Sunday, August 01, 2004

Swingin' Cats

The BBC Proms is the biggest musical festival in Britain. It was started by Queen Victoria, and the Last Night at the Proms, broadcast live and screened in parks around London, is an event that allows the British to really display their national pride. I decided to go and see the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra this year, the only non-classical performance in the programme. Four pound standing room only tickets go on sale before the start of the concert and Lizzie and I lined up for three hours for our tickets. Thankfully the night was gorgeous – clear, warm and balmy – perfect conditions for perching on stone steps for hours keeping an eagle eye out for queue jumpers. Even better was that we were right by the huge BMW people mover with tinted windows when it disgorged the orchestra itself - the American jazz musicians alighted, grinned at the crowd, eyed a few girls and sauntered into the Hall. We had lined up for the Gallery, the very top tier of the Royal Albert Hall, and we sat on the floor and peered down through the wrought iron railings into the vast hall below.

The orchestra was pure magic. They had rhythm, they had melody, and what they couldn't do with soul wasn't worth knowing. The air in the Hall was heavy and still with the heat and when you added the sound wriggling it's way into my blood via my ears, my entire body was captured by the music. At some points the beat was so insistent I felt my blood was punching holes through my skin in an attempt to dance unfettered. The leader of the Orchestra was a trumpeter and his skill was undeniable – incredible passages of trumpet solos delivered in double time with a stunning clarity, like having each note dropped as a diamond in your ear. At one point the drummer drove a movement entirely with a tambourine, proving the slightly naff instrument had a range of sound that equalled his drum kit.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the performance was the edgy warmth of the methods of making sounds. I got to hear scat singing for the first time which nearly had me forgetting to breathe as I tried to follow the singer’s swoops and loops of sound. The pianist reached into his open piano at one point and stroked his notes out of the piano wires while the double bass player used his wooden instrument as a drum – not the way I would have thought you could use the instrument and therefore all the more entertaining. Some of the musicians had three instruments and swapped with surprising ease from saxophone to clarinet to an unidentifiable-by-your-correspondent instrument variously throughout the song. And finally and very fittingly, the men used themselves and their surroundings to add that extra dimension – trombone and trumpet mutes were slammed repeatedly into the floor as another strong bass beat, the entire orchestra tapped their feet in complicated rhythms as they played and there were even solos when the rest of the orchestra were clapping, stamping and making low calls. Altogether the performance began to take on a personal and embracing feel.

What I loved most was the camaraderie between the musicians themselves and the orchestra with the crowd. As each section or musician played their part the others would turn around to watch and enjoy – bopping their heads or dancing slightly in pleasure. When we came to the second encore only six people came back on stage but they stood together in a tighter group, gathering around each soloist, and the rest sprawled out on the other side of the stage to listen. The crowd itself was a very appreciative one – never stinting on enthusiastic applause for each solo and managing to wring two encores from musicians. The last snatch of the concert was a trumpet solo that made you gasp, and as we raced down the stairs to get the last tube home I felt like I was leaving a jamming session with friends rather than a concert.