27 April 2009

Ben’s Big Band Theory

Ben Marston is presenting another four concerts in his annual series. I got to the Big Band Theory outing yesterday, and enjoyed it immensely. This is a big band in the modern jazz orchestra format, playing charts written by Ben. The sound is smooth, and the horns swell with grace and pleasure. As with most Big Bands, they don’t get together too often, but you wouldn’t guess it from the performance. It seemed well intoned and tight, with a lovely relaxed rhythm section courtesy of James, John, Lachlan, and some wonderfully apt and unforced drumming from Chris. The band was a pleasure.

The tunes included some from last year’s outing and even some features that date back several iterations, including the hot features, Accidental instigation and Theophanaic synchronicity – both suitably lively and challenging tunes to end the concert with. Ben’s two larger works, the African Roadway Suite and his Canberra suite, appeared. I noticed James playing the treacherous African Roadways this year with the double bass, where he played electric last year. I can understand why he’d back off on the fast falling bass line on the second tune, but he did it justice this year on double. There were some intriguing solos: passionate explorations from John Mackey, of course (we expect nothing less!); a pairing of Joe Lloyd (alto) and James Le Fevre (baritone); a few very tasteful outpourings from Niels Rosendahl; several from Ben himself (it’s his band so he gets to star), Rob Lee on trombone and Lachlan Coventry on guitar. On the day, perhaps I was most taken by Chris Thwaite. He always plays with taste and perception, but this time he was fabulously relaxed and expressive, and I seemed to settle the band’s performance into a steady groove. I wondered if the groove was a little too laid back at times (but then I do tend to count in at a lively tempo).

Ben offered some new charts this year. Five-sty (from feisty) was in 5/4 time: rollicking but none too easy to tap, and with some contrasting horn lines that reminded me of TV cop shows. Undercurrent of discontent was another new one to me, a slightly angry cry with a shared solo on guitar and trumpet. “Choose to be childlike” and “Icy poles, beachtowells & backyard sprinklers” tell of younger, more innocent days, but the playing is no easier because of it. Childlike, especially, had some very difficult writing for the horns. Icy poles was perhaps the most reminiscent of the classical jazz big bands. But I think my favourites on the day were the two ballads, Lament for music, beautifully luxuriant and a lovely vehicle for John Mackey to express on, and Autumnal from the Canberra Suite, that just glowed with swelling horn lines.

Gathering a band like this is a labour of love, and Canberrans should support it with a regular audience in addition to their government grants. Well done, to the band, and to Ben for leading and for all the charts. A great achievement.

Ben Marston led and composed for Big Band Theory. The players were: Miroslav Bukovsky, Dan McLean, Ben Marston (trumpets), Rod Harding, Valdis Thomann, Rob Lee, Dave Hicks (trombones), James Le Fevre, Joe Lloyd, John Mackey, Adam Matthews, Niels Rosendahl (saxes), John Black (piano), Lachlan Coventry (guitar), James Luke (bass), Chris Thwaite (drums)

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