LJF 2018: Big Band Bash

On his first visit to the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival, Leon Nock wallows in good old-fashioned vintage swing from the 13-piece Down For The Count

The 2018 London Jazz Festival opened on Friday 16 November in a flurry of 29 gigs. At The Other Palace pianist Mike Paul Smith turned up with nine other players plus three vocalists – known collectively as Down For The Count (pictured right) – and laid a programme they were pleased to call Big Band Bash on a receptive audience. Of the 24 numbers in the subsequent two sets none had been written – unless I am very much mistaken - later than 1947 and as they were performed as originally written (Mike Paul Smith transcribes them from the original 78s) there is no way that labels such as fusion, progressive or worse could be applied to the evening, so what we wound up with was a good old-fashioned wallow in vintage swing.

The ensemble - two trumpets, one doubling trombone; one alto; two tenors, both doubling clarinet; piano; bass; drums; guitar, plus three vocalists - boasted an average age just shy of 30 and it verges on the miraculous that young men and women – two of the musos, bass and alto, are female – are happy to adorn their short-haired, clean-cut, tattoo-free torsos with shirts, ties and evening gowns and then blow the bejesus out of charts that first stirred the loins of their grandparents those many moons ago. Having set out their stall with a rousing Sing, Sing, Sing, they plundered the respective books of Miller, Dorsey, Ellington and James, and my only cavil is that they ignored the claims of Herman, Shaw, Barnet, Thornhill etc.

With the second number, One O’Clock Jump, Mike allotted everyone four bars, name-checking as they blew so that almost immediately the audience was on first-name terms with the crew, a shrewd and effective gambit. As the evening progressed everyone got at least one solo and though it would be churlish to single anyone out I should point out that Katie Evans's alto solo after Johnny Hodges was compared favourably to Hodges himself by a member of the audience.

I was in Hawg Heaven rather than Westminster as numbers like Concerto For Cootie, American Patrol, Sophisticated Lady, Rocking In Rhythm and so many more washed over me like a tsunami of sound and I haven’t even mentioned the vocalists so far. There were three of them, two – Katie Burtill, Hannah Castleman – from the distaff side and one male, Callum Gillies. All three scored individually – This Can’t Be Love, I’m Beginning To See The Light, Shiny Stockings – but if that weren’t enough they joined with the two trumpeters, Simon Joyner and Max Fagandini to lay some swell harmonising à la The Modernaires/Pied Pipers on us.

For me it was an unalloyed pleasure to have a jazz festival kick-started by a bona fide jazz outfit, every last one of whose members knew which end to blow and just which heady musical wine to decant from a solid repertoire. The band grabbed the audience from the first downbeat and kept them enthralled right up to the encore. With groups like this out there, the LJF is in good hands and I for one will keep an eye out for further gigs.

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