Review: Stan Sulzmann's Neon Orchestra, 65th Birthday Concert at CBSO Centre, Birmingham

Stan Sulzmann's Neon Orchestra
(CBSO Centre, Birmingham, Sat. 30th Nov. 2013. Review by Alison Bentley)

Saxophonist Stan Sulzmann's CD Birthdays, Birthdays was, appropriately, on sale in the foyer. It really was his birthday, this gig being part of a three-date tour to celebrate his 65th. He was happy to be spending it with us, he said, and his 'cross-generational' band, with its 'wonderful blowers'- but the the privilege was ours, the equally cross-generational audience. The band played Sulzmann’s arrangements of compositions by other British musicians, as well as his own. He threaded tales of his life and musical experiences in with the music- Sulzmann is a fine raconteur- and this storytelling was evident in his tenor and soprano solos too.

Sulzmann has talked in interviews of the huge influence trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and pianist John Taylor have had on him: he sees Wheeler's writing as 'not just about notes on paper- there's a humanity to it, a feeling'. The same could be said of Sulzmann's own writing and arranging. 'I thought I'd be brave and arrange a Kenny Wheeler tune.’ -he introduced The Jigsaw, which Wheeler had 'given to him’ to record. Its plaintive phrases rose in constant motion through the chords. Trumpeter Henry Lowther is a veteran of Wheeler's big bands and his fine ringing solo emerged very naturally from the backing lines.

John Taylor's composition Between Moons was darker, moodier. Martin Hathaway's flute and James Allsopp's bass clarinet added an almost mystical texture. Kit Downes almost seemed to be idly stroking the piano keys in his remarkable solo, over the velvety layers of sound. While Alex Munk's guitar played agitated chromatic riffs at the lower end of the scale, the horns played bright triads in a glittering contrast. The arrangement of Mike Walker's The Clockmaker was Wheeler-like in its rich layers of harmonised counter-melodies, George Hogg's trumpet solo even having some of the distinctive high leaps of Wheeler's own style.

Sulzmann recalled first meeting a 14-year-old Iain Ballamy many years ago, gauche but brilliant, sitting in at the Bull's Head in Barnes. Now he's arranged Ballamy's tune Recedar (written for Cedar Walton). With its rising, angular Latin phrases, it got where it needed to be by a pleasingly circuitous route. Pete Hurt's sax scribbled the notes of his thoughtful solo over the smudgy colours of the trumpets and trombones. In John Parricelli’s Alfredo, the notes of the original’s guitar chords proliferated into calls and responses, Jim Hart's percussive vibes playing a pivotal role.

Nikki Iles' Westerly and Gwilym Simcock's I Know You Know were more folk-edged. The former had a 3/4 country feel, lilting and serene. Josh Arcoleo's excellent sax solo was melodic and grungy, with long powerful notes and very fast light ones, melting into the opulent horn lines. Sulzmann said I Know You Know was ' of the those tunes where you think: I wish I'd written that- along with White Christmas!' The tune crossed the bar lines like a child trying to avoid the cracks in the pavement. Allsopp's matchless bass clarinet fizzed through the Maiden Voyage-ish groove.

Sulzmann's own pieces were masterclasses in composition. Chu Chu, named for bassist Chucho Merchan was in 11/8 (some younger audience members were discussing it intently on the way out) and brought out the tougher side of Sulzmann's tenor soloing: bluesy, gutsy straight from the solar plexus- perhaps more like his hero Stanley Turrentine. His Jack Stix was dedicated to  drummer Bill Stewart, with whom he recorded it on the Jigsaw album. Robbie Harvey’s trombone solo was very expressive, over a wonderfully subtle trombone section- and not a mute in sight.

Sulzmann had been commissioned by the London Jazz Festival to write Up and Down (a 'Pop Goes the Weasel' reference to the City Road where he was born). Themes and overlapping counter-themes wove in and out of the tense chords and more relaxing ones- a strongly emotive piece. Tim Giles' drumming was powerful and always interesting, while never dominating. Eerie overtones seemed to grow out of the harmonies, in this exceptional music room where such care has been given to the acoustics.

Taking a Chance on Love was the encore, the only standard, opened by a superb Steve Reichian piano/vibes duet. As the 5/4 rhythm developed over deliciously unexpected chords, undermined by a descending bass line, love felt very chancy indeed. Sulzmann showed the more European side of his playing in his liquid, heart-touching soprano solo. The compositions and arrangements were intriguing and thrilling; the performance was immaculate, conducted unobtrusively by Nick Smart; the musicianship was astounding; the birthday was happy. And so were the audience.

Stan Sulzmann  solo saxophones
Nick Smart  musical director / conductor
Tom Walsh  trumpet
Henry Lowther  trumpet
George Hogg  trumpet
Freddie Gavita  trumpet
Mark Nightingale  trombone
Robbie Harvey  trombone
Make Bassey  trombone
Sarah Williams  trombone
Martin Hathaway  reeds
Mike Chillingworth  reeds
Josh Arcoleo  reeds
Pete Hurt  reeds
James Allsopp  reeds
Jim Hart  vibraphone
Alex Munk  guitar
Kit Downes  piano
Dave Whitford  bass
Tim Giles  drums

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