The BBC Big Band featuring Claire Martin (OBE) at the Queen’s Hall Edinburgh was a chance to not only catch the now far too rarely seen format of a 17 piece Big Band playing, but also one of the world’s best Jazz vocalists out in front paying musical homage to some of the great female vocalists of the classic Big Band eras.
The format of this show is a simple one - select some classic bands, arrangers and vocalists and bring their music to life with often special arrangements for the band and Claire Martin, and it is a format that works well, despite the fact that its very simplicity masks some very skilful arrangements and performances from everyone involved. There was also a gentle warm feeling to this performance and BBC band leader Barry Forgie and Claire Martin are not only gifted performers, but hugely knowledgeable about the history of Jazz, Big Bands and the musicians and performers of the music that they both so clearly love. Both however also have the gift of being able to share that information with an audience without it sounding like a school lecture.
The selection of music in this show is obviously a very personal one, and I suspect that for every song and vocalist chosen in this show dozens more just had to be omitted to bring us down to the final selection performed on-stage. Here we have obvious names that just could not be omitted - Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee for example, but nice to hear that Judy Garland is included here in this round-up of strong females in a too often male dominated music genre. Also nice to have Doris Day paid her tribute here too as a jazz singer as all too often her later film career obscures her rightful place here. Claire Martin as a vocalist was obviously having so much fun here paying homage to some of her very own musical icons with Lena Horne, Shirley Horn, Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan being represented here too.
What about those songs though? Well, some classics here such as the wonderful Harold Arlen/Ira Gershwin standard “The Man That Got Away”, “My One And Only Love”, and more than a few song surprises. Whatever the song, whatever the style, whatever the arrangement, Claire Martin just made everything look so comfortable and effortless here. A big band and a classic vocalist is always a wonderful sound to hear, but all too often it is too easy to forget just how good any vocalist has to be to front a big band. Unlike a small trio or quartet that can adapt easily to what a singer is doing, a big band is a bit like a locomotive train running down the tracks, and unless the vocalist has their arrangements and timings in perfect alignment with the band, this “musical train” with its own arrangements is stopping for no-one, and any weakness or error whatsoever in a vocalist’s timing or phrasing is going to stand out like a huge flashing beacon on-stage. Claire Martin of course has no such weaknesses and at all times looks like being up-front with a big band is exactly where she should be.
The BBC Big Band were also paying homage to some of the great band leaders and arrangers with legends including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billy May, Benny Goodman, Billy Strayhorn and others also getting their rightful mentions in this show. Also nice to hear the very distinctive (and not too often heard in a big band setting) sound of the Vibraphone (Anthony Kerr).
A great show with a warm and friendly atmosphere all evening. On a little personal note though, in the 21st century it would be nice to see some female faces in the band, as this show is representing some of the strong and individual women in Jazz and Big Band history.
Review by Tom King