Richard Pite’s Jazz Repertory Company and Alex Garnett’s Bunch of Five & NYSQ swing London Jazz Fest out in style

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The EFG London Jazz 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.

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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 Crook.

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.

Garnett was once a member of the Pasadena Roof Orchestra and could probably have handled the Whiteman gig but at Dean Street he was his other self as a free-flowing modern soloist, alongside New York tenorman Tim Armacost, with the omnipresent Ross Stanley on piano, Whirlwind label boss Mike Janisch on bass and drummer Andrew Bain. More like a reunion of old friends than just another gig, this turned into a fierce yet rewarding reprise of much of the group’s repertoire from their Whirlwind ‘Andromeda’ album. Garnett takes his tenor on sometimes-circuitous routes where Armacost is a straight down the freeway kind of player, this contrast and the inherent good humour in their relationship making for some powerful music making. Just to observe Bain’s energy, the propulsion from Janisch and Stanley’s always invigorating keyboard work as they launched the two tenors into a cart-wheeling version of Garnett’s clever ‘Delusions of Grandma’ was really as good as it gets.

After a short pause, Armacost re-appeared, this time as the front-line of the New York Standards Quartet, here to celebrate their decade-long existence and launch their new album ‘Power of 10’ again on Whirlwind. Pianist David Berkman, a man who knows his harmonies, explained that their mission is to play standards and to make them ‘unrecognisable to anyone in the audience’ and I guess he must have succeeded for, typically, their version of ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing’ was a re-harmonised transformation, Armacost wailing on soprano, Berkman adroit and Tyner-like with Janisch his powerhouse self on bass. This was followed by Bud Powell’s ‘I’ll Keep Loving You’ in ballad mode, with drummer Gene Jackson on brushes. This was my first chance to hear Jackson close to and to appreciate his classy quality; he deploys cross-rhythms aplenty on up-tempo things but can ease down and play the kind of perfect time that just builds swing. This band offers a classic conjunction between restless experimentation and a collective desire to swing

– Peter Vacher