Shanti Das reviews NYJO at Thornbury festival

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NYJO @ Armstrong Hall, Thornbury Arts Festival, 20/04/13
Shanti Das

The National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) certainly put the ‘youth’ back into ‘jazz’ with their performance at the Thornbury Arts Festival last week: not only did they manage to mesmerize an audience spanning generations but they did so with astounding ease.

NYJO comprises aspiring musicians under 25 and is one of the country’s longest-running and most successful jazz ensembles, boasting alumni including Amy Winehouse and Guy Barker. The aim is to “raise the profile of jazz among young people” and tonight they take steps to do just that, playing a set juxtaposing old fashioned big-band numbers with cutting-edge contemporary pieces and confident, funky energy with mellower sounds. Just to reiterate how ‘current’ the whole thing can be, musical director Mark Armstrong reads the score from an iPad screen.

The music seeps into every crack in the walls: from beginning to end, NYJO’s performance captivates as arrangements build, grow and flit back and forth between serenity and urgency. From the smooth, classic vocals of Jessica Dowdeswell which conjure images of New York in 42nd Street’s ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ to the enviable fluency of Rob Luft’s guitar-playing and various entrancing solos, the talent being showcased this evening is spectacular. But whilst furrowed brows concentrating on fingers plucking strings, pressing valves and skating over keyboards with furious speed are met by equally furious applause, it is the exhilarating energy flaunting itself on stage which really creates electricity in the atmosphere.

There is a definite chemistry about the timelessness of jazz alongside the fresh-faces of NYJO. The orchestra veers away from traditional formalities in favour of a relaxed environment and this is something which translates in a performance featuring spellbinding ability, lots of foot-tapping and smiles which plaster faces with every absence of a mouthpiece.

As the audience is treated to a final encore performance of a funked-up rendition of ‘Feelin’ Good,’ it becomes easy to understand how the orchestra earned its reputation as a “gateway to the profession.” Even to those who have no idea what a trumpet is, there is no doubt that for the spellbinding talent showcased at the Armstrong Hall this evening the future after NYJO is bright, and the stages graced will be grand.

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