Proms: John Dankworth and Cleo Laine RAH, London
Monday 01 September 1997
Whatever the statistics, the venue or the cultural pecking order between classical and other music, a high-profile evening exposing these two artists is always worth enjoying. This was a fact known to the Albert Hall's near- capacity audience on Friday, who rapturously received a class act honed to perfection through decades of experience.
There is after all in this country jazz, and then, perhaps, Dankworth jazz, by provenance a London product, but built enduringly, and to travel. As this rich yet not cloying programme showed, it's a compilation product. Laine's voice, amazing at 70 but amazing at any age, is one important element. Dankworth's brilliant and highly personal arrangements are another (he's also an excellent composer in an excellently old-fashioned sense). The Dankworth Sextet, seasoned performers though young in looks as in spirit, pull it all together. The rest of the trick lies in the Dankworths' dialogue, extending friendship and intimacy, as long as the performance lasts, to the audience not en masse, but as a mass of individuals.
The show began with tributes to English literature: a Shakespeare Fantasia and instrumental What the Dickens! suite. A Dunsinane Blues and Take all my Loves (Sonnet 40), ardently delivered by Laine, gave a taste of things to come. The dirge from Cymbeline and Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? added an antidote of melancholy, with some pretty neat setting of England prosody by the way. In musical code, Dickens's name became an angular motif, bell-like when played as a chord, and a useful bookend for episodes with Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers' shady solicitors Dobson and Fogg (Dankworth and Tim Garland in slippery saxophone duet). The first half ended with Ellington's "Caravan" in Dankworth's raunchy symphonic arrangement, barking brass and manic rhythm section against clarinet and trombone solo choruses.
There were two more Dankworth scores after the interval. Double Vision, a BBC commission and world premiere, and excerpts from the Zodiac Variations of 1964 might have convinced you it was his evening. But then enter Dame Cleo Laine to sing Gershwin's "Biding My Time", Billie Holiday's "Fine and Mellow", and four Duke Ellington songs. The voice reigned supreme, skilfully working the microphone in another Gershwin number, "I've Got a Crush On You", and barking out, with superb diction, Holiday's classic lines with the backing of the full sextet.
Alternating clarinet and sax, Dankworth kept up the pace with riffs and backings, adding fine inventions of his own to Ellington's "Creole Love Song". "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" unleashed Laine's scat singing on a suspecting public. After that experience, there was no need for an encore.
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