REVIEW: Pizza Express All-Stars 35th Anniversary Reunion

Dave Shepherd, Digby Fairweather,  Roy Williams
Tim Huskisson, Len Skeat, Stan Bourke

Pizza Express All-Stars 35th Anniversary Reunion
(Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, 22nd February 2015. Review by Peter Vacher)

You know how it is with reunions. Glad hands all round but a certain amount of shuffling and adjustment as familiar relationships rebuild after a while apart. And so it was at Pizza Express last Sunday, as a mixed bag of one-time All-Stars came together for this one-off gig. With the ever-enthusiastic Digby Fairweather fronting, former All-Stars leader Dave Shepherd on clarinet alongside, they took a while to find their collective feet, only the rock-solid bass lines laid down by Len Skeat keeping everything on the proverbial even keel. Gradually, though, trumpeter Fairweather’s cheerful stylistic mix of Wild Bill Davison and Billy Butterfield began to gain a tighter focus, with the 86-year old Shepherd on clarinet only marginally less adroit than in his heyday and Roy Williams on trombone at or near his declamatory best. Result? A kind of freewheeling Dixieland style that gradually built up steam, the rhythm section of guest pianist Tim Huskisson [it was always the late Brian Lemon’s gig], life-long All-Star Skeat and the veteran drummer Stan Bourke seeking and finding a basis for agreement.

The last version of the All-Stars was led by the late Tommy Whittle, a man who sought and achieved musical order whenever he played, and who kept the band on a well- arranged pathway, often using charts penned by the late Allan Ganley. Candidly, I yearned for something similar rather than the ‘what are we going to play next?’ scenario that pertained here. Still, the righteous sounds achieved on There’ll Be Some Changes Made and the final Royal Garden Blues each with stunning breaks by Williams brought a smile to every face in the room. Most notably to that of the mighty Peter Boizot himself, founder of Pizza Express and this house band’s original patron and principal instigator all those years ago, down from his Peterborough home and an especially welcome visitor to this warm-hearted occasion.

Further gigs are planned and as the song wryly says, ‘things can only get better’. Still, just hearing Shepherd in a quartet version of All I Do Is Dream of You was a joy all in itself. Roll on, All-Stars!

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