LJF 2015: The Jazz Repertory Company

The Jazz Repertory Company's Bix, Bing And Rhapsody In Blue celebrates Paul Whiteman and fulfils John Watson's every expectation

When I was a teenage jazz fan, it was fashionable to sneer at the “symphonic jazz” music of Paul Whiteman. But it was a fashion I declined to follow, for the sophisticated arrangements written for the expanded big band that was the Whiteman orchestra seemed to me to be gloriously lush, forming a wonderful harmonic backdrop for the solos of one of my heroes, cornet virtuoso Bix Beiderbecke.

Promoting Whiteman as The King Of Jazz was, of course, looking for trouble, leading to resentment and mockery, especially as his arrangers’ use of strings was intended to form a bridge between ragtime and “respectable” classical music. Those string arrangements, from the pens of Ferde Grofé and Bill Challis, never grated with me, although the vocal refrains by Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys seemed comically dated by the time I heard the recordings. They were worth enduring for those magical fragments of Bix’s improvising, with its bell-like clarity.

I had, therefore, been eagerly awaiting an EFG London Jazz Festival concert celebrating Whiteman and Bix, created by The Jazz Repertory Company, at the Cadogan Hall. Bix, Bing And Rhapsody In Blue fulfilled every expectation - marvellous arrangements played with technical expertise, fine soloing . . . and vocals I can only continue to dislike. Wisely, the Jazz Repertory Company recreated the music acoustically, using amplification only for vocals and announcements, for the Cadogan Hall is an excellent space for sound quality. And the boys in the band all had wing-collared shirts with their tuxedos - a nice period touch.

With the excellent Guy Barker (pictured standing, left) recreating and adapting the solos of Beiderbecke, singer Spats Langham in the role of Bing Crosby, and a cast of nearly 30 musicians and singers, under the baton of musical director Keith Nichols, the Whiteman story unfolded logically, with expert historical commentary from broadcaster and author Alyn Shipton.

Starting with a small group playing Livery Stable Blues to illustrate the kind of “white jazz” which preceded Whiteman’s orchestra, the show then got into its stride with ensemble pieces including the classics Wang Wang Blues, Riverboat Shuffle, Dardanella and That’s My Weakness Now.

Piano soloist Nick Dawson took over the keyboard from Martin Litton for an immaculate performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue – the clarity of the piano sound was quite perfect in the acoustics of the Cadogan – with the orchestra conducted by Pete Long.

After the interval came more classics, the lovely San, and a vibrant arrangement – described to the audience by Keith Nichols as “a stinker to play” – of Limehouse Blues. For me, though, the highlight of the concert came with Guy Barker’s eloquent solo in Singing The Blues Till My Baby Comes Home. Plaintive, perfectly paced and just gorgeous.

Those who enjoyed the two performances of this show on Sunday November 22 may well also be interested in forthcoming Jazz Repertory Company productions at the Cadogan Hall: The Benny Goodman Orchestra’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert on March 12th, 100 Years Of Jazz on May 8th, Benny Goodman And Glenn Miller at Carnegie Hall 1939 on June 18th, and Another 100 Years Of Jazz on September 24th.

Photos by John Watson

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