This new four–disc boxed set raises to twenty the number of albums in our library by Great Britain’s outrageously talented National Youth Jazz Orchestra, and a strong case could be made that every one of them represents The Very Best of NYJO,
as nothing that orchestra does is less than spectacular. That is certainly the case here as NYJO departs on Discs I and II from its customary practice of focusing largely on new and original compositions to survey the music of George (and Ira) Gershwin and tear sundry other pages from the Great American Songbook and to reprise on Discs III and IV a number of evocative tributes by the late composer / arranger Harry South to several of the Jazz world’s most celebrated pathfinders. As always, I’m left shaking my head in wonder and struggling to persuade my mind and ears that even the most seasoned crewmen aboard skipper Bill Ashton’s seaworthy craft have not yet celebrated their twenty–fifth birthday — in fact, most of them are under twenty! What is even more striking is the remarkably consistent standard of excellence upheld by NYJO in spite of the many changes in personnel on the four discs, recorded over a twenty–five year interval from 1975 to 2000. One of the raps I’ve heard against NYJO is that the orchestra doesn’t (or can’t!
) play standards, a canard that is emphatically laid to rest on Discs I ( By George It’s NYJO!
) and II ( Setting Standards
). Gershwin’s music has seldom sounded better (or been better–played), and if one can find cause for complaint on Disc II (aside from the fact that not all of the songs actually qualify as “standards”), I’d love to hear it. NYJO’s near–flawless performances would be impressive in a studio, how much more so when all but one of the selections on Discs I–III were taped during concerts either at Ronnie Scott’s nightclub in London or the Bath Jazz Festival (eight tracks on Disc III). Disc IV, which consists of alternate versions of South’s Portraits and Tributes
and other compositions by Trevor Vincent, Mark Nightingale and Paul Higgs, is the only one recorded entirely in the studios. As is true of any NYJO enterprise, Disc I opens on a memorable note with Howard McGill’s expressive alto ripping through Josh Daniels’ atmospheric arrangement of “A Foggy Day,” and if one envisions any letdown after that, he (or she) will have to look elsewhere. Trumpeter Neil Yates is enchanting on “Embraceable You,” as are trombonists Jeremy Price and Jim Vincent on Alec Gould’s up-tempo reprise of “The Man I Love.” The band is powered on all but one track (Alan Hare’s “LBG,” shorthand for “Lady Be Good,” featuring pianist Jim Watson) by drummer extraordinaire Chris Dagley, assuredly one of the best in NYJO’s never–ending line of remarkably talented timekeepers. Doubters need only listen, for example, to tracks 4 (“But Not for Me”) or 14 (“Nice Work If You Can Get It”), on each of which Dagley offers brief but impressive clinics in effective big–band drumming. Trombonist Elliott Mason, trumpeter Brad Mason and tenor Ben Castle are featured with Dagley on the former, while tenor James Hunt does some typically “nice work” on the latter. And we mustn’t overlook the splendid solos by Castle and pianist Simon Carter on a leisurely reading of “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” nor by baritone Jon Halton on “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” And good as McGill is, he’s seriously challenged by alto Lisa Grahame on Nightingale’s groovy arrangement of “’S Wonderfuel” [sic], written while NYJO was sponsored by British Gas. The remainder of Disc 1 consists, as one would imagine, of one highlight after another with fabulous charts encircling admirable turns by flugel Pat White on “Soon,” McGill, Carter and trumpeter Mick Ball on “Somebody Loves Me,” White again (trumpet) on “Fascinating Rhythm” and trombonists Nightingale (“How Long Has This Been Going On?”) and Malcolm Earle Smith (“Someone to Watch Over Me”). Much of Gershwin’s music adapts readily to the Jazz idiom, and NYJO takes full advantage. Sound quality is irreproachable, as is the disc’s 70:34 playing time. Just as one begins to imagine that big–band Jazz doesn’t get any better than this, he arrives at Disc II wherein NYJO affirms — to borrow a phrase from another Gershwin tune — that “it ain’t necessarily so.” Briefly put, there’s no slackening here either. Everything on offer is top–drawer, from ensemble to soloists to awesome charts by an array of masterful writers. Gershwin is represented again, this time by Steve Tichener’s driving version of “A Foggy Day” (spotlighting trumpeter Mason and tenor Hunt) and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” but as on Disc I, a wailing alto gets the show under way with Paul Jones featured on the great John Dankworth’s bristling arrangement of “Indiana.” Trombonist Andy Wood is silky–smooth on “Easy Living,” taken at a languorous Billie Holiday–style tempo, tenor Josephine Davies plain–spoken on Alec Gould’s buoyant treatment of the folk song “One Early Morning” (perhaps better known as “Early One Morning”). Guitarist Adam Goldsmith places an exclamation mark on “Someday My Prince Will Come,” the first of two songs from Disney’s animated film, Snow White
(the other is “Whistle While You Work”) but flutist Gareth Lockrane’s breathtaking solo is uncredited. Lockrane arranged the lively “Whistle” (complete with dazzling multi–flute soli) on which he solos with trumpeter Tim Jackson and pianist Steve Holness, while Colin Skinner reframed the Jazz evergreen “Moten Swing” as a vehicle for baritone Sammy Mayne who plays it like he was Kansas City–born and bred. Mayne is the “main man” again on “Bess,” bassist Dave Foster on the aptly renamed “Kiss the Bass [Boys] Goodbye,” trombonist Mike Feltham on Dick Walter’s tasteful arrangement of the well–known “Londonderry Air” (which you may know as “Danny Boy”). Trumpeter Henry Collins and tenor Pete Wareham are the audacious firebrands on “Chicago,” Jones, Wood, Lockrane (alto flute), Jackson and drummer Darren Williams on the fast–paced “I Remember You.” Vocalist Lorraine Craig makes two indifferent appearances, on Brooks Bowman’s “East of the Sun” and Lockrane’s treatment of “Nobody Knows You” (with additional verse by Ashton). The finale, “Marianne,” arranged by Martin Bunce and recorded in 1975 at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studio 3, is a charming tune that features Bunce’s mellow flugel and muscular drumming by Phil James. As on Disc 1, the sound is exemplary, while the 71:07 running time speaks for itself. Disc III is comprised mainly of live performances of South’s picturesque musical sketches of Jazz luminaries from Basie and Duke to Bird, Monk, Diz, Quincy Jones and Buddy Rich, complemented by Steve Duro’s “Along Came Benny” (Golson), Andy Vinter’s “One for Oscar” (Peterson), Adrian Bullers’ “Not Really” (for Ronnie Scott) and Alan Hare’s “Tenor Each Way” (for Scott and Woody Herman). “Benny,” with traces of “Whisper Not” encompassing sparkling turns by trumpeter Pat White, tenor Stephen Main, alto McGill and bassist Andy Hamill, is first on the bill, followed by the easy–grooving “Basie” on which pianist Steve Hill sits in for the Count and trumpeter Ollie Preece and trombonist Malcolm Earle Smith (both muted) are the soloists. Alto Pete Long is given the unenviable task of shadowing Charlie Parker on the boppish “Bird,” pianist Simon Carter accepts a similarly arduous challenge on “One for Oscar,” and each completes his assignment with honors. “Bird” and “Oscar” bracket the exotic “Monk,” which showcases guest Dick Morrissey’s supple tenor, and precede the Afro–Latin “Dizzy,” whose enterprising soloists are McGill, Dagley, trumpeter Ian Wood and percussionist Chris Wells. Another guest, baritone saxophonist Ronnie Ross, stirs memories of Harry Carney on the Ellingtonesque ballad “Duke Part 1,” while Long (clarinet) and trumpeter Mark White (muted) fall readily into step on the syncopated “Duke Part 2.” Tenor saxophones lead the charge on the next two numbers with Jamie Anderson serenely eloquent on “Not Really” and McGill, Castle, Grahame and Hunt (in that order) tornadic on “Tenor Each Way.” South’s zestful “Quincy” is a tour de force for bass trombonist Colin Philpott (who spends much of the time in the higher register) with other solos by tenor Scott Garland, Grahame (flute), guitarist Phil Robson and trumpeter White (Mark, not Pat). Dagley is the driving force behind the steadily accelerating chart, as he is on the flag–waving finale, “Buddy” (with marvelous work by brass and reeds and ardent improvisations by tenors Morrissey and Adrian Revell, alto Long and trumpeter Martin Shaw). Another unequivocal winner, this one clocking in at 72:49. As much of the material on Disc IV appears as well on one of NYJO’s earlier releases, Portraits
(Hot House 1007), I pulled my copy from the archive to see if these studio versions are one and the same. Based on a random sampling of several tracks that would seem to be the case, else they are letter–perfect clones. The listed running times vary slightly but the solos correspond as closely as DNA specimens. No matter; it’s good to have them recirculated in this handy format with enhanced sound and four (previously released) bonus tracks, only one of which (“Royal Flush,” for Paul Gonsalves) was included on the original Portraits
album. All save two of the fourteen tracks were recorded in 1990, Trevor Vincent’s gently flowing “Midnight Oil” (for Neal Hefti) in 1986, Paul Higgs / Derek Pascoe’s well–fortified “Castles in Spain” (for Chick Corea) in 1993. South’s charts are the same as those on Disc III but the soloists, in some cases at least, arent, although guests Ronnie Ross and Dick Morrissey are back, Ross on “Woody” and “Duke Part 1,” Morrissey on “Monk” and “Royal Flush,” and alto Pete Long takes another earnest swipe at “Bird.” Among the welcome additions on Disc IV are the marvelous trumpeter Gerard Presencer who solos on “Dizzy,” “Duke Part 2,” “Buddy” and “Kenton,” and percussionists Bill Pamplin and Matthew Senior, outstanding on “Dizzy” and elsewhere. “Kenton,” by the way, appears only on Disc IV. Pianist Clive Dunstall, trumpeter Shaw and trombonist Dennis Rollins are the soloists this time around on “Basie,” Dunstall, bass guitarist Phil Mulford, tenor Garland, flutist Michael Smith, trumpeter Ian Wood and guitarist James Longworth on “Quincy.” Rollins shares center stage with Presencer on the brass–laden “Kenton,” while Morrissey’s swinging voyage on “Buddy” leads to equally impressive outings by Long, Garland, Presencer and the irrepressible Dagley. Pianist Hill deps for “Monk,” Long does the same for Benny Goodman on Nightingale’s “Mr. BG,” and Noel Langley’s muted trumpet warms the “Midnight Oil.” There is one vocal, by Vicki Devlin on “Castles in Spain” (whose instrumental soloists are trumpeters Bradley Mason and high–note specialist Andy Cuss). Once again, the playing time is exeedingly generous at 71:13. As mentioned at the outset, this anthology may or may not represent The Very Best of NYJO
— that covers a lot of territory — but it is clearly admirable enough to warrant a place of honor in this reviewer’s CD library. If ever we are banished to that mythical “desert island” alluded to so often, the “best of NYJO” will definitely be there to help us while away the hours; for now, we can unhesitatingly recommend the set to our fellow big–band enthusiasts.
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