Review: Ben Crosland Quintet at the 606

Ben Crosland's Quintet gave the Ray Davies Songbook a jazz treatment, impressing Alan Ainsworth with sensitive and considered arrangements

Commissioned by the Marsden Jazz Festival, bass player, composer and arranger Ben Crosland spent over 12 months arranging Ray Davies’s tunes for jazz quintet. Featuring all the classic Kinks hits – Sunny Afternoon, Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, Waterloo Sunset and Dead End Street as well as less well-known numbers – the resulting CD, The Ray Davies Songbook, was launched on 13 July at the 606 Club.

“I was scared stiff Ray Davies might walk through the door”, Ben told me during a break between sets. The enthusiastic response of a packed 606 should have reassured him. Crosland’s innovative idea to fashion jazz groves from Davies’s tunes whilst keeping their distinctive feel went over well. His sensitive handling of the material kept all the melodic attractions of Davies’s tunes whilst adding a range of rhythms which brought a fresh perspective on the music and kept the audience engaged.

Crosland assembled a talented quintet (pictured above right) to interpret the material and they showed every sign of enjoying it enormously. It fell to Dave O’Higgins on tenor and soprano saxes to carry most of the melodies although when it came to improvisation he was on top form. On piano and keyboards, long-time Crosland associate Steve Lodder’s serious look belied the funky grooves and fluent passages which added so much to the arrangements. Over at the extremities of the band John Etheridge on guitar was having a great time tearing it up, moving fluently between jazzy lines and rock-inspired screams whilst Sebastiaan de Krom - a new collaboration for Crosland - contributed some imaginative accompaniment and solos.

But the evening fell to Crosland, whose idea kicked off the whole project. What was it that attracted him to Davies’s songs? “Ray Davies's music is idiosyncratically English”, he told me. “It’s rooted in musical theatre and music hall – his songs are classic music hall tunes which have a natural swing. Some - like All Day And All Of The Night - just have a natural groove which fits easily into a jazz idiom. Dedicated Follower of Fashion is another one with a natural swing. With that one I just moved the chorus up a minor third, but others really didn’t need altering much at all – You Really Got Me is a perfect bossa. Ev’rybody's Gonna Be Happy just fitted the New Orleans groove. And then there are the classic tunes like Waterloo Sunset – so strong I was more concerned not to change them".

The success of Crosland’s project seemed to me to lie in the way in which he blended the distinctive melodies and harmonic progressions of Davies’s songs with a variety of jazz grooves. Each arrangement drew on different parts of the jazz tradition in a fashion that suited the arc of the various tunes. He generously acknowledges the contribution of band members in this process: “Sunny Afternoon – first part of the tune with a reggae feel was Lodder’s idea - perfect, just works”. Ultimately though it seems to have been Crosland’s respect for Davies’s work that was the key – “I just wanted the songs to sing themselves”. They certainly did.

The Ray Davies Songbook should have wide appeal – considered enough for jazz aficionados, recognisable enough for Kinks fans and accessible enough for the novice. Go buy.

Photo by Alan Ainsworth

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