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Swingin’ with Strings at Cadogan Hall

Review from Cadogan Hall, EFG London Jazz Festival 24 November 2019. Review by Peter Vacher

This year’s London Jazz Festival may well have been the biggest and best to date. Let the critics decide. No such hesitation for Richard Pite’s Jazz Repertory Company as this concert was irrefutably their mightiest show so far and arguably one of their best. With the Cadogan Hall’s vast stage fully populated, there was barely a toe hold of space between the full big band, string orchestra, oboist, harpist, and backing singers, all under the benign direction of Pete Long with star vocalists Claire Martin and Iain Mackenzie alongside.

In what might have seemed a kind of folly of ambitions in attempting to recreate the happy fusion of jazz creativity with strings ‘n’ band accompaniments while evoking such lost spirits as Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and yes, Frank Sinatra, all was vindicated. The audience came to wonder in number, loved every minute and heard much that was startlingly good.

Let it be said straightway that Martin, who was assigned to handle Holiday’s Lady in Satin material as well as Ella’s Nelson Riddle collaborations, was the evening’s star. She commanded the stage, at one with the musicians, allying confidence to vocal artistry in a way that transcended any suggestion that she should replicate the vocal inflections of her famed predecessors. For his part, Mackenzie stayed close to the Sinatra template, phrasing and dynamics much in the vein of his hero, cleverly riding the surges of power as those celebrated Riddle charts were torn into by this crack big band.

Further challenges remained, the first for altoist Sammy Mayne as he took on the title role on Charlie Parker With Strings, fluent but seemingly short on projection while trumpeter Ryan Quigley, always a take charge player, triumphed as Clifford Brown, articulate, poised and assured over those deft string charts. Long himself tackled Artie Shaw’s Concerto for Clarinet, a daunting task and somewhat humbling in the demands it placed on him, Nick Dawson as substitute MD and accompanying boogie pianist the total pro.

The glory of this brim-full occasion lay in the successful juxtaposition of intentions and outcomes: just to observe Long’s animation as he conducted his massive orchestra, sometimes levitating with joy as he brought in the tumultuous roar of the band’s magnificent trumpet section, its brilliant soloists including Quigley but equally notably, Nathan Bray and Mark Armstrong, was worth the ticket on its own.

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