Ellingtonia: Stan Tracey Big Band and Tomorrow’s Warriors Jazz Orchestra. London, July 2009.

In the space of a week, I went to two excellent concerts featuring suites of pure Ellingtonia.

First off, last Saturday I went to see the Stan Tracey Big Band playing Tracey’s Genesis Suite, a late night jazz Prom at the Royal Albert Hall.

I heard Tracey’s band play this way back in the 80s, I’ve heard it (and recorded it) on the radio, and I bought the CD – it is one of my favourite peices of music. I probably heard it before I was into Ellington – certainly listening to Stan Tracey helped me make connections between the modern jazz I was listening to and the rich music of Ellington. The suite takes Ellingtonian forms and adds a modernist slant, creating wonderful music.

It wasn’t wholly successful as a Prom. Whilst the music was excellent, the sound was pretty lousy, and the audience diminuitive: only about 10% full, we rattled around the hall, largely devoid of atmosphere. I have been to several jazz Proms over the years – Loose Tubes, Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at the Lincoln Centre, a couple of others – and I am never sure that either the BBC or the Albert Hall know how to integrate jazz into the Proms. That the sound was so poor is frankly shocking: despite the big band being – well, big – it had no penetration: it sounded weak. The solists were properly miked and their sound came across, but frankly a band like that should have had a punch, and they didn’t.

And where was everyone? This was a chance to see and hear one of the grandees of British jazz performing a lively, complex, exciting piece of music. It should have sold out! As it was, the prommers were clustered around the stage and I had 15 empty stalls seats on each side of me. The audience was very appreciative, but we couldn’t fill the vast space.

The music though was excellent: it felt very exciting to hear the Genesis Suite live once more. Tracey played with passion and energy; and the band were good – the suite fits its musicians. But it didn’t really work in the Albert Hall.

Then on Friday I went to see Tomorrow’s Warriors Jazz Orchestra at another big concert hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. I only found out about the gig on Friday morning; it was part of a whole day of free activities that Tomorrow’s Warriors were doing on the South Bank. I caught a few minutes of a rehearsal by a band comprising young schoolchildren when I went to pick up a ticket for the evening show; at a very young age, these kids were frightenly good on their instruments – give them another 20 years and they’ll be the best of jazz.

The TWJO are the other end of the Tomorrow’s Warriors project – young musicians lead by old timer Gary Crosby. He played bass in the original Jazz Warriors – who I saw first around about the time I saw Stan Tracey’s big band, too. After the Jazz Warriors, Crosby set up Tomorrow’s Warriors to bring on the next generation of players. Crosby was made an OBE in the Queen’s 2009 birthday honours list. (That had passed me by too. And I see from Wikipedia that he is Ernest Ranglin’s nephew; I don’t think I knew that. I saw Ranglin play in 1965 at a party my parents threw – one of my earliest memories!)

What attracted me to the concert was the Queen’s Suite, a piece Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn wrote in honour of Queen Elizabeth II. After it was recorded in 1959, only a single vinyl LP was pressed, which was sent to the Queen. It was only released more widely after Eliington’s death. The concert on Friday commemorated the 50th anniversary of the recording, and it aptly marked the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the British Commonwealth. Plus, of course, it was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall… (The Queen was invited, but she was on Commonwealth duties that night!)

The QEH was very busy – not quite sold out but nearly full. My first thought was, well, it’s free…

But actually, I think it’s because it was very, very good.

The music started with a trio number backing Lem Sissay reading from Ellington’s autobiography, Music Is My Mistress – a section about Ellington’s passion for music. Personally, I wanted more music and less Sissay.

Then the band played pianist Peter Edwards‘ suite, Above and Beyond the Horizon. I’d not come across Edwards before, but his playing and composing were excellent. His suite was full of Ellingtonian flourishes and homage; it was simulatanously respectful and modern.

The band were very good, swinging when they needed to, creating mayhem in the free sections, and producing some great solos.

The second half was preceded by Lem Sissay and more of Ellington’s writing – his feelings on nature, this time – and then they played the Queen’s Suite. It was an immense pleasure to hear this music live, played by a full jazz orchestra. Edwards directed the orchestra – all fifteen of them – as well as playing piano, though they seemed to get by reading the dots pretty well… All sections of the band seemed really up for it – I loved the trumpets, lead by Abram Wilson – and the reeds were pretty good: there was some gorgeous, melliferous bass clarinet. Andy Chapman was excellent on drums. And Gary Crosby’s bass held it all together – though it was clearly his night (he got a roaring reception from the audience), his playing was subtle and understated.

The sound was excellent, filling the hall, and the audience responded very warmly – I think there were a lot of friends in on Friday night!

There was one other thing I noticed. When I used to see the Jazz Warriors back in the 80s – several times (including some of the most memorable gigs I’ve been to!) – all the band’s members were black. It had grown out of an education programme promoting back culture: this was the early 80s, there had been race riots around the country and Lord Scarman wrote long and worthy report about what should be done.

British jazz felt segregated: it was uncomfortable. There were the Jazz Warriors at the forefront of black jazz, and the very white, witty, intellectual Loose Tubes. There didn’t seem to be much mixing until the 90s, when, for instance, Andy Sheppard used members from both bands in his Soft on the Inside big band. The reborn Brotherhood of Breath did the same.

The Tomorrow’s Warriors Jazz Orchestra was neither black nor white: it wasn’t a black band, it wasn’t a white band: it was a band.

And a very good one. They said that they had a residency at the South Bank Centre in the autumn. I shall certainly be back. And I am very, very pleased I had the opportunity to see them play some wonderful music this week, too.

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