I've never quite worked Frome out. It's a sleepy little Somerset market town with a big industrial past. It may seem dull, but it's full of surprises, and I always think going there is a bit of an adventure. It's not a wacky old hippie place like Glastonbury, but there's something quirky about it which gives it a lot of flavour. And I can't be the only one who feels drawn, because recently it has started attracting quite a sprinkling of talented people to live there, many of whom are, oddly, jazz musicians. Conductor Jason Thornton, pianists John Law and Gareth Williams, saxophonists Iain Ballamy, Pee Wee Ellis and Mike Mower, etc, etc, all seem to live within a stone's throw of each other, as does the jazz organiser and promoter Nod Knowles.
Well, this week it has been the Frome Festival, and you'd think with all these players living so close together that someone would have had the sense to get them together and make them do something communal in Frome. And blow me down, someone did. Martin Bax, festival director, put it to them months ago that as they would all be in town, as would concert pianist Peter Donohue, why did they not put their heads together and come up with a concert?
That is the way that disasters are born, but not this time. Wednesday night's concert by the Frome All Stars (one night only, folks, before they disband) was a wonderful mish-mash and a tour de force. At its largest, for such numbers as the final showcase, Rhapsody in Blue, under the lash of the Thornton baton, the group was about 20 strong, approximating to the line-up of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra at the Gershwin 1924 world premiere, but quite often they split up into smaller groups doing their own thing. The first piece was a Bach fugue. The second was Ballamy's quietly contrapuntal arrangement of Jerome Kern's "All The Things You Are", with solos all round. The third was John Law's "Nocturne" featuring lovely soprano saxophone from Iain Ballamy - but I think you get the idea.
As I sat there, and the Frome Memorial Theatre alternately swung and shimmered, I found myself thinking of a juke box I had been shocked by as a teenager in Paris. There had been a record by Sidney Bechet on it. A jazz record on a jukebox! But that wasn't all. Next to it there was a Mozart record. Jazz and classics on the same jukebox! Well worth an exclamation mark. The man behind that jukebox had realised that good music of all sorts can sit side by side in the same clubhouse without people resigning in protest. It is the message preached nowadays by Late Junction on Radio 3 and it was practised heroically on Wednesday.
For his two solo pieces, for instance, Peter Donohue chose a Latin-flavoured Debussy piece and a crunching Messiaen number, listening to which was as invigorating as going through a car wash, without a car. ("I knew you'd like it," he said, as we clapped him in relief afterwards.) Soprano Deryn Edwards sang "Summertime" in a nifty arrangement by husband Mark Williams, and although my heart sank when she opened up with the whole operatic soprano bit, she was only kidding us, because when she reprised it she showed that she had a great huskier, sexier, jazzier voice as well. No wonder she was in the Swingles for years.
And she made a good compere too. One of the depressing things about classical concerts is that nobody ever talks to the audience, but here almost everyone wanted to say something to us. Most unexpected announcement was Mike Mower's: "Isn't it awful when you realise you've got the wrong trousers on? They never told me ..." (Everyone else was dressed in black. He was wearing an eye-catching pair of sandy trousers and a check shirt. He played great flute, though.) Best sight was ace pianist Peter Donohue, having bowled us over with Rhapsody in Blue, then thrashing away on bongos during the funky encore. Best musician, I fancy, was Martin France on drums, who can paint more colours with just two brushes and a snare drum than many drummers with the full kit, and still put hundreds of volts through a band when necessary.
And the best reason for me writing about it all today is that if I don't, nobody outside Frome will ever know that such things can happen.Reuse content