REVIEW: Georgie Fame at Ronnie Scott's

Georgie Fame in 2001. Photo credit: Jacco Barth / Creative Commons

Georgie Fame
(Ronnie Scott's, 26th November 2015. First night of three. Review by Brian Blain)

Georgie Fame's three-night sell-out show with the wonderful Guy Barker Big Band at Ronnie Scott's last week would surely have been one of the high points of the previous fortnight's London Jazz Festival – had it been a part of it – fully justifying a major concert promotion. As it was, for those of us lucky enough to be there, up-close to a dynamic talent and the thrilling sound of the classic big band in full cry, this was the perfect setting.

After an early set by the James Pearson Trio with Sam Burgess and Ian Thomas (a hard-hitting treat on its own – an easy-going canter through a blues shuffle to warm up lip and loosen fingers), the main man came on to a genuinely affectionate welcome from a crowd liberally sprinkled with middle-aged women dressed in sparkly tops and their partners’ spreading waistlines, no doubt with fond memories of the mod era when he first made his mark on the British pop scene.

So, Yeah Yeah for them, then, just to get things moving. But from then on, with Blues for the Bull an elegy to London's premier jazz outpost in the suburbs, The Bull's Head (where the lad from Wigan was first inspired by Harry South, Phil Bates Phil Seamen and Dick Morrissey), the near-resident band, whose names are the basis of the lyric of this heartfelt tribute song, it was a trip through so many of the musicians he has worked with, or been inspired by, in a lifetime in music. No name-dropping exercise, but names such as as Mose Allison, Jon Hendrix, Annie Ross, Count Basie (with whom he worked on many occasions), with his navigation of the extremely tricky, ultra-slow Li'l Darlin being a living reminder, as well as inspirational musicians such as Clifford Brown and Mal Waldron, whose tussle with an out-of-tune piano led to composition Dawn Yawn, a fast killer waltz which showed Fame's grasp of time, the band's different sections jousted with each other in marvellous dissonance, to breathtaking advantage.

There were more great arrangements from musicians no longer with us, such as the ebullient, cheery scouse lead and be-bop trumpet player Alan Downey. His chart, built around Lester Young's classic solo on Sometimes I'm Happy (a great platform for the boss's hip vocalese), really allowed the rhythm section – Jim Watson(piano), Chris Hill (bass) and James Powell (drums) – to shine. We were also treated, with Jim Mullen in the unusual role for him of Freddie Green guitar anchor, to that unusual quality in today's music: a firm four foundation and a near-magical feel of floating brass and reeds. Just sublime.  

More finely-wrought charts from another wonderful writer also no longer amongst us, Steve Gray, whose work on the gospel-tinged Anthem for a Band and City Life allowed space for two tenor titans, Paul Booth and Graeme Blevins, as well as the self-effacing leader, Guy Barker. A lovely generous touch to bring on Zoot Money for a canter through James Brown's Papa's Got A Brand New Bag – “…in the studio, everybody in the band hated it, but it was the most popular track on the album…”

Oddly enough, I thought that this was the only rhythmic pulse of the whole evening that sounded oddly dated. Achilles heels Three Blind Mice and Bonnie and Clyde – “…a crap song…” – flew by; but, as ever, the vocalese treatment of Wardell Gray's solo on Little Pony was simply breathtaking, and an original ballad of Fame's, A Declaration of Love, just ravishing with its combination of lush harmony and strong melody – none of your dreary modes for this guy.

And so to an encore, and a standing ovation over Blues Backstage, plus more vocalese on Frank Foster's tenor solo after an evening of honesty and truth from a 70-plus guy who could easily wallow in showbiz bullshit if he chose. I hear lots of music that I enjoy, in all genres, but this evening actually moved me; a rare experience – in any art form.

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