Classical Exceptional big band performance

Exceptional big band performance

Often one hears concerts that are quite good. Less frequently, there are great performances that impress with their energy and virtuosity. And on very rare occasions, there are gigs that leave you with a “wow, aren’t I lucky to be human and alive” feeling. The North Sea Big Band’s set yesterday fell firmly into the last category.

The programme of original compositions by South African Shannon Mowday, and Norwegians Arne Hiorth and Geir Lysne, featured a slew of outstanding local and European players including Melvin Peters (piano), Shaun Johannes (bass), James Bassingthwaighte (trombone), Chris Engel (saxophones), Tarjei Grimsby (trombone), and Frank Brodahl (trumpet).

Eschewing the soli and shout choruses that characterise traditional big band arranging, the composers aligned themselves more closely with the rougher and more adventurous aesthetics of figures like Carla Bley and Charlie Haden. The set opened with two pieces by Mowday. The first was an optimistic African-inspired number which saw spirited trumpet and saxophone solos. Her second piece, with its sporadic outbursts of free-jazz improvisation, recalled the raucous and crazy-beautiful writing on Carla Bley’s Escalator over the Hill.

Lysne’s exquisitely designed contributions were charmingly melodic, formally clever, and full of quirky wit and humour. From their joyful faces and exuberant playing it was utterly clear that the band were having the time of their lives. Johannes, in particular, was outstanding throughout, and his bass grooves were the powerful engine that drove the entire performance. The three percussionists created open textures and inviting grooves that were full of delicious detail.

Although the entire performance was brilliant, I found Lysne’s looped solo on flute, voice and saxophone particularly original and evocative. I also relished the guest appearance of South African icon Alvin Dyers on guitar. His solo in Hiorth’s tribute to Jimmy Dludlu brought a welcome dose of an older South African jazz sound into the contemporary Afro-European sound of this exceptional big band.

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