December 2012: Christmas Jazz

Exeter Cathedral, Saturday 8 December 2012

Source: Steven Martin.

Coming in from the cold night air into the warmth of Exeter Cathedral on Saturday evening, it was heartening to see a full audience for this remarkable concert by Exeter Festival Chorus. When I was asked to review this concert, I must admit that I jumped at the chance. As much as I love the usual carols and attending the odd performance of the Messiah, customary at this time of year, it was so refreshing to celebrate the season with something different. With a programme of jazzy carols and Høybye and Pederson’s masterful arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts, the Exeter Festival Chorus was doing Christmas in style.

The audience settled, the band leader, Devon-based Andy Williamson (clad in a suitably festive lime-green linen suit, brown leather hat, bright red spectacles, tenor sax in hand) leapt up from his seat and gave the signal for the band to start Jumpin’ at the Woodside. As soon as Mick Foster (on baritone sax) and the rhythm section tucked into the opening riff, the audience knew we were in for a very special evening. As the concert unfolded, the talent of the players in Williamson’s Big Buzzard Boogie Band shone through again and again. The ensemble was tight, and the solos were, without exception, exceptional.  After Mick Foster, it was Bob Martin’s turn, with a mellow improvisation on trombone. Pianist, Zoe Rahman, proved to be an excellent accompanist and soloist, and came into her own playing for the special guest artist, Jacqui Dankworth. Dankworth was on fine form and established a good rapport with the players and audience from the first. Such a flexible and generous voice, she can add a Cleo Laine huskiness and colour to a low phrase when called for, or produce a clear, thrilling brilliance at the top end, all at the drop of a hat. Her second song, Sergio Mendes’s So Many Stars, featured one of many solos by Roz Harding, on alto sax. Each time she stood, you could feel the audience sit up and listen to her crisp, stylish, and perfectly judged improvisations.

Dankworth’s interpretations of But Beatutiful and Sittin’ On Top Of The World were superb: suitably complemented by the solos from guitarist Neil Burns and Andy Williamson.

The chorus were also on fine form—a credit to their energetic conductor, Nigel Perrin. The first highlight for me was their rendition of Away in a Manger, arranged by Bob Chilcott. The men were particularly good, especially in the close harmony verses which included a fine solo from chorus member Bob Millington. Fellow chorister Nigel Crane did a similarly excellent job when his turn came in Mary had a Baby. Ken Burton’s arrangement of Go Tell it on the Mountain showed off the different parts of the choir to good effect, but for me, Bob Chillcott’s arrangement of Remember, O thou man was the point where I felt the chorus really come into their own: the blend, poise and balance was just right as they began the last verse. 

Before the interval, the audience had some carols to sing. First, Andy Williamson’s arrangement of In the Bleak Mid-Winter. This began with some suitably ecclesiastical organum from the men, but soon broke out into a luscious jazz number, complete with a smooth, rich improvisation on tenor sax from Williamson himself. The audience joined in with enthusiasm, as they did in the Calypso carol, Gloria, Gloria  (Ivor Golby, arr Andy Williamson).

The first half ended with a masterful composition, specially written for the occasion, Star Express by the incomparable Ned Bennett, who is a key part of the Big Buzzard line up. Bennett’s innate musicianship shone through in this piece, packed as it was with colour and vitality. The assured performance from the chorus and their enthusiastic applause for Bennett which followed it was great to see. Bennett was on top form throughout the evening, frequently bobbing up (playing sax, flute or clarinet) to contribute some invariably spine-tingling solos.

If the first half was good, the second really saw the chorus and band hit their stride. Chorus member Colin Rea shone in the opening vocal solo. His voice matched the music beautifully, and his diction was excellent, enabling the audience to pick up some topical alterations to the lyrics, lamenting the ‘no vote for women priests...’. After Rea, Jacqui Dankworth stepped up to sing Heaven, in which the chorus finished on a suitably heavenly chord.

I must admit that during the first half, I found myself willing the chorus to loosen up a bit and warm their sound. In the Ellington, however, it all clicked into place. You could feel the chorus relax, which enabled the jazzy rhythms to fall into place, resulting in a slick, tight ensemble.

Altogether the Ellington was an amazing performance, cram packed with highlights and variety. Chorus member Roger Cockrell’s recitation in ‘Freedom is a word’ was excellently clear and well-paced. The ‘Freedom Suite’ included some truly remarkable solos, including (to name but a few) James Adams on trombone (tremendous); Foster, Harding, Bennett and Williamson on sax, and Neil Burns on guitar.  The intense energy of Jonny Bruce’s trumpet solos simply brought the house down. Dankworth’s immaculate intonation in The Majesty of God was breathtaking, and Junior Laniyan’s tap dance from the West End of the Nave which followed, was inspired. The joy of the piece was felt by all, especially in the immensely virtuosic dance/drum-off between drummer Charlie Stratford and Junior Laniyan towards the end.

One minor niggle would be the quality of the amplification. Getting the sound levels right (especially with the number of solos at different points, in different spots) must have been tricky, especially given the limited rehearsal time. But that was nothing in the grand scheme of things, and I would heartily recommend anyone who wasn’t there to watch out for and tune in to BBC Radio Devon’s forthcoming broadcast of the concert. The whole performance was a credit to the hard work and clearly inspirational leadership of Nigel Perrin, who masterminded the evening.

That last, magnificent sound of the band, chorus and Dankworth giving it all they’re worth in  Ellington’s take on Psalm 150, will never leave me. Something about the vitality of it seemed to strike a chord which connected players to the performance space: every surface of that Cathedral bristled with sound. I should think that the warmth given off by the music and architecture left the audience with enough inner heat to last until February.