I first caught Frank Griffith some years ago at the Vortex with his nonet and a singer. Here he is with a considerably enlarged outfit on this most welcome CD, in a big band context with Tina May guesting on vocals on three numbers. The generous 12-track disc, weighing in at just under 67 minutes, was recorded at Pinewood Studios in 2010 and 2011. It’s so highly polished, energetic and hip that it comes across like a blast not from the past, but the future — a world where the big bands never died, or at least came back fighting. And swinging.
Tina May sets things on an energetic footing right away as the disc opens with a scat intro to ‘Oh You Crazy Moon’. The singer features on a total of three tracks — the sort of proportion you might have got from a big band in the heyday of swing before the collapse of touring economics conspired to write an epitaph for the bands, and solo singers took over. The other vocal numbers are ‘That’s All’ and ‘Travellin’ Light’ and the CD as a whole represents a shrewd blend of new and old, originals and standards — even wringing fresh beauty and meaning from the old war-horse ‘Body and Soul’.
While I was already well aware of Frank Griffith’s considerable prowess as a reed player, what really hit me here was his talent as an arranger and writer. ‘Antonia’, one of his four originals, is breezy, cooking and highly organised with a light touch and great use of space. The sound throughout the album is sparing and elegant, strikingly fleet and nimble, deploying the large instrumental forces on hand so tastefully that I was occasionally startled to remember that it’s a big band and not an intimate combo I was listening to. The splendid arrangements contribute hugely to this effect, notably on the aforementioned ‘Body and Soul’, which is just ravishing.
Other highlights include a smooth, expert and swinging performance of Horace Silver’s ‘Strollin’’ and a fascinating elaboration and modernisation of the 1910 Tin Pan Alley song ‘Shine’. And while it’s difficult to single out individual players in such a tight, professional outfit I should mention John Turville’s piano, sparing and adroit on ‘Baby Won’t You Please Come Home’ and weaving sinuous shapes on ‘JCC’ (another Griffith original) and Freddie Gavita’s wonderful fluid flugelhorn solo on ‘Holland Park’ — yet another excellent Griffith composition and the track which gives the album its title.
Alastair Robertson’s Hep, one of the eminent British independent jazz labels, is to be congratulated for supporting this sumptuous release. In an age of mopeds, it’s a Rolls Royce — of the original British marque. On this evidence, reports of the big bands’ death are greatly exaggerated indeed.