REVIEW: Duke Ellington's We Love You Madly at Birmingham Town Hall

Saxophonist  Josh Schofield 
soloing with the Birmingham Conservatoire Ellington Orchestra

Birmingham Conservatoire Ellington Orchestra, directed by Jeremy Price
(Birmingham Town Hall, 3rd February 2017. Review by Peter Bacon)

In Confabulations, his small and, I assume, final book, the recently deceased polymath John Berger writes of today’s “totalitarian global-order of financial speculative capitalism” thus: “…what is being publicly said and the way it is being said promotes a kind of civic and historic amnesia. Experience is being wiped out. The horizons of past and future are being blurred. We are being conditioned to live an endless and uncertain present, reduced to being citizens in a state of forgetfulness.”

Introducing Duke Ellington’s and Billy Strayhorn’s Far East Suite, which comprised the second half of this evening, director Jeremy Price was more oblique, choosing simply to draw attention to the stark contrast between today’s U.S. foreign relations and those of 1963, when the State Department sent the Ellington orchestra off as cultural ambassadors on a Middle and Far Eastern tour which included playing in Syria.

The evening began for me with surprise and delight to discover that the band would not be up on the stage and that we, the audience, would not be confined within rows of concert seating. Large round tables were covered in white cloths, the lighting was subtle and a bubbling full house of punters, some lining up at the bar, mingled and chatted, while among them smartly-dressed young men and a woman gathered, holding musical instruments.

I was just paying for my glass of wine when a trombone sounded amid the tables (it was Price), and was soon joined by saxophones, clarinet, trumpets and more ‘bones from around the hall. As A-flat Minor, from Such Sweet Thunder, built bluesily, so the smart young things, all students at Birmingham Conservatoire, meandered towards the bandstand, set at audience level.
And so began one of the loveliest evenings of jazz I have experienced in ages.

The tunes came in threes and included more from Such Sweet Thunder (Half The Fun), a bit of Anatomy Of A Murder (Flirtibird) and the finale from the Deep South Suite (Happy Go Lucky Local) along with classics like Harlem Airshaft and Rockin’ In Rhythm (Elliington called it his most spontaneous arrangement, Price told us).

The pre-break finale was Take The A Train, but not the obvious arrangement. Again Price had chosen an oblique path with an arrangement originally written for Ella Fitzgerald which approached the famous melody and harmonies from a refreshing direction. Here the energy and fun which had built steadily during the first half erupted not only in a musically circling mass saxophone solo, but a physically circling piano solo. Four pianists had taken it in turns at the concert grand on the previous tunes, now they swapped bars of eight or four, or even three, five and seven between them in a circular parade moving from treble to bass and back round again. The band slowly pealed away to get to the bar while bassist Josh Taylor played to the end, giving out a mock long-suffering smile and receiving in return a justly deserved ovation.

If the first half had highlighted the orchestra’s section sounds, the Far East Suite gave the soloists a little more room to stretch out. Principal jazz piano tutor at the Conservatoire, John Turville, was Duke, but he looked more than happy to be eclipsed by the student soloists: Nick Brown on tenor in Tourist Point Of View and Mount Harissa, Samantha Wright on clarinet in Blue Bird Of Delhi (Mynah), Josh Schofield on alto in Isfahan, Xhosa Cole on baritone in Agra, Josh Tagg on trombone in Amad, and bassist Taylor again on Ad Lib On Nippon.

All the soloists acquitted themselves very well indeed, but special mention should go to clarinettist Wright who managed to soar above the massed orchestra without sacrificing her subtle phrasing, and to altoist Schofield who cooked up a fusion of contemporary and Ellington-era styles, doing full justice to both.

If there is one aspect of the Ellington sound that might be a struggle for modern players it is surely that swooping, swooning massed saxophone one. That the BCEO did it so well is a credit to their director’s encouragement but mostly to the players’ whole-hearted embrace of this music.

We can indeed learn so much from history - we can remember the enjoyment to be had when a band and its audience can, as Jeremy Price expressed it, “share the social space”, we can feel the joy that is created in that “crucial space between art and entertainment” (Price again in an LJN interview here) which Ellington inhabits. I can’t remember when I last saw so many wide smiles, both in the audience and on the bandstand.

Yep, forgetfulness can be resisted - and I can think of few better ways than in the company of the thoroughly inspiring BCEO.

This was the official launch concert by the Birmingham Conservatoire Ellington Orchestra: 

Trumpets: Christos Stylianedes (BMusJazz3), Max Astbury (BMusJazz2), Ashton Smith (BMusJazz1), Gareth Howler (BMusJazz1)

Trombones: Josh Tagg (BMusJazz4), Charlie Lancaster (BMusJazz4), Ashley Nayler (BMus3)

Reeds: Josh Schofield (BMusJazz4) - alto, Lewis Sallows (BMusJazz2) - alto & clarinet), Samantha Wright (BMusJazz4) - clarinet & tenor, Nick Brown (BMusJazz4) - tenor, Xhosa Cole (BMusJazz1) - baritone

Piano: Tom Harris (BMusJazz2), Will Markham (BMusJazz1), Stan Newman (BMusJazz1), Tuoyo Awala (BMusJazz1) - first half; John Turville - second half.

Bass: Josh Taylor (BMusJazz3)
Drums: Charlie Johnson (BMusJazz3)
Guitar: Jack Kinsella (BMusJazz2) - first half only.

1 comment:

  1. I was lucky enough to attend both the performance in Birmingham and Sunday afternoon's at the Southport Jazz Society where the performance of the orchestra soared again to those same heights. What was particularly heartening apart from the music and the exacting standard to which it was played was the obvious pleasure the members of the orchestra take in each other's company and talent and the spectacle of such cultural literacy in such young people. The prospect of a regular gig in a dedicated space for this fine ensemble is delightful.

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