Over the last two decades or so, big bands have had quite a resurgence—not a
1930s and 40s revitalisation, but quite innovative explorations of the possibilities that jazz ensembles of a certain size can bring to modes of expression in jazz. These are no longer popular dance bands, of course—but they don’t produce chamber music, either; and the typical repertoire now includes contemporary numbers, harmonies that would have come as a surprise in the swing band era, and the kinds of technique and extended playing now familiar to modern audiences.
The contemporary edge in modern jazz orchestras is to be found in the vastly extended repertoire—and hasn’t jazz has always been quick to appropriate other musics?—and most importantly, in the arrangements. A mastery of arranging for
jazz big bands and orchestras is something that Ronnie Bottomley mastered longer ago than even he cares to remember (he turns 90 next year)—and it is a skill he continues to hone. In addition, he has what must surely be the ideal ‘instrument’ for giving expression to his art: an ‘all star’ band that truly is all-star.
Twelve brass instruments plus a cracking rhythm section, playing Ronnie’s arrangements of works stretching from the Big Band era to Stevie Wonder: no wonder there was a full house in attendance.
There are few musical delights to beat an orchestra of this kind playing in unison, navigating the cleverly arranged, sectional cross-rhythms and blowing fantastic solos against carefully arranged backgrounds—and all were in abundance, often in a single tune. The shrewd scoring was able to make a coherent programme of works by composers as disparate as Glenn Miller (which sounded as though newly minted), Horace Silver and Stevie Wonder. The harmonies brought fresh insights to familiar tunes and there was ample opportunity for some first-rate soloing, from members of each of the sections (including Derrick Harris’ guitar—another feature of modern jazz ensembles.)
The all-star qualities of the musicians were equally divided between their close-knit playing of difficult material and the passion and precision they were able to bring to solo passages. Rod Mason’s baritone on ‘Prelude to a Kiss’ and more surprising, on ‘Wave’ was a testament to how to make that apparently unwieldy instrument swing gently and sing sweetly.
Every number had its highlights; in fact, it’s rare to find difficulty in singling out one particular musician or a certain quality in the group sound, or a few outstanding solos. It was all outstanding—and Ronnie Bottomley himself was behind it all, as well as out in front, directing this fine ensemble as only he can.
© J. Whitman, 20th Jan 2018