Review: Paul Whiteman - King Of Jazz.  Reviews From The Times, Jazz Wise & London Jazz Journal

Review from our Cadogan Hall show for the London Jazz Festival - a great London concert theatre show, suitable for jazz festivals around the world. 

Jazzwise – EFG London Jazz Festival – Review by Peter Vacher

Paul Whiteman – Bix, Bing & Rhapsody in Blue – Cadogan Hall, 22 November 2015

 

The Festival’s final day allowed the fleet of foot and this reporter to speed across the capital to embrace jazz in its period glory and then to take in a bracing look at the music today.  Old and new personified.   Where better than the  vaulted space of the  Cadogan Hall to observe Richard Pite’s Jazz Repertory Company in their monumental and most ambitious project to date?   For that matter, hard to improve on Pizza Express to experience small group modern jazz full on and with no holds barred.

 

Pite had assembled no less than 30 performers, rehearsed them hard, and produced a programme devoted to the music of the mighty Paul Whiteman Orchestra of the late 1920s, with a particular focus on the period when Bing Crosby [as part of the Rhythm Boys] and cornetist Bix Beiderbecke were with the band.  For Crosby, he had recruited Thomas ‘Spats’ Langham, a man who knows how to warble in the old Groaner’s manner, and for Bix, he had enlisted Guy Barker who, complete with an authentic instrument, recreated Bix’s solos with sensitivity and aplomb.  And that’s not to overlook Richard White as the present-day emulator of C-Melody saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer.


With Keith Nichols as Musical Director and Radio 3’s Alyn Shipton on hand to provide the linking narrative, this impressive endeavour opened with a quintet version of the ODJB’s ‘Livery Stable Blues’, in an apparent harking back to Whiteman’s 1924 Aeolian Hall ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’ concert.  Then came the full orchestra to take us through the best of the Whiteman dance-tempo repertoire, with no hint of period parody, just tight, vigorous playing, underpinned by Marc Easener’s perfect

sousaphone lines.   Add in the six strings and the sheer pleasure of hearing some of London’s finest musicians at work on arrangements by luminaries such as Ferde Grofé and Bill Challis and you’ll sense that this was a rare and very special occasion. 

 

Made more so by the triumphant presentation of George Gershwin’s full ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ score, also premiered originally at Aeolian Hall in 1924, with Nick Dawson taking Gershwin’s place as the piano soloist and Pete Long conducting.  Dawson had learned the entire piece and played from memory, his faultless keyboard command and the sheer élan of the orchestral playing making this a truly memorable achievement, with that evocative opening clarinet cadenza handled brilliantly by Mark Crooks.

 

In a concert packed with moments to savour, just to hear Barker’s recreation of Bix’s sublime solo on ‘Singing the Blues’ was a joy but then so too was violinist Emma Fisk’s recall of Joe Venuti on the small group version of ‘Raggin’ the Scale’, complete with David Horniblow’s bass saxophone and the guitar work of Martin Wheatley.  Whiteman’s reputation hasn’t always been without controversy; on this showing his music was eminently worth preserving and most important perhaps, great to hear anew.

 

©Peter Vacher / 25.11.2015

The Jazz Repertory Company's Bix, Bing And Rhapsody In Blue celebrates Paul Whiteman and fulfils John Watson's every expectation

When I was a teenage jazz fan, it was fashionable to sneer at the “symphonic jazz” music of Paul Whiteman. But it was a fashion I declined to follow, for the sophisticated arrangements written for the expanded big band that was the Whiteman orchestra seemed to me to be gloriously lush, forming a wonderful harmonic backdrop for the solos of one of my heroes, cornet virtuoso Bix Beiderbecke. 

Promoting Whiteman as The King Of Jazz was, of course, looking for trouble, leading to resentment and mockery, especially as his arrangers’ use of strings was intended to form a bridge between ragtime and “respectable” classical music. Those string arrangements, from the pens of Ferde Grofé and Bill Challis, never grated with me, although the vocal refrains by Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys seemed comically dated by the time I heard the recordings. They were worth enduring for those magical fragments of Bix’s improvising, with its bell-like clarity. 

I had, therefore, been eagerly awaiting an EFG London Jazz Festival concert celebrating Whiteman and Bix, created by The Jazz Repertory Company, at the Cadogan Hall. Bix, Bing And Rhapsody In Blue fulfilled every expectation - marvellous arrangements played with technical expertise, fine soloing . . . and vocals I can only continue to dislike. Wisely, the Jazz Repertory Company recreated the music acoustically, using amplification only for vocals and announcements, for the Cadogan Hall is an excellent space for sound quality. And the boys in the band all had wing-collared shirts with their tuxedos - a nice period touch.

With the excellent Guy Barker (pictured standing, left) recreating and adapting the solos of Beiderbecke, singer Spats Langham in the role of Bing Crosby, and a cast of nearly 30 musicians and singers, under the baton of musical director Keith Nichols, the Whiteman story unfolded logically, with expert historical commentary from broadcaster and author Alyn Shipton.

Starting with a small group playing Livery Stable Blues to illustrate the kind of “white jazz” which preceded Whiteman’s orchestra, the show then got into its stride with ensemble pieces including the classics Wang Wang Blues, Riverboat Shuffle,Dardanella and That’s My Weakness Now. 

Piano soloist Nick Dawson took over the keyboard from Martin Litton for an immaculate performance of Gershwin’sRhapsody In Blue – the clarity of the piano sound was quite perfect in the acoustics of the Cadogan – with the orchestra conducted by Pete Long. 

After the interval came more classics, the lovely San, and a vibrant arrangement – described to the audience by Keith Nichols as “a stinker to play” – of Limehouse Blues. For me, though, the highlight of the concert came with Guy Barker’s eloquent solo in Singing The Blues Till My Baby Comes Home. Plaintive, perfectly paced and just gorgeous. 

Those who enjoyed the two performances of this show on Sunday November 22 may well also be interested in forthcoming Jazz Repertory Company productions at the Cadogan Hall: The Benny Goodman Orchestra’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert on March 12th, 100 Years Of Jazz on May 8th, Benny Goodman And Glenn Miller at Carnegie Hall 1939 on June 18th, and Another 100 Years Of Jazz on September 24th.

Photos by John Watson

Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller at Carnegie Hall 1939. Another Cadogan Hall production featuring the best jazz musicians playing Benny Goodman & Glenn Miller's greatest hits.

The King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman -  Clive Davis in The Times

 

Rated:

 

Even his surname — somehow redolent of an era when African-Americans were airbrushed out of history — has a faintly problematic aura nowadays. Although Paul Whiteman championed the careers of Bix Beiderbecke and others besides, the fact that the genial Oliver Hardy lookalike was dubbed the “king of jazz” has irked many a jazz aficionado down the years.


So it has become almost second nature to think of the bandleader — if anyone outside a small circle of devotees still thinks of him at all — as a purveyor of saccharine; the André Rieu of his day, if you like. Yet as this Jazz Repertory Company tribute for the London Jazz Festival made plain, Whiteman’s achievements as a pioneer of so-called symphonic jazz are still worth celebrating.

 

Rhapsody in Blue — commissioned by Whiteman for his Experiment in Modern Music concert of 1924 — was inevitably the centrepiece at Cadogan Hall. We have grown so used to sleek orchestral performances of Gershwin’s work that it is always bracing to hear a version that approximates to Ferde Grofé’s original orchestration.

With Pete Long conducting and Nick Dawson at the piano, the piece had a more fevered, staccato ambience. The compact string section had to fight to make itself heard above the horns, yet that striving for balance gave us more of a hint of how revolutionary the work must have sounded at the time.

 

If the remainder of the programme, deftly steered by the musical director Keith Nichols and the narrator Alyn Shipton, was bound to seem slightly anticlimactic, there were still gems scattered around. Guy Barker, playing a period cornet, brought his usual authority to the Beiderbecke segment, while the elegant Richard White, taking the part of Frankie Trumbauer, put the quaint, faintly asthmatic C melody saxophone back in the spotlight.


We had a glimpse of early Bing Crosby courtesy of Thomas “Spats” Langham, and Limehouse Blues barked ferociously. “It’s a swine to play,” Nichols declared. Whiteman’s music could swing after all.

 

PHOTOS BY: John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

 

Paul Whiteman: Bix, Bing & Rhapsody In Blue
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