Review: Shades of Gray Matter Big Band

Victor Lawrance enjoys a packed afternoon of feel-good standards from the Shades of Gray Matter Big Band, including an inspired nod to "Looney Tunes"

The concert, a reunion of members of the Shades of Gray Matter Big Band, was organised by Graham Russell to celebrate the band’s 30-year existence and to raise funds for Sarcoma UK, the chosen charity of band trumpeter Derek Watkins who passed away on 22 March this year. Sarcoma UK is dedicated to funding research into and the treatment of this rare cancer that Derek fought for two years before his death. Derek’s wife Wendy was a guest at the event and she made a short but sweet “thank you” speech encouraging donations. Links to the charity and information on Derek’s life and musical career can be found at

Derek obviously made many friends during his successful career as a musician and teacher and The Gunnersbury was packed for the concert on 10 November. Graham Russell had the difficult job of presenting a concert programme using the many talented and willing but unrehearsed volunteers who attended his roll call. The band that presented itself before us was fully staffed with some of the country’s finest musicians who turned up to support the event and to have a good time doing so. Graham’s programme included a core of well-known standards and big band scores and a selection of more unusual charts written for the Gray Matter Band. It is a tribute to Graham and the members of the band that so much good music was played.

The rhythm section, boosted on occasion by the addition of Teena Lyle on vibraphone and miscellaneous rattles and shakers, and Ric Elsworth on percussion (i.e. bongos and everything else), was excellent. Ian Thomas was a driving force on drums. Graeme Taylor on piano and Don Richardson on bass demonstrated their musicianship and versatility and Frank Dawkins supplied some very tasteful rhythm and solo guitar playing.

The band produced a satisfyingly full sound right from the first number and swung mightily. The trombone section feature Bones for Basie, which had exciting solos by Callum Au and Nick Mills, provided a good example of what it could do. The fast-tempo Cut and Run featured the consistently excellent Martin Shaw on trumpet and some adventurous tenor playing by Simon Bates. The rock-tinged Jazz Police put the rhythm section to the fore with fine solos contributed on tenor and Frank Dawkins on electric guitar. Frank’s tasteful guitar was again on show fronting an all-electric rhythm section in the rock/soul-influenced Get In Line.

As a tribute to Derek Watkins, Stuart Brooks played Derek’s trumpet feature, a beautiful arrangement of the Rodgers and Hart ballad Little Girl Blue. The soft sound of the saxophone section and some tasteful playing by a muted trumpet section contributed to Stuart’s memorable performance.

Give It One, the first number of the second half, was a heavy “cop show”-type theme that gave Jamie Talbot on alto a chance to shine against a driving, electric rhythm section led by Frank Dawkins on guitar. The high-octane, high-note Maynard Ferguson solo spot was handled nicely by the ubiquitous Graham Russell.

The next number, Hunting Wabbitts, was, for me, the high spot of a very enjoyable afternoon. This scrapbook arrangement of just about every cartoon cliché in the book contained, within its endless invention, references to many musical styles from Shostakovich and Stravinsky to Spike Jones and the City Slickers, and of course the unsung heroes of the “Looney Tunes” music department. This was a superb, incredibly professional performance that was full of good humour.

Callum Au’s inventive arrangement of It Ain’t Necessarily So started with a pleasing piano introduction by Graeme Taylor that was followed by a typically lyrical solo by Martin Shaw on trumpet and then a driving alto saxophone solo from Nigel Hitchcock. Miss Ella, a romantic ballad, was a feature for the astounding technique of Bob McKay on baritone saxophone. The rhythm section provided an imaginative, sensitive accompaniment.

Nigel Hitchcock, firing on all cylinders, was featured in a Latin-American arrangement of Misty and the trombone section powered their way through a rolling, bluesy Sackbut City with fine solo contributions by all including Roger Williams on bass trombone. Act Your Age was a soulful excursion into electric rock territory with the percussive members of the rhythm section forcing their way to the front and Simon Bates soloing splendidly on tenor.

The momentum gained fed into Rock This Town, a rock hit for The Stray Cats way back in 1981. Sounding to me very like that traditional jazz classic Mamma Don’t Allow, this version also stole the jam session format that ended so many of those old trad jazz sessions in which anybody within striking distance of the bandstand got a chance to play. The band and the audience had a great time and the hitherto partly hidden talents of percussionist Ric Ellsworth were at last fully revealed in an exuberant climax. The band finished the concert with a pacey version of Zog’s Jog, a fine finale that included a blistering trombone solo by Callum Au.

What an enjoyable session this was, and to add to the pleasure of seeing people leave happier than when they arrived, £575 was raised for Sarcoma UK.

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