REVIEW: Lush Life : The Songs of Billy Strayhorn at Cadogan Hall (2015 EFG LJF)

Allan Harris and the Frank Griffith Festival Tentet at Cadogan Hall
Photo Credit:Patti Timura-Harris

Lush Life : The Songs of Billy Strayhorn
Cadogan Hall, 20th November. 2015 EFG LJF. Review by Peter Vacher)

Pianist-arranger Alex Webb, who conceived this show to celebrate the centenary of Strayhorn’s birth, is the local pioneer of a relatively new development in jazz presentation, the narrative concert form. Where others, like Richard Pite’s Jazz Repertory Company, seek to replicate past events, Webb looks to tell a specific story. He’s the man who dreamed up the Café Society Swing and Parker on Dial programmes, each featuring a scholarly narration and a strong commitment to appropriate jazz performance. And so it was here, with no less than three vocalists, each quite idiosyncratic, accompanied by Frank Griffith’s Festival Tentet, Webb’s informative script seamlessly delivered by Washington-born Sirena Riley, each cue summoning one or other of the vocalists to perform.

That Strayhorn was a considerable composer was never in doubt and that he was seldom given his due by Duke Ellington is equally true, all of this brought out in Riley’s readings. That he was lionised by those in the know was also the case, his talent recognised by his peers if not by the wider world. In badging this as a celebration of his songs, Webb made himself a hostage to fortune, in that a number of these pieces were first conceived by Strayhorn as instrumentals, Webb having to provide a lyric himself. For my part, I longed for more straight band performances, for there was considerable solo firepower in this ensemble, not least from Griffith himself, always persuasive on tenor, and the fiercely inventive altoist Tony Kofi, who later told me how much he’d enjoyed playing Robbie Robson’s arrangement of the immortal Blood Count. Still, for all that this this was conceived as a singer’s show.

First up was Harlem-ite Allan Harris, an engaging vocalist who has something of Nat King Cole’s ease with a song, this evident as he bounced on stage for Jump for Joy, the band sound reminding me of the Savoy Sultans of yesteryear. He stayed for two more pieces to be replaced by the overly histrionic David McAlmont, essentially a soul-oriented pop singer who deployed his falsetto on My Little Brown Book, this sparked by a thoughtful Adrian Fry trombone solo. It was Fry’s arrangement of ‘Rain Check’ [with lyrics by Webb] that brought on the hyper-active Sandra Nkaké, strutting and staying just this side of vocal mayhem on Rhumbop, before she combined with McAlmont on the evergreen Satin Doll and so it went, each singer taking turn and turnabout . With Omar Puente supreme on violin on A Train, the vocal trio then turned the climactic C-Jam Blues into a madcap romp as Duke’s Place using the Armstrong-inspired lyrics that emerged on the iconic encounter between Duke and Satchmo, as each band member soloed, pianist Peter Edwards, bandleader Griffith, Kofi and trumpeter Sue Richardson seizing their moments splendidly. Great stuff.

How better to remember Strayhorn than by performing his music? So, plaudits all round to Webb for his research and to all his performers and arrangers for this tribute. Additional sidemen would have given the band more body and it did lack a certain oomph but more time on the ball would improve that. This show deserves to be aired again. For now, let Duke have the last word. ‘God bless Billy Strayhorn,’ he said, so amen to that.

Frank Griffith Tentet:

Sue Richardson, Robbie Robson [tp]
Adrian Fry [tb]
Frank Griffith [ts,cl]
Tony Kofi [as]
Erica Clarke [bs, fl]
Omar Puente [vln]
Peter Edwards [p]
Gary Crosby [b] Rod Youngs [d]

Allan Harris, David McAlmont, Sandra Nkaké [voc]
Sirena Riley [narr]
Alex Webb [Curator].

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