LJF 2018: Helen Theophanous

Leon Nock says Helen Theophanous had the audience purring like a Russian Blue with her take on Sarah Vaughan and Lester Young's NYC Town Hall gig

This year’s London Jazz Festival is barely three days in and already I’m batting a thousand; having spent the first night cocooned in the sounds of Down For The Count at The Other Palace I settled for a smaller but no less talented combo at The Bull’s Head on Sunday afternoon when vocalist Helen Theophanous (pictured right), aided and abetted by John Crawford, piano, Steve Taylor, drums, Paul Morgan, bass and Tim Whitehead, tenor/soprano, made a decent fist of replicating a gig held at New York City Town Hall some 71 years ago by Sarah Vaughan, Lester Young and his Sextet.

That gig was eventually released as an album entitled One Night Stand but Blue Note took their own sweet time about it so that when it hit the stands in 1997 it’s reasonable to suppose that a percentage of the original audience were inhaling their oxygen from memory.

Be that as it may, Helen’s material comes out of the right bottle and such is the standard that she sets and maintains for the two sets that the audience is happy to overlook the odd number that although associated with Sassy could not have been heard at that particular gig, I’m speaking of stuff like Alfie, Serenata, etc.

As is often the way, proceedings kicked off with an instrumental, Stella By Starlight, which gave the quartet a chance to strut their stuff and indeed gave the audience a chance to understand why Helen was happy to let them solo in various combinations throughout both sets. The gig proper kicked off with an uptempo Don’t Blame Me, an oldie from Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, then a ballad barely hot off the press in 1947, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s Time After Time which they cleffed for Sinatra’s 1947 MGM release It Happened In Brooklyn. Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk’s Mean To Me first saw the light of day the year of the Wall Street Crash as did the one that followed, a song which illustrates perfectly the vagaries of the songwriting game. Louis Alter and Jo Trent wrote My Kinda Love in 1929 and they were queueing down 28th Street to have a stab at it; Bing Crosby with Tommy Dorsey, Fud Livingston, Walter Barnes, Claude Hopkins, Jimmy McPartland, Hal Mooney, Phil Napoleon, Frank Signorelli, Jack Teagarden, Ben Pollack, Ray Baudec and then: nothing. June Hutton had a stab at breathing new life into it with Artie Shaw, but even Sassy, who yanked it out of mothballs for the Town Hall gig, couldn’t get it to make a noise.

By now Helen had the audience purring like a Russian Blue given the run of The Four Seasons kitchen and dots like Body And Soul, April In Paris, and I Cover The Waterfront only conspired to create optimum basking conditions. If the remainder of my assignments at this years’ LJF are half as rewarding as these I’ll be one happy bunny.

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