By all accounts, no doubt fostered by those with ideas of making a profit from them, big bands are on the way back. This seems odd, not to say ludicrous. The full-time, professional ones have dwindled to almost nought, because running them became uneconomic and their following evaporated. They played the pop music of the day in the Swing Era of the 1930s and 1940s and their featured vocalists were megastars. But small soon became beautiful and of narrow focus and they disappeared over the hill. Their legacy is borne by ensembles such as the Monmouth Big Band and by big band societies, who play the old charts and keep interest alive. Composer bandleaders such as Maria Schneider may be thought to have furthered the tradition artistically and created interest among students on many college jazz courses, not least in Britain. But whether or not those alumni have sufficient clout or cash to create a second wave is debatable.
The Monmouth band has a new MD, the Herefordshire trumpeter Mike Prestage, and this was only his second outing with it in public. They drew an almost full house to the Savoy Theatre, Monmouth’s glorious chunk of Grade 2-listed Edwardiana (actually the site of the oldest working theatre in Wales), which proved either that the band has a big following locally or that big-band music is enjoying a renaissance. Probably a bit of both. The second musician to mention is trombonist Gareth Roberts, Prestage’s predecessor, who maintained the level at which the new man can build or consolidate. Both gladly accept the opportunity to direct a band in front of which they can perform as soloists.
The Monmouth Band is an all-amateur 17-piece in more or less the traditional mould, on this occasion added to by vocalists Iain McIntyre and Jen Millar and with, interestingly, two baritone saxes in the reed depths – Rod Cunningham and Richard Cryer. Prestage asserted his authority by sometimes waving a baton in the Paul Whiteman manner and gave the performance of the night when he switched to flugelhorn for Bobby Shew’s Blue, the composer’s tribute to the trumpeter Blue Mitchell. Jazz musicians amateur and professional are often more comfortable with ballad tempi.
Prestage announced that the Blues and the music of Duke Ellington would feature prominently. Among the Ellingtonia were Caravan (actually written by Ellington and his trombonist Juan Tizol); Things Ain’t What They Used To Be (written by Duke’s son, Mercer); and Take The A Train (written by Ellington’s right-hand man Billy Strayhorn), in which Prestage played trumpet in emulation of Duke’s trumpeter/violinist Ray Nance. For Bill Holman’s Flirt, Prestage duetted with tenor-saxophonist Tom Henesey. McIntyre and Miller also duetted in the second half with The Lady Is A Tramp and another Ellington number It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) the latter providing scope for some inspired scatting. Millar solos were Miss Otis Regrets, Skylark, and Big Spender; MacIntyre’s Mr Bojangles, Beyond the Sea (La Mer), and the Sinatra reprise That’s Life. Both singers caught the big band sense of the vocals as instrumental augmentation and extension.
The lovely band intro to Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark, the complex patterns of Nat Adderley’s Work Song (with its trombone choir) and other episodes elsewhere on the programme underscored the fact that without arrangers none of these charts could have taken off. But nowhere were they mentioned. Maybe in future they can be given due credit.
Amateur jazz musicians have to battle to come within even sniffing range of professional expertise. This band gave it everything, reading the written charts with confidence and bravely standing up to take solos, encouraged and inspired no doubt by their leader’s example.
Monmouth Big Band are Karen Millar (piano); James Leney (bass); Louis Barfe (drums); James Graham and Adam Huxtec (alto sax);Tom Henesey and Jenny Cook (tenor sax); Rod Cunningham and Richard Cryer (baritone sax); Peter Lloyd, Colin Roberts, David Bourner and Martin Leighton (trombone); Terry Claxton, Joe Bentley (dep at this concert) John Lindsey, Ken McDonald (trumpet).