The BBC Big Band featuring Claire Martin OBE – The Queen’s Hall

From the moment of the first introduction, the band executed flawless control over notes and dynamics. Led by the remarkable conductor and arranger Barry Forgie, the band was musically impeccable. Whether it was large group passages or virtuosic solos, I am impressed by how they embody their repertoire.

This group cymbal-ises (pun intended) so much more than just musicians with a love of jazz – their brilliant execution and perfectly timed rhythms represent the history they share with each other. They are so familiar with the material, such that the conductor doesn’t even conduct half the time! Forgie, though a brilliant conductor and composer, often stands to the side for musicians to carry on playing and capturing the spotlight.

Although this was interesting and impressive, I found that the band’s lack of communication with each other missed an important performance aesthetic, especially with Big Band Jazz music. Closing my eyes, I felt their love for the music and the joy from each note, their musical phrasing and dynamics painting a beautiful colour. Witnessing the live event, however, changed this perspective. It almost seemed as if they were recorded, especially the first half, where the conductor pressed play and off they went in perfect synch. Whilst that musical skill itself was impressive and surely took immense practice, it felt a little rigid as a performance. The players barely looked up from their score, and did not display much visual enthusiasm for music that they are clearly passionate about. This was especially odd for jazz, which relies on communication and participation.

However, guest singer Claire Martin was phenomenal and highly contrasted against the (visually) un-expressive band through her beaming personality. She had immense control over her tone and phrases. As such, her execution of songs by ‘divas’ such as Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzerald was powerful, yet at the same time, capable of showing the vulnerability which is common in such love songs. Each note clearly portrayed her love for singing and the jazz repertoire, which was refreshing to see in concert.

Their repertoire pays tribute to leading ladies of jazz, from Billie Holiday to Judy Garland. It displays a beautiful mix of timbre, with various mutes employed by brass instruments. This not only exhibits the range of sounds that can be produced, but also foregrounds the wonderful solos in the arrangements. Almost every player in the band had solo passages to play, in which masterful techniques are displayed. Jeremy Brown on the double bass did not get much special mention however, in spite of his holding the band together through his notable bass lines that provided so much more depth to the sound. Additionally, the delicate upper register of the piano is also often highlighted, which was a pleasurable contrast against the brash sounds of the band. All this was possible through the wonderful arrangements: many were works of Barry Forgie, whose understanding of layers and dynamics brought a whole other level of joy to the music.

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Erica Cham

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