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UK JAZZ NEWS: Smokin’ Hot Big Band. New album ‘Strictly Smokin’ and Friends’

The Strictly Smokin’ Big Band, the only ensemble of its kind in the North East of England, will launch its latest album Strictly Smokin’ and Friends with a live concert at The Fire Station, Sunderland on Friday 17 May 2024 with top UK jazz names including  Bruce Adams, Alan Barnes and Paul Booth.


“I like the element of surprise, drawing people in with something familiar to listen to and then throwing in a few curveballs,” says leader Michael Lamb. The programme for this very special performance will include brand new arrangements for the evening’s special guests.  Founded in 2003 by Michael Lamb (trumpet player, bandleader and chief arranger/composer). Interview with Michael Lamb by Kai Hoffman

The new album, Strictly Smokin’ and Friends, features impressive performances by leading British musicians including Bruce Adams, Alan Barnes, Paul Booth, Polly Gibbons, Gareth Lockrane, Mike Lovatt, Mark Nightingale, Ross Stanley and Anthony Strong. “During the grim mid-covid days, chatting on zoom,” Michael says, “the band hit upon the idea of putting together a crowdfunding campaign for a series of albums, taking inspiration from the famous photograph ‘A Great Day in Harlem’, and exploring the intricate relationships between the various jazz icons pictured in the image.” Beginning with Harlem ‘58, which explores the musical and personal stories of a number of those pictured in the photograph, the group then recorded Strictly Smokin’ Big Band Sings Ella FitzgeraldStrictly and Friends marks the third and final recording in the series for this busy and innovative ensemble. 


“Many people have this image of big band music being stuffy and old but that’s not the case,” says Lamb. “It’s often contemporary and cutting-edge – there’s space for musicians and writers to cut loose. I love the big band format, there’s so much you can do with it.” The bandleader also explains, with candour, that “the pressure is unreal sometimes, especially when it gets busy. But because we get to play so much different music with so many people, it feels really worthwhile and it’s always great in the end. As soon as you’re up there, it’s so nice to know that the band is in safe hands with everybody, all twenty of us listening and reacting to each other like a trio or a quartet. Sometimes when we’re playing, I’ll just sit back and think, this is so cool, it’s just lush. I love it.” 


Realising that “the attraction of a big band is not enough anymore,” Lamb describes some of his creative bandleading process: “Certainly in the Northeast, we find we need a show, or a hook. I had an ultimate lightbulb moment whilst looking at the ‘Great Day in Harlem.’ Everybody knows that picture, it’s iconic. So many brilliant musicians and connections. Each musician links to the next and to the next. And that’s how this series of albums and our crowdfunding campaign were developed.” 


Having started SSBB during sixth form, Michael Lamb has kept the band and their music vibrant and fresh for twenty-one years. “The scene is different up here. It’s not possible to put a gig on at a moment’s notice and know there will be some people available. But actually that means that it’s more reliable musically and logistically, because we work together all the time, we’re turning around a new show every six weeks. We rehearse weekly because we have so much to get through. There’s a really nice, social dynamic. Our drummer Guy Swinton has been with us for 18 years and lead tenor Jamie Toms for 16 years. People stay with the band. The only reason people leave is because they’re moving away. I’m really proud of that.” 


“I like the element of surprise, drawing people in with something familiar to listen to and then throwing in a few curveballs,” Lamb says. “The recording process for these albums was a bit of an experiment. For Ella, we had a whole orchestra with us. Each album was recorded in one day sessions in 2021. By the time we got to recording Strictly and Friends, we’d already done two sessions under covid-conditions, so this felt a bit more relaxed. Lots of the guests have home studios, laid their parts down and sent them back to us. With that, we realised that not only did we have a brilliant new album, but we had a whole set of fantastic play along tracks as well. These are now going to be available on our website for people to play along or sing, which is a great added bonus.” 


As mentioned above, the guests on Strictly and Friends are a veritable Who’s Who of the current UK jazz scene. Ross Stanley’s organ and the brass blasts on ‘Cool Struttin’’ add power and an insouciant swagger to Sonny Clark’s immortal tune; flute king Gareth Lockrane adds cool accents to George Duke’s ‘Daisy Mae’; and there’s a mighty new Art-Pepper-inspired arrangement of Rollins’ ‘Airegin’ featuring Alan Barnes on tenor. Also featured are new interpretations of ‘Sweet and Lovely’ (featuring Mark Nightingale), ‘Pete Kelly’s Blues’ (featuring Bruce Adams), ‘Devil May Care’ (featuring Anthony Strong) and ‘Love For Sale’ (featuring a stunning turn by Polly Gibbons on vocals). The original composition more than holds its own among this exalted company – saxophonist Paul Booth’s ‘Twitterbug Waltz’ exudes confidence with its fluent, insistent grooves.


With everything geared up for the 17th May Strictly and Friends show at The Fire Station, Michael Lamb and the Strictly Smokin’ Big Band have a packed touring schedule later this year as well, performing their Ella and Ellington show. All details at the website, https://www.strictly-smokin.co.uk/.


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