Less of a battle of the bands this year at the Proms, two big bands on the same stage remains a highly unusual sight.
More a celebration than a competition – as the cool, calm and collected host Clare Teal put it – and quite a production, the arrangements for the Winston Rollins and Guy Barker big bands allowed plenty of room to cross-fertilise every so often breaking ranks for extra spontaneity at this well attended prom, broadcast live on Radio 3 last night, the energy of each band prompting the other on.
Rollins, more usually heard in the Jools Holland Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, with his trombone to hand when he wasn’t conducting, was to the right hand side of the stage while Barker, similarly with his trumpet on call at the other, each of the swinging bands identified by the WRs and GBs emblazoned on their music stands and on the drum heads.
Teal was a graceful presence as she sketched the birth of the big bands, sang like Peggy Lee, and kept a friendly eye on the technicians beavering about moving microphone and music stands as silently as lambs, telling the stories and lore of the big band era.
Jamie Davis provided a highlight on ‘Prisoner of Love’ in the more bop-flavoured Billy Eckstine section, the close vocal harmony group christened the “Promunards” taking the role of the MelTones at one stage later, a little foggier suitably enough, and the classy Elaine Delmar delivered a well judged with-strings Billie Holiday tribute on ‘Lover Man’. Clarke Peters who led the audience infectiously on ‘Minnie the Moocher’ and tenor saxophonist Denys Baptiste fresh from his latest A Love Supreme show were other guests. The bands were supplemented in the second half by a big strings section and the vibes of the Blue Flames’ Anthony Kerr.
Standout soloists included Alan Barnes on clarinet and the skilled high trumpet bravura and repartee (in a comedy spot with Clare Teal) of Mike Lovatt; while the small group break-out section featuring Ronnie’s musical director pianist James Pearson (as Teddy Wilson, Teal told us) also had plenty of appeal. A little less successful was the slightly laboured feel of the script but this was made up for by some inspired musical choices. And for today’s generation of new listeners lesser-known 1930s numbers such as the Jimmie Lunceford wow ‘White Heat’ delivered at breakneck pace and even the silky Casa Loma Orchestra-derived ‘Smoke Rings’ were respectively full of life and feeling.
‘Sing Sing Sing’ at the end, bringing the singer soloists and Promunards together, and letting the two big bands romp away proved popular with the audience as had earlier Peters’ wry take on ‘Minnie the Moocher’. Empirical’s Shaney Forbes and Matt Skelton, the two drummers, swung hard, and even on the Glenn Miller numbers (again a big hit with the audience) kept it neat and precise on ‘In the Mood.’
Broadcast on BBC Four tv on 28 August. A clip of Jamie Davis, who plays Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho tonight and tomorrow, singing the Gaskill, Robin & Columbo Eckstine hit ‘Prisoner of Love’ top; and the stage all set in the Albert Hall above