The National Youth Jazz Orchestra’s debut appearance at the BBC Proms marks a change in their perception as a professional orchestra, and aptly coincides with the release of their latest CD The Change. Led by the sharply-dressed Mark Armstrong, NYJO were allowed 90 minutes to showcase why they have been at the forefront of British Jazz since their inception by Bill Ashton OBE in the 1960s.
Opening with Ellington’s Rocking in Rhythm, so began a selection of music from classic standards to compositions by both British jazz stars and NYJO members past and present. From the outset, NYJO had a struggle on its hands: despite being a ‘big band,’ this 22-strong group looked lost on the giant stage, and the rhythm section’s hard swing didn’t come across as you might imagine it would in a compact jazz club. However, a carefully selected program was the key to success: a lush, melodic and marvelously arranged Hush (Nikki Iles) and Know Where You Are from Kenny Wheeler’s Sweet Time Suite coped with the acoustics perfectly. Solos from Nadim Teimoori (tenor sax) and Louis Dowdeswell (trumpet) demonstrated the maturity of these young players.
One of the strengths of NYJO is its ability and willingness to showcase music from within its ranks. Musical Director Mark Armstrong contributed a refreshingly funky arrangement of Feeling Good - featuring superb vocals from Emma Smith, while lead trombonist Callum Au’s treatment of Caravan was as good as any I’ve heard. The BBC had commissioned a work for this occasion, and NYJO chose to invite British jazz maestro Tim Garland as composer and soloist. His Spanish-influenced Agro Alegria was a majestic end to the show.
But the highlight for me was young saxophonist Chris Whiter’s The Change, a well-orchestrated and engaging piece, hinting towards the developments happening in the infrastructure of the orchestra. NYJO has not forgotten its roots, but has embraced them in the move forward. Long may it continue.