REVIEW: Lizz Wright and Frankfurt Radio Big Band at the 2016 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Lizz Wright. Photo credit: John Watson / (c) jazzcamera.co.uk

Lizz Wright and Frankfurt Radio Big Band
(Town Hall, Cheltenham. 30 April 2016. Review by Peter Jones.)


Although many of the Cheltenham audience had turned out to see Lizz Wright, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, conducted by Jim McNeely, was officially the headline act. Wright was merely fulfilling the function of singer for its programme of specially commissioned Gershwin arrangements. Always a shy performer, she may have secretly appreciated this format, since McNeely made all the announcements, and all she had to do was sing.

One is constantly amazed at the sheer number of famous tunes written by George and Ira Gershwin (a more recent equivalent would be Bacharach/David). Tonight there was a mixture of renowned standards and lesser-known numbers – They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Summertime, ‘S’wonderful, How Long Has This Been Going On, but also Walkin’ The Dog (AKA Promenade), Who Cares?, Slap That Bass – all tailor-made for the older Radio 2 audience packed into the magnificent Cheltenham Town Hall.

Wright’s clear diction revealed the archness and wit of Ira’s lyrics, e.g. rhyming ‘little velvet panties’ with ‘an inferno worse than Dante’s’. Her resonant, swoony contralto was as striking as ever, but of course there were limits to what could she do within the restrictions of the big band set-up, within which a singer rarely gets the chance to improvise, only to interpret a fixed musical part.

With a pedigree that includes the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, Copenhagen’s DR Big Band and the Dutch Metropole Orchestra, McNeely carries a great deal of authority, but the new arrangements were surprisingly bland; on the way out, several audience members commented on this, particularly the arrangement of Summertime. The original, as we all know, is langorous, but its power lies in its spooky, otherworldly quality; this version was merely soporific - the ghosts had fled.

An added issue is the nature of Lizz Wright’s voice: it’s a low, velvety, caressing voice, perfectly suited to the slow, swampy music of her native Georgia. However, one of the joys of live big band concerts is the sheer power and excitement that a large ensemble can generate, particularly when fronted by a dynamic singer. On this occasion, one became increasingly desperate for a bit of ass-kicking, a bit of risk-taking. But only Fascinatin’ Rhythm briefly caught fire, thanks to some fine drum and tenor sax soloing. Then it was back to the Ovaltine and slippers with Embraceable You.

LINK: Preview/Interview about the Frankfurt Radio Big Band's visit to Cheltenham

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