REVIEW: Close to you – Matt Ford at the Pizza Express Dean Street

Close to you – Matt Ford sings with the James Pearson Quintet & the Tippett Quartet
(Pizza Express, Dean Street, 24th June 2014. Review by Peter Vacher)

Football on the TV, temperatures suggesting summer had arrived, yet this venerable jazz venue was packed to the gunwales. Good news for lovers of quality music, wouldn’t you say? It turns out that drummer Matt Skelton, pianist James Pearson and trombonist-arranger Callum Au had long cherished the idea of re-creating Frank Sinatra’s classic Close To You album, the one where the great man sang a series of fine standards with the Hollywood String Quartet in arrangements penned by Nelson Riddle. No mean feat and signal to it was the choice of the experienced singer Matt Ford, known these days for his appearances with the John Wilson orchestra to carry the necessary vocal responsibility. Oh yes, and the ability to successfully marry the string passages with a jazz backing.

Step forward Au who transcribed the original charts, supplied some of his own and played neat trombone on the bandstand. Add in a sympathetic string quartet and moustachioed harpist Hugh Webb, plus multi-instrumentalist Howard McGill and bassist Calum Gourlay alongside Au, Pearson and Skelton and you have both a formidable array of talents and a substantial ensemble to cram on to the Pizza bandstand for this debut performance.

As one observer put it, where else would you hear such distinctive, timeless music, tailored with such care yet still sounding so fresh? And that’s a tribute not only to the inspiration behind the original album but to the talents of those on view here. Ford knows and feels these sings, letting them breathe, making the dynamics work, good on ballads and hip on the swingers, not seeking to ape Sinatra but faithful to the idiom, while the integration of strings and jazzers appeared seamless. All the guys soloed, Au’s backing bits and pieces were spot-on and it was a stroke of genius to incorporate Webb’s harp glissandi and lush counterpoint.

All in all, a very classy production and one that clearly has potential in an age when a yearning for the safe ground of recognisable melody is ever more evident. Is it just nostalgia? Maybe, but this audience didn’t wait to be asked, whooping, hollering and cheering every song. My favourite among many was the swinging version of I Won’t Dance inspired by the Basie-Sinatra collaboration, then again there was Pearson’s keyboard tribute to Oscar Peterson’s Sinatra album with ‘Witchcraft’ and McGill’s heated alto on an all-instrumental version of Just Friends borrowed from Bird with Strings. So plenty to enjoy here, and yes, to revive Close to You was eminently worthwhile, made more so by the artistry of all concerned and the inherent quality of the original source material.

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