REVIEW: Buck Clayton Legacy Band at SJE Arts, Oxford

Buck Clayton Legacy Band in Gateshead
Photo credit: John Watson / Jazzcamera

The Buck Clayton Legacy Band: Duke Ellington Tribute.
(SJE Arts, Oxford. Fri 20th March 2015. Review by Alison Bentley)

You never know with jazz in churches. Would Oxford’s newest venue, the Victorian church of St John the Evangelist, enhance the sound of the Buck Clayton Legacy Band or seem more like Paddington Station at rush hour? We could relax: from the start, the blend of the five horns and rhythm section, with only the double bass amplified, was thrilling.

Bassist, writer and broadcaster Alyn Shipton and German saxophonist/clarinettist Matthias Seuffert formed the band in 2004 to play charts donated by Clayton himself, a close friend of Duke Ellington. This gig focused on pieces by Ellington (arranged by Tony Faulkner) and his sidemen Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn (mostly arranged by band member Alan Barnes, with a few by Andy Panayi). The music ranged from the 20s to the 50s, programmed according to varying tempos, moods and instrumentation, rather than chronologically.

Ellington’s swinging Stomp, Look and Listen was given weight by the church’s echo- a huge rush of sound, though the big band original had been pared down. The audience at first seemed a little nervous about applauding solos in a church, but soon got carried away by their enthusiasm. Hodges’ Globe Trotter had a lively swing too, held by Shipton’s strong bass pulse and (last minute dep) Clark Tracey’s sensitive drumming. The solos bubbled up between the simple horn backing riffs. Hodges’ Frisky was a little slower, Seuffert and Robert Fowler trading tenor 4s that sounded like a single seamless solo. Ellington’s Tonight I Shall Sleep (With a Smile in My Face) had Barnes leading the slow, luscious harmonies with a swooning Hodges tone.

Both sets were punctuated by Martin Litton’s extraordinarily virtuosic solo piano spots. He condensed the Ellington Orchestra’s 20s Washington Wabble into explosive, complex stride, playing all the parts of the orchestra simultaneously. (The second set’s Birmingham Breakdown kept a metronomic pulse with the illusion of several pianos speeding up and slowing down.) Hodges’ Sweet as Bear Meat brought out the band’s drawling bluesiness, the wah wah of Adrian Fry’s trombone and the crying wails of Seuffert’s clarinet touching the heart. Strayhorn’s Snibor had dark orchestration-tenor trombone and baritone- lightened by punchy horn riffs and judicious key changes.

Hodges’ Latino opened the second set with a brief 12 bar Afro-Latin groove. It soon settled back into swing, with Ian Smith’s trumpet punching in nicely-phrased melodies, at times raunchy, at times with a ringing tone.

Many of Ellington’s more famous pieces were written by his sidemen. ‘Strayhorn does a lot of the work,’ Ellington once said, ‘but I get to take the bows!’ Strayhorn’s Take the A Train was teasingly arranged here- complex solis and solos over the familiar chords, hints of the famous piano intro- but keeping the tune tucked away towards the end.

Johnny Hodges felt under-paid and under-appreciated in Ellington’s band, and even left for a few years. Barnes joked that Three and Six was what he’d been paid for arranging Hodges’ tune- but his solo was certainly appreciated, tremulous and growly, then a huge dramatic sound, emerging from the backings. Ellington’s 20s The Mooche was Caravan-like with its Afro-Latin chromaticisms, Smith’s wah-wah trumpet calling to the three harmonised clarinets.

Ellington once described the tenements that inspired Harlem Air Shaft (the English ‘light well’ just doesn’t have the same resonance) ‘An air shaft is one great loudspeaker, you hear people praying, fighting and snoring’. You could hear some of that in the busy overlapping harmonies and riffs of the excellent arrangement, the solos like brief interchanges.

Ellington wrote Happy Reunion, Shipton told us, for tenor-player Paul Gonsalves- working together again after their Newport Jazz Festival success. Seuffert took the key role beautifully, with hints of Coleman Hawkins’ famous Body and Soul solo. Two Hodges pieces concluded. The Jeep is Jumpin’ (over the chords to I Got Rhythm) had be-bop energy, with lots of space for solos. Shady Side (usurping the chords to Sunny Side of the Street) was more pensive, concluding with a five horn soli of great beauty.

The applause reverberated round the pillars for music arranged with such devotion, and played with such virtuosity. It couldn’t fail to put a spring in your step- and send you home to sleep with a smile on your face.

Matthias Seuffert, reeds and Alyn Shipton, bass (co-leaders); Ian Smith, trumpet; Robert Fowler, reeds; Alan Barnes, reeds; Adrian Fry, trombone; Martin Litton, piano; ClarkTracey, drums.

LINK: CD- Claytonia

1 comment:

  1. A comprehensive review that made me wish I had been there. So good that I can forgive Alison's "wabble" on "Washington Wobble"! For future concerts, can we hope for a greater Strayhorn emphasis in this his centenerary year?
    Peter Caswell
    Chairman, DESUK (The Duke Ellington Society of the UK).