Review: Cleo Laine & Friends

Derek Ansell enjoys Cleo Laine and Friends at the 2013 edition of the Music In The Garden concert series, held annually in the Old Rectory Gardens at Wavendon                                                                         

These concerts in the summer in the Old Rectory Garden run through June and into July and a highlight every year is the concert by Cleo Laine and her musical friends.

This year was a particularly strong and appealing line-up including a morning concert to get things going by veteran drummer Tony Kinsey and his quartet comprising pianist John Horler, piano, Andy Cleyndert on bass and alto saxophonist Sam Mayne. Kinsey teamed up well with bassist Cleyndert and the two formed a highly propulsive rhythm unit, guiding and propelling the quartet through some originals by the drummer and lively readings of Cedar Walton’s Firm Roots and Bud Powell’s John’s Abbey. A bright version of Lullaby Of Birdland showcased the talent of alto saxist Mayne whose slightly acrid, swinging sound puts him firmly in the tradition of masters like Phil Woods and Jackie McLean.

Kinsey’s crisp, flowing drumming seems to have lost little with the passing of the years and his music is as enjoyable as it always was although choosing the right musicians to play with is obviously part of the secret.

Cleo’s support band began with a John Dankworth arrangement of Ellington’s Cottontail with Mark Nightingale’s trombone prominent. Cleo began with I Thought About You, an evocative ballad which she sang gently, warming up smoothly for Sittin’ And A Rockin’ where she started soft and low and then opened up, scatting  briskly but still using her voice sparingly. Slow Boat To China gave her more vocal exercise and she had hit her stride by this time. Accentuate The Positive was more like the old Cleo with a bright Nightingale solo and the voice used with some restraint, allowing for the passage of years, but not much! But like other greats before her, Sinatra with his limited range and Billie Holiday who sang emotively with virtually no voice left at all, Cleo has learned to use what she now has effectively without (too often) reaching for those ultra highs.

The programme included Lyric Fantasy, a work by John Dankworth written for Eddie Daniels and recently recovered from his archives. It was played with warmth by clarinettist Emma Johnson, with the Warren Zielinski String Quartet providing lyrical backing. The work featured a Chopin-like theme followed by a jazz waltz and culminating with an improvised section.

Cleo returned to offer lyrical vocals on two arrangements of Shakespeare sonnets by Dankworth: Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day and All The World’s A Stage, recalling past triumphs with her husband. The spirit of John
Dankworth seems ever present at these concerts where he played so often. Cleo recalled moments from those years, such as the occasion when pianist John Horler arrived for a gig in a tee shirt and was met by J.D. with "You’re not going on stage in that? Take it off." His presence for her and us was almost tangible and I could almost hear him saying, "Come on Cleo, get on with it; you can do it." The magic part is she still can and still does. There was more scat, on It Don’t Mean A Thing, and a wild duet of scat voice and clarinet with Emma Johnson, who hit a high note that Cleo declined to follow; instead she turned the moment into a joke about age for the audience.

It was all there, the jazz chops, the unique voice, the scat, the humour and some of the old band with Horler, bassist Malcolm Creese and Jim Hart on drums. Andy Panayi played saxophones and flute and Mark Nightingale made a big contribution. The final encore featuring Cleo and the band along with Emma Johnson summed up most of the performance: Fine And Mellow.

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