd’s books and videos for years, and they’ve seen him play before.  Never this close, though, and the display has made an impression. They meet the great man afterwards.  He gives them friendly advice while they stammer a bit. His half-dismantled drum kit is regarded with quiet reverence for several minutes, like a shrine.

It’s time to go home.  JazzJanuary has gone beyond January and beyond the hour when the trains stop running.  So much to listen to, so little time.

Highs:

(1) The man. He’s at the top of his game, famous around the world and presumably quite wealthy.  He’s also 70.  It’s midnight.  He’s 5,000 miles from home and he has to get to Germany tomorrow.  He could have been in bed an hour ago, but he’s standing in the basement of a pizza restaurant, giving some words of encouragement to Joel and Nick.

(2) The music.  ‘Perfect’ is a big word, but who’s to argue with a jazz-adviser?

Lows:

It’s a long way home when you’ve missed the train.

Next up:

Result and conclusions.

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Story and photos: Matt Pannell

 

Result and conclusions

Result

Jazz music works on normal people.

Conclusions

Every normal person should immediately get a jazz-adviser and listen to some new music, because…

Jazz music might not be what you think it is

Any jazz-adviser will tell you that the word ‘jazz’ describes a process (musicians collaborate and improvise) more than an output. It really isn’t about a certain style or sound. Look at the listings page for a jazz club and you’ll see the words Soul, Blues, Cuban, Latin, Funk, Swing, Gospel, Hip-hop, Bop, Pop, and on and on.  Not long ago, Ronnie Scott’s had a Flamenco night, for heaven’s sake. If you think you hate jazz music, you might be the guy who won’t touch Italian food because he once choked on an olive.

You’re already enjoying it

Remember the horsemeat scandal of 2013? It didn’t matter whether you were biting into a Findus lasagne or a Waitrose burger, somewhere in there was Romanian horse.  So it is with music.  If you loathe jazz and want it out of your diet, you’d better start by binning all your music that was recorded after 1900 because that was when jazz started to work its way into the supply chain of music.  The same for the musicians themselves.  The ‘jazzers’ – anonymous but versatile – are filling recording studios all over the world.  They’re recording with the pop artists you know and love. They’re the engine that powers popular music.  If you don’t like that, you’d better go back to Beethoven.

The music gives you more

JazzJanuary’s performances scored one direct hit after another, on testers of all ages.  If you’re a normal person and you’d been there with us, chances are this music would have worked on you, too.  Besides, even if the songs aren’t your cup of tea, the musicianship is mind-bending.  Once you’ve watched Steve Gadd play a drumkit, you’ve seen the instrument explored to its known limits.  From that day on, whatever music you’re listening to, if there are drums in it you’ll hear them in higher resolution. You’ve had the musical equivalent of a cataracts operation.  As the surgeons say, these treatments are life-enhancing.  You shouldn’t delay them.

The venues give you more

To watch the best pop music you’ll need to get yourself to an arena, whereas leading jazz artists can be seen at the 606 Club.  There, you’ll sit within 20 feet of the band, and when you arrive, instead of searching your bag, they’ll offer to hang it up for you.  Then, the cheerful staff will bring you a drink.  By comparison, the O2 will charge you four times as much for your ticket, whether standing (you’ll be able to hear but not see) or seated, which means you’ll see but not hear. The number of high-visibility vests on show make an O2 performance feel less like a celebration of music and more like the scene of a motorway accident.  There are queues everywhere and a plastic cup of beer costs more than the Trident programme. We’ll all carry on watching arena bands, of course, but it takes a jazz club to remind us of the price we pay for our pop music habit.

The musicians give you more

The musicians we’ve been watching are among the most skilled and talented of all the Jazz-people, yet they’ve found time to speak to us after their performances. Us jazz-testers have asked some daft questions, yet still managed to go home without the imprint of a saxophone across our faces.

The next generation of musicians will give you even more

JazzJanuary has revealed where the jazz-people come from. There are schools for them, as there are for vicars. But how could a ‘Jazz Studies’ course possibly prepare a student for the business of earning a living? There are certain things demanded by industry – ‘Entrepreneurship, Commitment, Agility, Collaboration’ – that you hear a lot from business graduates, but not from musicians.  Well, it turns out the student Jazz-people don’t use these words because they’re too busy living by them.

You want agile?  How about 10 seconds’ notice to stand and play an improvised solo? Collaboration?  That’s what jazz music’s founded on. Entrepreneurship? These students are freelancers before the end of their first term. They’re expected to get out into the world, sell their skills, perform and earn.  Not for them, the orderly transition from education into ‘the world of work’. There’s no HR department waiting to look after them. No graduate scheme, no pension plan. If they seem a bit nocturnal, it’s not because they’re lazy, it’s because they’re the bomber crews of students: going out by night, unsure of what’s awaiting them.  They’ll continue like this, on a wing and a prayer, for another five years before they can hope to become established their field. But they’ll push on, no matter what the odds. That’s the ‘commitment’ bit covered.  Besides their astonishing output (see NYJO and Royal Academy Big Band tests) these people offer friendly advice at every turn. They’re the best role models your kids could meet.

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What next?

What should I do next?

Get a jazz-adviser

Not a snob for whom jazz is the only thing worth listening to.  Just someone who loves music, knows your tastes and can point you to some interesting performances.

Listen to the sounds you like…

…not the genres you like. Is it melodies, rhythms or voices that float your boat?  Do you love the impact of a big band, or the clean, spare sound of a piano trio?  Listen to what you like, and don’t worry so much about arbitrary categories of music.  Classification is for librarians and plane-spotters, not for musicians.

Have a read of this

Dave Gelly’s 30-second jazz: the 50 crucial concepts, styles and performers, each explained in half a minute is the jazz-tester’s bible. You want one short page on The Trumpet, or New Orleans, or Ella Fitzgerald?  It’s all here.

Enjoy the music

If you run into a spot of jazz-confusion and find yourself grimacing, don’t worry about it.  It’s really not the end of the world. Every interesting book, film or friend contains certain things that you can’t entirely understand.  Follow the Barford Doctrine: stop trying to solve music as though it’s a puzzle.  Just listen, and enjoy it.

What will JazzJanuary do next?

Jazz music worked so well on normal people that although the trial is finished, the programme of music will go on. Tickets have been booked for performances far into the future. JazzJanuary’s advisers, testers – even some of the musicians – have been collaborating:

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Sophie, Jazz-tester on 10th January (Gareth Lockrane Big Band) uses her new alto saxophone to announce her defection to the Jazz-people on 20th February.  A month later, saxophone expert Alex Hitchcock gave her an hour’s help, proving that the Jazz-people look after their own.

School

Jazz-advisers Karen Cheney (schoolteacher) and Joel Barford  (session drummer, pictured)  used January to plan a jazz workshop for these sixth-formers…

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…Note the school’s existing drums, sidelined in favour of the sleek instruments provided by the visitor. The workshop was described as “awesome”. One school pupil is reported to have played the drums every lunchtime since.

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Oliver, jazz-tester on 10th January (Gareth Lockrane Big Band) took up music the following day.  After 10 months of learning the clarinet in school he was ready to join the Jazz-people and was initiated in a single lesson on 12th November by the legendary Jim Gold, who is known as “The Obi-Wan of the alto saxophone”.

Next up…

Performances seen since the end of JazzJanuary’s test phase (top of list) to present day (bottom of list):

Royal Academy of Music Big Band, again (Duke’s Hall)
Guildhall Big Band featuring Liane Carroll and Ralph Salmins (Barbican – plus advisers)
Alex Hitchcock Quartet, again (Hot Numbers, Cambridge)
Resolution 88 (Pizza Express)
W3 Jazz Jam (Ronnie Scott’s)
Jochen Rueckert Quartet featuring Mark Turner (Pizza Express – plus advisers)
Shayna Steele (Pizza Express)
Magnus Öström Quartet (Ronnie Scott’s)
Tom Barford Quintet (The Oxford)
Chris Higginbottom Quartet featuring Tom Cawley (Ronnie Scott’s – plus advisers)
John Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen (Ronnie Scott’s – plus advisers)
Freddie Gavita Quartet (Ronnie Scotts – only half the set)
Resolution 88, again (CB2, Cambridge)
Tal Janes’ Bahla, Will Barry Trio, Ashley Henry Trio (The Vortex – Royal Academy of Music finals, guitar and piano)
King Solomon Hick Quartet (Café Central, Madrid)
Zhenya Strigalev Trio (Hot Numbers, Cambridge)
Laurence Juber & Nick Fitch (Pizza Express)
Mark Hale Trio featuring Saul Rubin (Hot Numbers, Cambridge)
James Pearson’s 100 Years of Jazz Piano (Ronnie Scott’s)
Gareth Lockrane Big Band, again (606 Club)
Barford-Stoneman Organ Quintet (Hunter Club, Bury St Edmunds)
Eat Logic (606 Club)
Steve Gadd Quintet featuring Michael Landau (Ronnie Scott’s – plus advisers)
Allison Neale Quartet (Ronnie Scott’s)
National Youth Jazz Orchestra, again (Saffron Hall, Essex)
Jim Gold trio, Ben Treacher Trio (The Vortex – plus advisers)
Mark Giuliana Quartet (Ronnie Scott’s – plus advisers)
Josh Kemp Quartet (Ronnie Scott’s)
GoGo Penguin (The Junction, Cambridge)
Zoe Gilby Quartet (Cadogan Hall – LJF)
Tal Janes’ Bahla, again (The Omnibus – LJF)
Alex Hitchcock Quintet, Ashley Henry Trio (The Green Note – LJF)
Tim Garland Trio (Wigmore Hall – LJF – plus advisers)
Major Swing (The Grapes, Cambridge – CJF)
Cesca, Mode 9 (La Raza, Cambridge – CJF)
Anita Wardell / Robin Phillips Trio (The Gonville Hotel, Cambridge – CJF – plus advisers)
Caxton Swing featuring Alan Barnes (The Leys School, Cambridge – CJF)
Resolution 88, again, Binker Golding Quartet,  (La Raza, Cambridge – CJF)
Zeñel, Trio HLK,  (Hot Numbers, Cambridge – CJF)
Ben Creighton-Griffiths, Laura Jurd’s Dinosaur, Will Barry / Alex Hitchcock (Clare Cellars, Cambridge – CJF)
Bill Stewart trio featuring Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein (Ronnie Scott’s – plus advisers)
Jacob Collier, Asaf Sirkis, Stian Carstensen, Rob Mullarkey (Ronnie Scott’s – plus advisers)
Gareth Lockrane Big Band, again (606 Club – plus advisers)
Jon Cleary, again (Ronnie Scott’s)
Ben Wendel Group (Ronnie Scott’s – plus advisers)
Chanan Hanspal Trio (Hot Numbers, Cambridge)
Jim Gold Quartet (Ronnie Scott’s)
Resolution 88, again (Mildenhall Social Club, Suffolk)
Jasper Høiby’s Fellow Creatures (The Vortex)
Billy Marrows Octet (Iklectik Arts Lab)
Yussef Kamaal (Koko – Yussef absent from the band)
Brad Mehldau trio (St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich)
Buddy Rich Big Band featuring Dave Weckl (Ronnie Scott’s)
Nate Smith + Kinfolk (Ronnie Scott’s)
Joshua Redman Trio (Ronnie Scott’s)
Joe Lovano Quartet (Ronnie Scott’s)
Mark Guiliana Quartet, again (Ronnie Scott’s)

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Bonus performance: Jazz Repertory Company plays Benny Goodman

What’s JazzJanuary? 

JazzJanuary performance #9

Pete Long and his Goodmen play the 1938 Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert, Cadogan Hall, London, 12th March

JazzJanuary testers: Oliver (8), Finn (10), Jack (12), Joseph (14), Andrew, Matt B, Matt P (much older)

JazzJanuary advisers: None

Tonight’s going to be a tricky one. In the front row, we have the PlayStation generation. Brothers Joseph, 14 and Jack, 12, are joined by Finn, 10, and Oliver, 8. Our youngest tester is the only one to have seen jazz music played live.  In front of them, a formal-looking band is assembling on a formal-looking stage. There’s a fair amount of grey hair.  They’re preparing to play three hours of music from the past.

This band, though, turns itself on like a lightswitch.  Director Pete Long raises his clarinet, and sound is suddenly just there. This already feels like a party trick.

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Jazz-tester Jack, 12

The Jazz Repertory Company has taken this programme from a landmark jazz music performance in 1938 and aims to re-create that historic evening.  Benny Goodman’s big band performance in Carnegie Hall marked a turning point in music – and in American society.  It was the moment at which jazz music became respectable. The great and the good of New York filled an upmarket classical music venue to hear something new, advertised as from Louisiana’s swampland….full of improvisations, of life bubbling up in the music from musicians who feel it.  The audience left happy. Suddenly, swing music was not only socially acceptable but popular – the reach of the concert having been extended by a live radio broadcast.

Historians quibble over some of the details.  Was this or wasn’t this the first performance in North America in which black and white musicians shared a stage without the fabric screens that had previously been used to hide black players from view?  This is a practice that has to be explained to the junior jazz-testers twice.  They’re not outraged that such a thing ever happened, more confused. It’s simply outside their terms of reference.  We’ve come a long way since 1938, though it’s an ironic twist that we don’t see any black people in Cadogan Hall tonight, on or off the stage.

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Tester’s view of the performance. Here, the full band is temporarily reduced to a quartet

To say they’re playing with ‘verve’ or ‘gusto’ wouldn’t do justice to this band.  As they romp through the programme, we get some savage touches. Pete Long’s clarinet on Ted Lewis’ When My Baby Smiles at Me is un-tamed.  Simon Marsh (saxophone) gets a silent thumbs-up from two testers after Duke Ellington’s Blue Reverie.  Enrico Tomasso (trumpet) is a self-propelled bundle of exuberance.  He rushes to the front of the stage for his volcanic solos, which the testers love.  He’s particularly effective alongside guitarist Nils Solberg for Bix Beiderbecke’s I’m Coming Virginia.

It’s past bedtime, and Finn’s huge afternoon dose of Coca-Cola has worn off.  He’s yawning. Mid-song, Pete Long strolls over and sits on the edge of the low stage, so they’re face-to-face.  He plays an extended and very lively clarinet solo. At this distance every touch, every sinewy little detail, is heard and seen in the highest possible resolution. It’s a wake-up call, literally.  “You won’t fall asleep now, will you?” smiles the man, offering a friendly handshake as the band plays on behind him.  It goes down, of course, as Finn’s highlight of the evening.

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Jazz-tester Finn (10)

In keeping with the 1938 concert, there’s some flexibility in the setlist.  Back then, a mid-show jam session over-ran, wrecking the schedule.  Tonight, a merry heckler interrupts the applause at the end of a tricky piece: “Play it again!”  “Alright, we will,” comes the reply, “if you lot dance.”  Pretty much everyone dances. Drummer Richard Pite gets so stuck into Chinaboy that his brushes disintegrate. Briefly, he’s drumming one-handed as he scrabbles for his sticks and pieces of wire spray around the stage. Finn is from Norfolk, which means he’s not prone to displays of emotion. Usually, he’s as inscrutable as Ernst Blofeld’s cat, but he loves all this.  There’s laughter, applause, more dancing. Have some barriers crumbled?  Were they really there to begin with? Either way, it’s a special atmosphere.

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The verdict.  Junior testers, left-right: Finn (standing), Joseph, Jack

Oliver took up music lessons straight after January’s performance by the Gareth Lockrane Big Band, and his new clarinet goes everywhere with him.  In the foyer, as we’re leaving, Pete Long identifies the instrument by the size of the case.  “Come on, then,” he says,  “let’s have a listen.”  The one-minute performance gets a thumbs-up.  “He’s doing it right.  The timing’s there.”  For this child, it’s not the nuance in the feedback that matters, but the fact that one of the world’s most accomplished clarinetists and bandleaders has stopped by to listen.  It’s half-past ten and he’s asleep on his feet, but this junior jazz-tester is a happy one.

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The after-party.  Oliver gets a quick clarinet-inspection from band leader Pete Long…

 

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…and is asked to give a demonstration

Before he became famous for snitching on the Queen during the brexit debate, Michael Gove used to be the Secretary of State for Education.  One of his more curious aims was to eviscerate music teaching in schools, to make way for an array of Victorian-era English grammar exams.

Here’s where you come in. If you know some kids and you can afford it, buy them some tickets to watch this band. They’ll be soaking up social history, top-drawer musicianship, beautiful songs and a whole notion of music as unpredictable, unruly and fun. They’ll spend a fair part of the evening on their feet, dancing or clapping or both.  That’s what this music did to kids in 1938.  That’s what it was created for. It’s impossible not to smile, when you see it working just as well today.

Highs:

1) The experience. These kids loved the spectacle, sound, style and swing of a 1930s big band.

2) The Jazz-people.  Yet again, they’re enthusiastic, tolerant, generous.

Lows:

None reported.

Verdict:

Jack (12): “I liked the drummer and the trumpet guy.  Did you see that dancing man with the long arms?”

Finn (10): “The main guy was my favourite.  The best bit was when he played right in our faces.”

Joseph (14): “The trombonists were really good.  And the piano guy.  And the leader of the saxophones.  All of them, really.”

Oliver (8): “Brilliant.”

Next up:

Much, much more music (see What next?) But no more writing: JazzJanuary is over.

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Story and photos: Matt Pannell