The Down for the Count Swing Orchestra comes in various sizes, most typically 11 pieces, and it was in that configuration that the orchestra was booked for the Lawrence Batley Theatre in March. Unfortunately we all know what happened then and, by the time the band reached Huddersfield in September, numbers were a socially distanced six. This was obviously a drawback for a show with the sub-title The Music of the Big Bands, but the Lawrence Batley Theatre and Down for the Count combined superbly to spread a little happiness in the early stages of the return to normality – or maybe a brief respite before Lockdown Mark 2.
The theatre has been wonderfully imaginative and committed in putting on a series of events in September, the first in the region to manage this. The front stalls have been replaced by suitably distanced table seating, in the rest of the theatre numerous empty seats serve as firebreaks, a one-way system is in place and – most important of all – staff and volunteers are beyond helpful. Spacing is sufficient for the audience to enjoy the show mask-free, necessary when smilingly diligent bar-staff bring your drink to your seat!
In terms of the performance, the emphasis shifted a bit from the big bands to the great singers, with Hannah Castleman heroically versatile in singing almost every number, from the big-voiced opener, On Revival Day, to a delicate duo take on the loveliest of the Gershwins’ 1920s songs, Someone to Watch Over Me – delicious verse and all! Ms Castleman sensibly attempted no impersonations – her one Billie Holiday song, That Old Devil Called Love, was nicely unaffected – and coped capably with chunks of the Ella Fitzgerald repertoire, notably a suitably droll Mr. Paganini.
Ella was one of the two major influences on the programme: even Count Basie and Duke Ellington were represented by songs Ella recorded with them, Shiny Stockings and Perdido. The other major influence was Nat “King” Cole, clearly a favourite of pianist/leader Mike Paul-Smith who stressed his eminence as an innovative jazz pianist before he became an unforgettable singer. A little segment devoted to Cole was beautifully chosen: Sweet Lorraine because you can’t not have Sweet Lorraine, Paper Moon with Luke Davies muting up to recall the Harry Edison recording with Cole, and the wonderfully exuberant Errand Boy For Rhythm, Castleman following Diana Krall in effecting a gender switch.
There were a few predictable crowd-pleasers – Mack the Knife, King of the Swingers, that sort of thing – but generally Down for the Count dug out excellent and less obvious material – and the predictable is not necessarily a bad thing. My Baby Just Cares for Me, with Paul-Smith meticulously following Nina Simone’s piano part, was a treat.
The musicians in this sort of situation need to score on the grounds of versatility – and they did. Alex Western-King, whose tenor solos moved from the breathy tones of Ben Webster to unignorable rhythm & blues riffs, also charmed us with a touch of klezmer clarinet on Bei Mir Bist Du Schon. Trumpeter Luke Davies was inclined to be wild, but was always exciting and calmed down to order. Charlie Pyne and James Smith anchored the whole thing on bass and drums, Smith enjoying the odd explosive solo and Pyne coming out with a cool vocal on Keely Smith’s All Night Long.
As Paul-Smith said several times, it would be good to get the whole band to Huddersfield; for now, this was a perfect taster!
Reviewed on September 16, 2020