“The lights are low,” the BBC announcer inaccurately informed a packed and brightly lit Royal Albert Hall, to put the radio audience in the mood for the National Youth Jazz Orchestra’s late-night Prom. In the 47th year of this influential band’s existence (Guy Barker and Amy Winehouse were once members), NYJO was marking the retirement of its founder Bill Ashton, the arrival of new director and trumpeter Mark Armstrong, and the launch of a CD fittingly entitled The Change.
Change wasn’t immediately evident until the show warmed up, however. Jazz still squeezes on to the Proms in the after-hours slot, and the night’s mix of classic big-band flagwavers and originals by band members and guests has been NYJO policy for years. But a slyly revealed and soon blazing Proms premiere of Duke Ellington’s 1930 Rockin’ in Rhythm quickly established that NYJO’s collective temperature has gone up.
As conductor, Armstrong capered ecstatically in front of a youth band professional enough to nail the most complex section-playing, with a string of gifted soloists (some of them still at secondary school) delivering almost languidly trenchant improvisations. The harmonically beguiling, Kenny Wheeler-influenced account of Hush, by Nikki Iles, and Wheeler’s own Know Where You Are (from 1990’s Sweet Time Suite) featured superb solos from pianist Chris Eldred and the 18-year-old guitarist Rob Luft.
A tempo-swapping Armstrong arrangement of Monk’s ‘Round Midnight glowed with confident power, and flautist/saxist Chris Whiter’s The Change (a thoroughly contemporary layering of instrumental textures and rhythm patterns) sounded as if it could be in the repertoire for years.
Ellington’s Caravan sparked showers of sax fireworks; the band sailed through star UK saxist Tim Garland’s giddily capricious Agro Alegría (with Garland guesting on tenor sax and Mark Mondesir on drums); and if sophisticated singer Emma Smith was obliged to turn the Nina Simone vehicle Feeling Good into an encore’s knees-up, she preserved as much of its wondering spirit as she could.
Review : John Fordham / Photo : Ted Rockley