Wally Fields Jazz Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Thursday 08 January 2004
This was a double labour of love. Just over a year ago the jazz pianist and conductor Wally Fields brought together some of the finest brass and woodwind soloists around to form a fresh Jazz Orchestra - no mean feat in itself.
Here was the Klezmer Swingers' genial maestro, recovered from his illness, kick-starting the big band tradition afresh (not least with his own spanking-new "Partizan Rhapsody" for piano and orchestra, a slightly creaky but heartfelt tribute composed for the occasion) in a concert dedicated to those few thousand Jewish fighters who courageously took up arms during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising at the onset of Passover in 1943.
Ghetto bands, as Fields reminded us, drew large audiences (including sundry German officers) in Warsaw and Krakow during the darkest 1940s. Such was the calibre of this new ensemble, you might have felt, deep in your bones, that one of the finest had been reincarnated: the Ghetto Swingers, based over the border in the Czech lands' ill-fated showcase camp of Theresienstadt, until Poland-bound transports claimed nearly all.
This was a true big band event, lovingly played, with a flood of top-notch solo front-men, a conductor (Paul Eshelby) whose trumpet solo in Louie Bellson's "Blow Your Horn" knocked the socks off them all, and - offsetting the flamboyance of pieces like "Sing Sing Sing" or the dark dazzle of Stan Kenton's "Malaguena" - an atmosphere of sombre reverie into which Fields' entire mesmerised audience seemed respectfully drawn in.
A starkish, slightly wooden acoustic at times battled with a well-managed sound system, yet the sound for the 18 blazing brass en masse was magnificent. Occasionally, Eshelby might rein in the ensemble more, to add a subtler undertow, or allow reflective solos more rubato and breathing room. But it was Fields's stylish soloists who shone through. He has signed up a young vocalist of real potential, Jenny Howe, with a rich, glowing sound and delivery that could, with time, acquire a Cleo Laine personality. Howe's stage gestures are still too contrived - she needs to free up to "fix" an audience naturally. But her firm, unfancy voice sounds just adorable.
There was much else. James Pearson's solos in Addinsell's "Warsaw Concerto" - shades of Anton Walbrook's Polish flier in Dangerous Moonlight - and Fields's own concerto were first-rate: like Harvey Brough, he is a Jacqueline Dankworth accompanist, and it showed. But it was those well-seasoned, highly professional leads - saxophonist Andy Mackintosh ("The Fisher"/"Segal Sunny Gets Blue"), Gordon Campbell ("Polka Dots and Moonbeams"), Findon again on clarinet ("Begin the Beguine") or Sammy Maine on low sax for Harry Warren's "I Know Why" - who turned this terrific concert into a real work of art.
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