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London Jazz Orchestra with Brigitte Beraha and guest Vincent Gardner
(Vortex, 10th Janusry 2016. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

I lost count of the number of premiere performances this afternoon. The London Jazz Orchestra's monthly residence at the Vortex is on of those regular events by a constantlycreative group of players who also write music. It happens quietly, in front of a small  audience, but throughout its history of more than two decades LJO has brought a vast collection of new works into being. Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor and Pete Saberton were all writer-player-members. It is the kind of organisation for whose astonishing cumulative achievement - perhaps one day? - the rules of the British Composer Awards should be skewed.

On this occasion, the presence of a solo vocalist unparalleled in speed of uptake of new material, in reading ability, and in sheer virtuosity Brigitte Beraha had inspired quite a few new compositions from among others saxophonist Josephine Davies and Stuart Hall.

Beraha's versatility and expressive range were perhaps seen at their most complete in the juxtaposition of two completely contrasted works. After a powerful, angular, angry new composition by Martin Hathaway entitled The Silent Assasins, which had demanded all kinds of extended vocal pyrotechnics, came the harmonically perfumed lushness of Pete Hurt's arrangement of Moonlight in Vermont. Beraha was also featured as composer of her own new work, Some Time in a measured, steady 5/4, with all variety of creative fills from drummer Paul Clarvis.

The band also invited guest trombonist Vincent Gardner, a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to the stand for the closing numbers. Gardner is over here for the educational projects which are currently in preparation, with NYJO, the NYJO Academy and the Young Jazz East Big Band in anticipation of the full JALC orchestra's visit to the Barbican in mid-February

He soloed on Scott Stroman's busy chart written in Miami in the 1980s of Never Never will I Marry, and the closer, Charles Mingus' Strollin', in an arrangement for full band by Scott Stroman, which brought to the fore the powerful, commanding playing of bassist Alec Dankworth.

Pete Saberton, London Jazz Orchestra, Guildhall Jazz Band -
The Saberton Album
(Babel Label BDV15138. CD Review by Jack Davies)


On a few occasions, I was lucky enough to stand crowded amongst the London Jazz Orchestra’s trumpet section on the small stage of Dalston’s Vortex Jazz Club. I remember staring, baffled, at Pete Saberton’s inscrutable face as the curious opening of Dragon Fever unfolded. Playing Sabbo’s music alongside the composer and his LJO will remain one of my fondest memories.

Saberton’s artistry was to extract new sounds from the traditional big band through unending melodies. His pieces are puzzling, challenging, warm and unpretentious. Pete’s classical training seeps through his music, which avoids repetition and is composed from beginning to end. This is big band music with snare drum, trumpet staccati, whole-tone woodwind and piano ostinati.

The Saberton Album aims to rectify a sad lack of recorded evidence of Saberton’s work. It’s a pity that only two of the album’s tracks feature the LJO with Saberton at the piano; these two tracks should be cherished.

Largely recorded in 2013, after Pete had passed away, Alcyona Mick is left to take up the piano chair on six of the album’s eleven tracks. She deftly weaves imaginative solos which complement Saberton’s music – her playing on Trilogy is a delight.

A single Saberton solo shows the frame on which his big band music was constructed. In it you can imagine Noel Langley's and Henry Lowther’s trumpets, Pete Hurt’s flute, Martin Speake’s saxophone and the LJO’s thundering trombones.

This album is at its best when the London Jazz Orchestra unpick the majesty of Saberton’s written music. It was written for these players, and theirs is the sound which Saberton held in his mind. The Guildhall Jazz Band, under the LJO’s Scott Stroman, deliver an assured performance that belies their youth.

Pete Saberton should be remembered as one of Britain’s best modern composers. The Saberton Album is a worthy tribute to the great man, and a faithful study of his enigmatic music.

Roger Farbey at Music In The Garden in Wavendon hails the first live performance of what is "without question one of the great works of jazz"

Although not blisteringly hot, it was certainly warm enough to sit in the luxurious settings of the garden stage at The Stables, surely the true shrine of jazz outside of London. The London Jazz Orchestra (pictured right) was out in force for this special occasion. Under the indefatigable direction of Scott Stroman, the personnel included such big hitters as Henry Lowther on trumpet and flugelhorn, Chris Laurence on bass, Dave Powell on tuba, Stuart Hall on guitar, Pete Hurt on tenor sax and Martin Hathaway and Martin Speake on alto sax.

The grand occasion was the first live performance of the entire Windmill Tilter suite written by the late, great Kenny Wheeler and commissioned by John Dankworth in 1968 when Kenny had been indisposed and unable to work. It was recorded under the JD orchestra’s imprimatur but was associated closely with its composer as his first major work. The album recording (for the Fontana label), based on the tale of the hapless Don Quixote and now thankfully reissued by BGO on CD, featured, along with Wheeler, two other rising stars - John McLaughlin and Dave Holland - and is rightly regarded as a classic. But as Scott Stroman explained to the packed garden audience, it hadn’t been given a full airing until now. Parts of the work had been played publicly but never the full suite. Also, Stroman gave a special mention of thanks to Stuart Hall who had made several trips to Wavendon to study the original scores on behalf of the orchestra.

The first half of the afternoon’s performance featured a miscellany of works by various members of the big band, including ones by Stuart Hall and tenor saxophonist Josephine Davies. The proceedings kicked off appropriately enough with one of Sir John Dankworth’s compositions, the timeless theme from the Tomorrow’s World television show. This first set concluded with a dazzling arrangement by lead trumpeter and LJO stalwart Noel Langley of Elgar’s Nimrod.

Kenny Wheeler, who passed away last year, was a founder member of the London Jazz Orchestra and it was a fitting tribute that the full performance of his suite took place at Wavendon, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth’s home and also a home to music since 1969. So in the second half, the performance of Windmill Tilter realised every possible expectation. It was simply spectacular and truly brought the work to life. Henry Lowther and Robbie Robson took turns to play the Wheeler trumpet and flugelhorn parts and the near-hour long recital was thrilling particularly in the knowledge, as Scott Stroman reminded the audience, that Lowther, one of British jazz’s great heroes, had played on the original recording. What was especially notable about this performance was that Windmill Tilter has neither dated nor lost its immediate and immense impact. It is without question one of the great works of jazz.

The short encore was one of John Dankworth’s favourite Ellington numbers, Tonight I Shall Sleep (With A Smile On My Face) and thus concluded probably British jazz gig of the year.

Almost fifty years after it was recorded, Kenny Wheeler’s Windmill Tilter (1968)  has finally been given two full live performances by the big band of which he was a founder member, the first at the Vortex, the second at the Laine/Dankworth Centre just South of Milton Keynes, as part of the month-long music series “Music in the Garden”.  The packed audience in the garden at Wavendon was on tenterhooks for this once-in-a-generation occasion, as the 20-piece orchestra walked onto the open air stage.

The afternoon opened with a sumptuous version of John Dankworth’s Tomorrow’s World theme which was immensely satisfying and benefitted from Pete Hurt soloing on flute and later tenor (compare and contrast to the version to be found on JD’s Lifeline album). The following numbers were variously penned by LJO members Robbie Robson, Henry Lowther, Josephine Davies and Stuart Hall, an the first half of this set ended with Noel Langley’s extraordinary arrangement of Edward Elgar’s  Nimrod, which must be a first for jazz.

Following the intermission, the orchestra reassembled in a slightly different configuration, for as leader and conductor Scott Stroman explained, John Dankworth had his own ideas about how a big band should be arranged to obtain the maximum sonic balance. Although this meant one less trombone, the bass notes were more than compensated for by former Dankworth band member Dave Powell on tuba.

From the first notes, the band presented a spine-tingling version of Windmill Tilter which even to those very familiar with this suite was hugely gratifying. Had it not been for John Dankworth’s largesse in commissioning Kenny Wheeler to write the piece when the trumpeter was out of action for a time, British jazz history might have been quite different.

Two trumpeters Robbie Robson and the redoubtable Henry Lowther took turns to perform the trumpet and flugelhorn parts previously played by Wheeler himself. Apart from being extremely moving, this was an edifying experience. Other soloists included Pete Hurt on tenor, Stuart Hall, taking on the mantle of the original “Windmill Tilter” guitarist, John McLaughlin and the great Chris Laurence, depping for the LJO’s usual bass player, Alec Dankworth, taking over the bass lines formerly meted out by Dave Holland on the Fontana recording. The afternoon concluded with a short version Duke Ellington’s  Tonight I Shall Sleep (With a Smile on My Face) which John Dankworth had always regarded highly.

Had the late Sir John and Kenny Wheeler been around to hear this performance they would have been justifiably proud and the London Jazz Orchestra too should give themselves a collective pat on the back for carrying off a brilliant rendition of this great jazz work.

I had gone to this gig at the Vortex, on the centenary of Gil Evans' birth, out of a sense of loyalty to the memory of Miles and Gil whose music together and separately, has given me so much pleasure and enlightenment. Over the years I have built up a pretty good stereo system, and a good record collection of work by the two. I have several different vinyl and CD versions of Miles Ahead. I thought I knew it well, but in the first few bars I was forcefully reminded that listening to records and hearing live music are radically different.

You could listen to Gil Evans' orchestrations on a car radio, a high end stereo system, an MP4 player or over a mobile phone speaker and enjoy aspects of his skill in melodic writing, but it takes a live performance to bring out a depth and complexity of his orchestrations - especially in the lower registers where bass trombone, tuba, 2 french horns and 2 bass clarinets are scored with lines and voicings which underpin the solo trumpet and higher instruments.

When you listen to the recordings you miss out on much of this low end richness and detail. You are in effect listening to a different composition. Without the depth of sound and texture, the music comes over as pieces for a solo trumpet heard against the melodies and harmonies of a backing band or at best in a kind of dialogue with the orchestra, because you are only hearing and feeling part of the music.Hearing the scores live at the Vortex played superbly by the LJO. the weight of lower register detail, the marvellous orchestral textures and the melodic lines were clear to me for the very first time.

The London Jazz Orchestra can easily stand comparison with the original Gil Evans orchestra of 1957. The LJO play together regularly while the Evans men included a large proportion of session musicians, and LJO members have been listening to these charts for years and didn't have to stop every few minutes and start another take (you can hear the tape splices on the 1957 recordings). They did the music proud, from delicate to deafening, with a superb 5 strong trumpet section led by Noel Langley. All were clearly enjoying the music. Paul Clarvis and Alec Dankworth were free to grin delightedly - all the other musicians had the encumbramance of an instruments either to their lips or in their mouths. Oren Marshall on tuba, who had been bemoaning the lack of good tuba parts seemed to be having the time of his life as he powered the brass from below with nimble melodic lines and rich tones.

The only soloists were Henry Lowther and Gil Evans' son Miles Evans who split the original Davis trumpet role between them. Lowther was on top form with the confidence and skill to move back and forth between Davis' original lines and his own improvisations seamlessly as if the music had been written for him. His playing on Blues for Pablo was outstanding, evoking Davis but not imitating him. It segued into a version of New Rhumba where his and the orchestra's playing was so good that the audience forgot themselves and interrupted the performance with applause. A competent player, overshadowed by Lowther, Miles Evans chose a different approach, rather further in tone and phrasing from the paths of his namesake and only really shone when he and Lowther joined in a bubbling duet for the last number, the witty arrangement of I Don't Want to be Kissed.

Scott Stroman has surpassed his earlier re-creations of Birth of the Cool and Africa/Brass and thankfully BBC R3 recorded the performances. This evening has been the best argument I have encountered for re-creating a classic performance. It took great music and made it even greater. This concert will affect how I listen to orchestral music for the rest of my life.

Review: London Jazz Orchestra - Kenny Wheeler Long Suite 2005


London Jazz Orchestra
(Vortex, November 21st 2010. Photo credit: LJO sax section by
tigz pix/ Em Baker)

Who knows why this gig at the Vortex, during the London Jazz Festival, didn't make it into the festival programme. Whatever. If the London Jazz Orchestra 's appearance at the Vortex on Sunday afternoon didn't demand attention, it certainly deserved it. Mainly because the main work being played, Kenny Wheeler's "Long Suite 2005" is music of a significance, and of a value as great and as lasting as anything else which has been played in the past ten days.

There was some talk of anniversaries at the gig: not just Kenny Wheeler's 80th birthday in January of this year, but also 20 years of the "new" London Jazz Orchestra" (it also existed in the 1960's) due be celebrated next year.

The LJO is a band of top-flight professionals, totally committed to the music it presents and plays. Musicans in their day-to-day lives have to strike a balance, to juggle between the need to earn money and the deep compulsion to perform music of the highest quality at the highest level. And all the points in between. The LJO is at the the quality-plus-commitment end of that particular spectrum. One player had got in a car at the crack of dawn in Sunderland in order to play this rehearsal and gig. It's similar to the motivation of the classical players who respond to Claudio Abbado's call to perform in his Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

Conductor Scott Stroman explained to the Vortex audience that LJO has always had the feel of a "band writing its own music" The first half contained interesting charts by Pete Hurt, Henry Lowther and Pete Saberton. "Bill's Canadian Snowmobile" ended the first set on a high.

"Long Suite 2005," a continuous, through-composed piece which twists and turns. Under the sheen of a beautiful melodic line there are fascinating shifting harmonies It just bursts with melodic invention.

Kenny Wheeler was a founder member of the orchestra. What was fascinating about this gig was to hear the music start to move away from him. Music of this quality will inevitably start to develop its own life away from the original dedicatees. The vocal part was performed with limpid grace and impassioned flawless precision by Brigitte Beraha. The Kenny Wheeler flugelhorn part was played by Henry Lowther, whose every phrase tells a story. Among others, Martin Speake on alto saxophone and Phil Lee on guitar took their solos with grace and conviction. Among the younger players, bassist Dave Manington and trumpeters Robbie Robson and Yazmin Ahmed caught the ear.

As someone who listens to a lot of music for the first time, I have a scale of responses. And the only response I can conceivably think of to this music is that I hope it gets performed, again, soon. And that I will be there, again, when that happens.

 

Jazz musicians and fans alike are famed for their disinclination to venture out before nightfall, so it was a brave move by the Vortex to programme a new Sunday afternoon slot. But fears of an empty house for the 20-year-old London Jazz Orchestra's 4pm start last weekend (the first in a regular monthly residency for the long-running workshop band under player/teacher Scott Stroman's direction) were unfounded, and the place was packed for a display by a classy lineup.

The LJO has included such luminaries as Kenny Wheeler and Ian Carr in its ranks over the years, and this powerful incarnation included the innovative drummer Paul Clarvis, bassist Alec Dankworth, alto saxophonist Martin Speake - and January's showcased composer, the poised and velvet-toned British trumpeter Henry Lowther.

The soft, low-end brass sounds of the old Birth of the Cool and Gil Evans orchestras strongly influences this band, and at times the music relies so much on softly pumping chord riffs and quiet banter between reeds and brass that separate pieces can seem to drift into each other. But tenor saxist Josephine Davies coolly developed a brass fanfare composed by Lowther over Clarvis's baleful tattoo, and the same composer's dark, winding melody (a deftly crafted musical palindrome) brought a stream of lyrical variations from Speake. But it was the late Andrew Hill's edgy, flaring Divine Revelation that brought the whole band to clamourous life (with Clarvis becoming increasingly challenging and adventurous), and Stroman's frisky Two Brothers showed how effortlessly this expert band negotiates fast ensemble bebop. Saxophonist Pete Hurt, who played one of the show's most intense, Coltranesque tenor solos, is the featured composer at the next session.