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


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.”


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?

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.

(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.



(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


Story and photos: Matt Pannell

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