SATURDAY 20th MAY 2023
QUEEN'S HALL, HEXHAM
The Strictly Smokin' Big Band on tour. Who'd have thought it? From the band's formation (MD Michael Lamb was still at school!) through to a string of successful concerts at Hoochie Coochie, Sage Gateshead and elsewhere, not forgetting the now legendary Christmas shows at Gosforth Civic Theatre, the Strictly Smokin' can do no wrong.
Art Kane's famous 1958 group portrait photograph of a gathering of the great and good of the jazz world outside a NYC brownstone sparked the idea of touring a concert programme inspired by and commemorating the momentous occasion.
Half an hour before curtain up, in an all but deserted auditorium, a woman took her front row seat. Looking at a projected image high above the stage (see photo), the woman asked if tonight's bands was from Harlem. Not exactly, replied your correspondent...
As the house lights dimmed, the near full house heard the strains of Avenue C. The recorded music gave way to the SSBB's rhythm section seamlessly picking up the tune. The horns took it up, the auditorium reverberating to the sound of the Basie band/SSBB. MD Michael Lamb as narrator began to tell the story of Art Kane and a truly 'Great Day in Harlem'. Famous, indeed legendary, musicians 'walked out' of the photograph into the Queen's Hall spotlight. Historical context, both musical and political, gave a sense of time and place. Our MD handed on the narrative baton to several members of the orchestra who, in turn, would introduce the next number and onto the next.
As an ensemble the SSBB is as good as they come. What places the band a cut above most others is a plethora of outstanding soloists in all sections; variously Pete Tanton (turbo-charged trumpet on Night in Tunisia), Chris Kurgi-Smith (trombone), all five of the reeds - Jamie Toms, Matt Forster (Body and Soul a feature), Steve Summers (alongside star vocalist Alice Grace, blowing the solo of the night on Social Call), Keith Robinson (Horace Silver's Song for My Father), Sue Ferris (baritone, brilliant, full stop). And then there was Mr Graham Don, seated at the Queen's Hall's Steinway concert grand. From Basie to Mary Lou Williams to Horace Silver, Graham had it all at his fingertips.
The Strictly Smokin' boasts a top class rhythm section (guitarist Pawel 'Pav' Jedrzejewski, bassist Michael Whent and drummer Guy Swinton), excellent sections and, to top it off, the band's quite wonderful vocalist, Ms Alice Grace. Harlem '58 is a show for the jazz nut and anyone who appreciates excellent musicianship presented with flawless professionalism. The Strictly Smokin' Big Band's tour continues, check out forthcoming dates at: www.strictly-smokin.co.uk.