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Thursday, 6 January 2011

Big band Bonanza

In December the Sarah Ellen Hughes big band was born!  Our first gig was at Ruislip Manor.  It was so much fun, and hopefully we'll be back in May.

Here's the review.

The Sarah Ellen Hughes Big Band (December 5th)

The Band: Sarah Ellen Hughes (vocals/flute, front right) and Anna Hughes (vocals/trumpet/flugel, front left) co-leading (from left) Rob Taggart (keyboard); Matt Ridley (bass); Paul Robinson (drums); Henry Armburg-Jennings, Richard Freeman, Gabriel Garrick, Mark Perry (trumpets); Chris Lowe, Martin Gladdish, Natalie Whitts (tenor trombones); Ollie King (bass trombone); saxophones: Brandon Allen (tenor), Jamie O'Donnell (alto), Phil Knights (alto), Tom Stone (tenor), Richard Shepherd (baritone).

The Music: Too Close For Comfort (v) (Jerry Bock/Lawrence Holofcener/George Weiss, arr. Patrick Williams) : Midnight Sun (v) (J Francis Burke/Johnny Mercer) : Wait And See (v) (Bill Ashton, arr. Paul Higgs) : Return Flight (Tom Stone) : All Of Me (Seymour Simmons, arr. Phil Knights) : A-Tisket, A-Tasket (v) (Van Alexander/Ella Fitzgerald) : You Go To My Head (v) (J Fred Coots/Haven Gillespie) : But Not For Me (George & Ira Gershwin) : That Old Black Magic (v) (Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer, arr. Billy May) : Oh Lady Be Good (v) (George & Ira Gershwin) : When Sunny Gets Blue (v) (Marvin Fisher/Jack Segal) : Someone (v) (Bill Ashton, arr. Evan Jolly) : Big P (Jimmy Heath, arr. Henry Armburg-Jennings) : I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm (v) (Irving Berlin) : Putney Vale (Tom Stone, arr. Callum Au) : Twos Hughes Blues (Sarah Ellen Hughes) : In The Bleak Mid-Winter (Gustav Holst/Christina Rosetti, arr. Sarah Ellen Hughes) : Jingle Bells (James Lord Pierpont, arr. John Clayton jnr./Natalie Cole)

The Gig: Winter’s gloom lifted temporarily, both literally and metaphorically, for this eagerly-anticipated session, an unseasonably rare sunny Sunday enticing in from the cold a goodly crowd to witness and enjoy the launch of the Sarah Ellen Hughes Big Band, live at The Manor…

From the very first number – Too Close For Comfort – a groovily swinging ensemble work-out, it was clear that this gig, and this band, was going to be something special – Sarah Ellen (left) demonstrating from the outset just why she’s deservedly been gathering plaudits for her vocal prowess.  A switch in pace saw that beautiful ballad, Midnight Sun, given a rarely heard vocal outing. Sarah Ellen initially pitched the verse and chorus over the sax section and a mass of muted trumpets, while her twin sister, Anna Hughes, provided the front mic flugelhorn intro and counterpoint – Anna then played a plangent double time flugel solo before the concluding vocal. Marvellous stuff!

When Sarah Ellen left NYJO almost three years ago Bill Ashton presented her with a number of his vocal charts that she particularly liked. One of these was Wait And See, a gentle bossa nova which started as a vocal/piano duet (Rob Taggart doing the honours on keyboard), then added a flavouring of flute (courtesy of Phil Knights) before the full band joined in – Jamie O’Donnell took the fine alto solo.

There were just two fully instrumental numbers in this set: the first, Return Flight, written by second tenor Tom Stone, also has NYJO connections – it had been performed here just two weeks before. After Rob’s piano intro, Mark Perry and Sarah Ellen (on flute) together stated the theme of this medium-paced, Latin-tinged number. Mark and Tom each took a solo and Paul Robinson (right) added some powerful percussive interludes towards the end.

The second, Phil’s Basie-esque arrangement of All Of Me, had an extended intro by the rhythm section, some rumbustious ensemble work and featured a lovely solo by Rob over the full band – absolutely cracking!

Returning to the vocal mic, Sarah Ellen dusted off the old Ella Fitzgerald number, ATisket, A-Tasket based, she said, on a 19th Century nursery rhyme – so maybe Van Alexander was only responsible for the band’s vocal interjections!  Whatever, it was great fun… By contrast, You Go To My Head was a gentle, Latin-flavoured quintet feature for Sarah Ellen, singing initially with the rhythm section and subsequently joined by Martin Gladdish, who also provided the trombone solo and an achingly beautiful descant line to the concluding vocal.

The penultimate number of the first set marked another change – Sarah Ellen had arranged But Not For Me as a sprightly vocal duet feature for herself and sister Anna, accompanied by members of the sax section.  After Paul’s spirited drum intro, the impressively matched voices of the talented twins swung into the verse and chorus before Phil, Jamie, Tom and Richard Shepherd each soloed in turn. Jon Hendricks’s alternate lyrics made an appearance in the middle section, Paul provided a drum break and then the girls alternated fours and duetted all the way to the drum-supported coda. Just wonderful!

Which only left That Old Black Magic to weave its spell and send everyone buzzing with delight at what they’d just heard and in anticipation of delights yet to come…

Set two bounded into action with a couple of quintet numbers: after an a capella vocal intro, Oh Lady Be Good saw Brandon Allen (right) joining Sarah Ellen and the rhythm section and providing a lovely tenor counterpoint to the second chorus. Brandon, Rob and Matt Ridley also contributed solos before Sarah Ellen (scatting), Paul and Brandon alternated fours into the coda. Slowing things down, Anna then joined her sister for a vocal duet on When Sunny Gets Blue which, after the piano intro, had a ‘twins and tenor’ interlude before Rob’s extended solo – more vocal duetting over Brandon’s tenor descant brought proceedings to a close.

The full band returned for Evan Jolly’s arrangement of Bill Ashton’s Someone, an archetypal big band swinger on which Anna took the lead vocal, being joined later by Sarah Ellen for some duetting – the sax section then had a soli before more vocal duetting over muted trumpets led to the big finish.

Jimmy Heath is a somewhat neglected jazz writer but Henry Armburg-Jennings’ (left) arrangement of Big P went some way to setting this to rights.  Matt’s bass intro over piano and drums gave way to the band before Henry’s extended solo – Richard and Rob each then had solos before the ensemble finish, complete with tremolo saxes…

I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm started with some Latin flavouring before Sarah Ellen’s vocal settled into a swing groove – Phil took the alto solo. Tom then generously offered his own ballad composition, Putney Vale, to Brandon, who grasped the chance of a tenor  feature with both hands – Gabriel Garrick and Rob also contributed solos.

Back to the duets, but this time with a difference – after Rob’s relaxed intro, Twos Hughes Blues featured the purely instrumental talents of Sarah Ellen and Anna on flute and muted trumpet respectively (right), kicking back on an original which did exactly what the title suggests.  Chris Lowe, Gabriel, Richard and Jamie all contributed solos, whilst Matt interjected some appropriate bass fills over the leads’ duet coda.

The inevitable Christmas offerings were left until the end, on the basis, Sarah Ellen said: “…that it’s much nearer to Christmas now than it was at 12.30”. In her arrangement of Gustav Holst’s setting of Christina Rosetti’s In The Bleak Mid-Winter, after a rubato chorale introduction the rhythm section settled into a slow rock groove before the sisters singly and then together (left) made the gloomy lyrics glow.  Jamie (soprano) and Mark took solos before Sarah Ellen’s scat vocal and another vocal duet chorus preceded the muted trumpet and soprano sax coda – seasonably smashing stuff!

Jingle Bells featured in a band’s programme for the second time in seven days – this version though was a sexily swinging arrangement, originally written by John Clayton Jnr for Natalie Cole, to which Sarah Ellen did full vocal justice. Richard Freeman contributed the obligatory ‘neighing’ trumpet interjections and Brandon added a tremendous tenor solo before Sarah Ellen's sleigh bells suitably rounded off the concert. 

For two week’s running there have been unanimous audience accolades for a band appearing at The Manor, and the music it played – the requests again this week were all along the lines of: “You must have this band back!”. With the proviso that we’re able to count on a viable level of audience support for all the bands we host here, we’ll be in a position to continue our promotions and accede to such requests. And if so, the Sarah Ellen Hughes Big Band may well be returning in late spring…
Steve Harris / Ian Fielding 

Photos Bill Ashton/Steve Harris

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