Conductor: Jiggs Whigham
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The BBC Big Band is one of the BBC’s highly regarded stable of orchestras and bands, playing light jazz and swing music, although in recent years it has been managed outside the BBC and formed of freelance players. It has been one of the Town Hall’s Associate Ensembles since 2007. During the interval, it was presented with an award as best in category 2014. The concert tonight is a recording to be aired on BBC Radio 2 on 21st December. As might be expected of the BBC, the organisation of the concert is slick, moving from song to song and from guest artist to guest artist seamlessly. Under the leadership of conductor Jiggs Whigham, the eighteen-strong ensemble fills the hall with music in a style largely reminiscent of a bygone age. However, their skill as musicians ensures their playing never becomes clichéd and the selection of guest artists ensures the whole is refreshed as well as lending variety.
At the centre of the whole thing, of course, is the band. They really do swing, setting feet tapping all around the packed hall. With beautifully smooth saxophones and trombones and strident trumpets, the wind section is a delight, They are supported by the rhythm section of drums and double bass and appearances from vibraphone, guitar and piano which all serve to give the sound a richness and depth. And they look the part, dressed all in black but with brightly coloured mutes sometimes deployed for horns. If one were looking for a criticism, it might be that the trumpets lack a little light and shade – although their ability to provide this is demonstrated clearly when Martin Shaw solos on flugelhorn during “A Child is Born”.
Urging the notes forward is conductor Jiggs Whigham. He has the appearance of an eccentric professor, but his laid back conducting style – snapping into tension when required – gets the best from the players. This is all demonstrated admirably in the opening number, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. Following this, our MC for the evening, Clare Teal enters. Teal will be known to many as a supremely talented jazz singer and radio presenter and her warmth shines through as she guides us through the evening, chatting with guests and, of course, singing numbers herself. Her relaxed persona suits the evening well and the guests respond. Her rendition of the Christmas classic, “Everybody’s Waiting for the Man With the Bag” bounces along, while her version of Frank Loesser’s 1947 composition, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” has a haunting, wistful quality.
The first of the guest artists is archetypal crooner, Matthew Ford. His smooth voice is reminiscent of the greats and he exudes style and elegance when singing, for example, “September in the Rain” as a tribute to Frank Sinatra who would now be entering his hundredth year. Ford’s delivery is in the same league as Sinatra, a judgement reinforced at the end of the concert when he and Teal duet with “Well, Did You Evah!” which rounds off the evening. Ford is followed by local blues singer, Joanne Shaw Taylor. At first sight of the relatively slight, blonde singer one might expect a slightly breathy fragile voice, but such expectations are shattered as soon as she begins to sing. If Louis Armstrong were to be reincarnated as a brummie girl, Joanne Shaw Taylor would probably be the result! An accomplished guitarist, her deep gravelly voice is perfectly suited to the blues pieces she sings and also shows off the versatility of the BBC Big Band.
After the interval, Teal sings her pieces and then the BBC Big Band demonstrate their virtuosity again with Duke Ellington’s take on Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” arranged with Billy Strayhorn before headline act, Mica Paris comes on stage, together with an entourage of four backing singers and the Town Hall’s own Gospel Choir. Paris’ voice is full of soul and power and fills the venerable Town Hall, ending with a powerful rendition of “O Come all ye faithful”.
A great evening of swing and traditional jazz with a festive twist from some of the great practitioners of the art. It is well worth taking the time to catch it when broadcast this weekend.
Reviewed on 16th December