REVIEW: Buck and Billie: Julia Biel and The Buck Clayton Legacy Band at SJE Arts, Oxford

Julia Biel as Billie Holiday
Photo courtesy of Ushaw Jazz Festival, Durham

Buck and Billie: Julia Biel and The Buck Clayton Legacy Band
(SJE Arts, Oxford. Wed 7th Nov 2018. Review by Alison Bentley)

"What a lovely live acoustic," said bassist and bandleader Alyn Shipton from the front of the church. "Imagine you’re in a Kansas City Dance Hall, where Buck Clayton started his career in halls with a similar resonance." It wasn’t till the second half that a couple started dancing in the aisles, but from the first piece (the boppy Outer Drive, with which Clayton began his own gigs) the joint was jumping and the audience was smiling. In the breakneck The Jeep Is Jumpin’, Adrian Fry’s trombone solo stood out, with its vocal phrasing and rich tone. Four-part horn harmonies traded licks with the bass, like delicious treats. Shady Side was a downbeat take on the chords to On The Sunny Side Of The Street, with some sweet swooping alto from Alan Barnes.

Billie Holiday was a friend of Buck Clayton – they toured together in Count Basie’s band and recorded many albums. Resplendent with signature white flower in her hair, the excellent Julia Biel joined the sharp-suited band for Back In Your Own Backyard (“It’s the duty of the musicians to be neat about the neck,” Clayton used to say.) With her strong stage presence, the crying tone of Biel’s voice was very like Billie’s; Biel had Billie’s way of singing way behind the beat, so making the band’s immaculate grooves even more exciting. The original string arrangement of I’m A Fool To Want You had been pared down to four horns (hats off to Menno Daams and Adrian Fry who had shared arranging duties for the band). Fry’s trombone weaved gorgeously in and out of Biel’s vocals, whose emotional delivery made the big space feel intimate.

The pulsing minor swing of My Man allowed Biel to phrase freely alongside Jonathan Vinten’s sparkling piano trills. What A Little Moonlight Can Do evoked Benny Goodman with Alan Barnes’ and Michael McQuaid’s clarinet duet. In These Foolish Things, the voice was exposed, supported by just piano, bass and drums. Biel closed her eyes and drew us into the mood. At times, you could hear a more modern sensibility in her tone – the way, say, Erykah Badu has her own distinctive voice along with some of Billie’s gamine timbre.

The second set featured more songs associated with Billie: the instruments were fewer than in the originals, but the arrangements never lacked intensity or variety. The vocal line skated on the sumptuous four-horn harmonies; in the thrilling Swing Brother Swing it sounded relaxed, with a fierce energy mirroring Clark Tracey’s powerfully swinging drums. Ian Smith’s trumpet came to the fore in two ballads, Good Morning Heartache and Easy Living. The first had a slow thoughtful solo, while the muted trumpet circled the vocals bluesily in the second. The punchy swing of I Hear Music sparked an exceptional solo from McQuaid’s tenor.

Billie’s own co-written God Bless The Child was sung with an astringent bluesy twist, using the voice as an instrument, the way Billie did. The harmonised horns were like a personality all by themselves, interacting in You’re My Thrill. The taut swing of Now Or Never with its Basie-esque horn riffs, had the audience yelling for an encore. Shipton called My Old Flame “a hymn to amnesia” ("I can't even think of his name.") But this was a gig to remember, and the audience was reluctant to let the band go. This tribute to Buck and Billie was never pastiche, but played and sung with a very present vitality and personality.

LINK: Interview with Alyn Shipton about this project from 2017

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