Lush Life – A Tribute to Billy Strayhorn, Cadogan Hall, London

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There are many ways to remember the geniuses of jazz history: a biographical, documentary style reading interspersed with live big band arrangements and three alternating singers is how this evening’s mastermind, Alex Webb, chose to do it. His narrative, read vividly by Sirena Riley, made the case for Strayhorn as a foremost composer of the last century and rescued him from his over-bearing friend and collaborator, Ellington. The band was led by the unflappable Frank Griffith on tenor sax and clarinet, whose solos showed a well-developed sound on both instruments. Other band members were highly capable players, as a final round-table of solos proved beyond doubt.

The Cadogan Hall wasn’t sure what to make of the show at first. Despite Allen Harris’s natural stage-presence, rich vocals and masterly mic technique, which made for a fabulous opener, we were confused by the set up. Where did the music fit in this historical overview of Strayhorn’s career? It wasn’t until a few songs in, and the arrival of the excellent David McAlmont, that everyone relaxed. A further highlight came with the Fitzgerald number, ‘Imagine My Frustration’, performed with verve by Sandra Nkaké, who made up for occasionally ear-splitting amplification with excellent command of the voice in both pitch and tone.

That Strayhorn really is a standout composer in his own right was clear from any number on the programme, not least his hits ‘Take the A-Train’ and ‘Lush Life’, but with ‘Daydream’, it was impossible not to sense that we were remembering a musician of real quality. Here was a song that showed a genuine technical grasp of movements in 20th Century classical music, the ‘tone poems of Ravel and Debussy’, balanced perfectly with Strayhorn’s incredible, inimitable style. In all this was an excellent concert, with variety and solid performances all round.

      Will Kemp