Live From Birmingham: The Pedigree Jazz Band, Tony Bennett, The Fat Chops Big Band

Martin Longley By

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The Pedigree Jazz Band
Solihull British Legion
September 7, 2014

It's a curious sensation when tributes are paid to revivals of revivals. Down the decades since the original jazz repertoire was established in the 1920s, '30s, and even earlier, there have been a multitude of responses, counter-responses, exhumations and celebrations. The Pedigree Jazz Band is currently presenting A Tribute to Trad Jazz, a show that's culled from their two albums of the same name. They gaze back fondly to the British traditional jazz revival of the 1950s, with hoary old New Orleans and Dixieland numbers being refracted through the interpretative lenses of Ken Colyer, Chris Barber, Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball. Half of these four artists have never been notably hip, but have nevertheless contributed some spiritedly populist hit singles to the charts of yore. Now, the Pedigree chums are playing these old classics in a manner that's influenced by their 1950s and early '60s UK incarnations. It's a surprisingly refreshing exercise, as many of the chosen ditties aren't often played by the majority of trad combos, with these Pedigree versions benefiting from the regular rehearsals and frequent gigging of this project.

The Solihull British Legion hosts these regular Sunday lunchtime gigs, and this time it was a balmy Indian Summer kind of day, with a bowling game in progress outside on the lawn. The Pedigree-ers had jaunted up from Devon, garbed in matching striped suits, their useful historical anecdotes displayed on their tablets, with half of the band also bringing their own electric fans. This is an organized group! The co-leaders are clarinetist Chris Walker and trombonist Roger Marks, with the other front-liner being trumpeter Graham Trevarton. The remaining members are Ken Ames (banjo/guitar), Tony Mann (bass) and Colin Larn (drums). Marks is well-known for his Armada Jazz Band, whilst Walker has played with the London City Stompers and Colin Kingwell, as well as leading his own Swingtet for 30 years. Ames began his career playing bass for Ken Colyer.

Preferring three shorter sets rather than the usual two, the sextet managed to entice more than the usual number of dancers onto the floor. Opening with "Bourbon Street Parade," they soon scampered into "Chimes Blues," a lesser-heard King Oliver gem. A Kenny Ball-ed "Green Leaves of Summer" was chased by a Barber-oid "Petite Fleur," with the band trimmed down to a quartet, Walker spotlit for this sensitive clarinet showcase. He'd just brandished his own white mouthpiece, as popularized by Monty Sunshine, back in the day. Still in his pocket after all these years, like a trad talisman! "All The Girls" featured a flighty trombone solo, and some striking rim-cracks on the drums, then the animal noises of "Livery Stable Blues" might have represented the very roots of free jazz. Again, this last tune is rarely heard in the touring trad repertoire.

Ames stepped up to the vocal microphone for Louis Prima's "Buona Sera," switching from banjo to guitar. Then "Dark Eyes" was given a very unusual treatment as a banjo and 'bone duet. Trevarton used an actual bugle on "Bugle Boy March," which made a torrid closer for the second set. Walker sat out on "Black Cat On A Fence," and Trevarton took the vocal on "Goin' Home," which was also peppered with an Ames banjo solo. Just prior to playing "Stranger On The Shore," Walker revealed that, sadly, Acker Bilk is very ill, and definitely won't be treading the boards again. The third set was climaxed with "Midnight In Moscow," a jolly ethnic forgery of a number, from the Kenny Ball repertoire. This show sped past with great humor and panache, the band providing some very amusing background notes in-between tunes, zipping from solo to solo in a set of spry arrangements of these good ol' good 'uns from the dark past of six decades ago.

Tony Bennett
Symphony Hall
September 11, 2014

Near the end of a 90 minute-plus set, Tony Bennett declared his love for Symphony Hall, describing it as the best concert hall in the world. Does he say this to all of the venues he visits? Surely not. The New York singer has expressed this sentiment on previous visits to Birmingham, and he usually says what he means. Now a grand old 88, Bennett appears in remarkable shape, both vocally and physically.

The evening opened with a run of pieces from his quartet, which includes old Count Basie sticksman Harold Jones. The tunes swished past so quickly that they sounded almost like a medley, peaking with a spry reading of Duke Ellington's "Take The A Train." Prior to Bennett's entrance, this combo were fairly limp in nature, not really designed to function on their own. Nevertheless, they set the mood in a nonchalant fashion. Once the evening's star swept on, their role switched to being carefully minimalist melodic shaders, completely devoted to framing their master's voice.

It took Bennett a few numbers to warm up, as his cords sounded a touch shaky at first. After around 15 minutes, he was firing fully, making the occasional fleet-footed foray across the stage, and even giving a swift twirl to emphasize a particular line. He gestured with power, right up to the heights of the hall, holding his microphone down at his waist for much of the time, or around chest-level. He reserved raising it up anywhere near his lips for strategic moments, where a low, growling emphasis was demanded, or when a song became strongly swinging. Bennett's approach to staging was sharp, breaking up some songs into shimmering duets with his guitarist, or sneaking over to commune with his bassist. He was changing the visual relationships to suit the audio dynamics, adding a touch of theatre to the proceedings, maintaining close audience attention throughout.

"The Boulevard Of Broken Dreams" was a melancholic highlight, winging right back to the very beginning of his career. The sparse delivery of "But Beautiful" made a perfect example of Bennett's naked song interpretation. Other stand-outs included "The Best Is Yet To Come," "Smile" and "Stranger In Paradise," the latter being the sole example of a momentary lapse in memory, as he scatted a few lines. The encores took up around 20 minutes, if they were actually encores, as Bennett only left the stage for less than 30 seconds. Just when we were missing it, he unveiled "I Left My Heart In San Francisco," and then serenaded the crowds with "Fly Me To The Moon, microphone abandoned on the piano lid. Bennett is still a potent force, a last bastion of traditional song-craft, and on this showing, we might even be seeing him returning to tread these boards as a nonagenarian.

The Fat Chops Big Band
Moseley All Services Club
September 14, 2014

This monthly Sunday lunchtime session moved clubs around a year ago, but is still flourishing in this new location. The Fat Chops Big Band was formed around two decades ago, their membership comprising a host of Midlands musicians, several of whom lead their own bands. Trumpeter John Ruddick Jr is the musical director, whilst his father John senior plays lead trumpet, and sister Jo plays piano. The band usually invites a guest artist to front each gig, and on this occasion it was singer Catherine Marcangelo, set to nudge their repertoire in the direction of Ella Fitzgerald, amongst others. She was the spiritual source, given the nature of Marcangelo's scatting. The bulk of each set was taken up with the regular Fat Chops arrangement book, which meant that the audience was going to be blasted by a sequence of full-throttle horn-exploding runaways.

"It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" provided a low-end start, barging in with baritone saxophone and a pair of trombone solos, followed by a couple of dueling trumpets. The band couldn't have laid down a more powerful statement of intent, spreading out their formidable wares. Trombonist Andy Derrick presented his "Prometheus" arrangement, with ensemble horn blasts rapidly alternating with Neil Bullock's rampant drumming micro-solos, bassist Ben Markland chasing with his own solo, in quietened space, before the piece flared back into action once again. The instrumental section of the first set climaxed with "Ain't Nothing But The Truth," arranged by Thad Jones, with Bullock again busily bombastic on the drums. He takes stick work to its ultimate level, stoking the entire band to thrilling heights, with sharp punctuations and glorious detonations. Marcangelo swept on, selecting "Night And Day," then "At Last," and the best choice of her first run, "A Foggy Day Tomorrow," making a pleasing tribute to the often overlooked Mel Torme, breezily swinging towards the interval break.

Bullock was astounding once again, near the second half's start, but didn't get a namecheck until gig's end, presumably because it's the horn solos that invariably make their mark, the drums being constantly in motion. It wasn't all bounding riffs and swinging propulsion, John Coltrane's "Naima" contributing an interlude of softness, with an expressive, and extended tenor solo from Sam Craig, moving into a buoyant middle stretch, until the tenor resumed with another substantial declaration. Marcangelo returned for "Sweet Georgia Brown" bringing back the momentum, the tunes coming quickly and in shorter versions, as with her scatting at high speed through "A Night In Tunisia," ending up with "New Dawn" and an encore of "Blue Skies." The Fat Chops are one of the land's best big bands, so it's a shame that they don't seem to tour, or play any bigger one-off gigs. They can certainly hold their own in any contest of dynamism.

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