Honouring ‘jazz greats’ has become something of a staple over recent Proms seasons, often with little reason other than to fill-out the schedule, though when it comes to Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, whose centenaries fall in April and October, there was an imperative to mark the occasions in style. Thus it was that Dianne Reeves and James Morrison, who both worked closely with Fitzgerald and Gillespie, and can claim direct succession with authority, joined the BBC Concert Orchestra and John Mauceri for this centenary tribute.
Mauceri (in only his second Proms appearance in twenty-nine years) is well-versed in this music as scholar and conductor; his new edition of George Gershwin’s Manhattan Rhapsody, original version (as it appeared in the 1931 film Delicious) of what became the Second Rhapsody, made for a fitting curtain-raiser – its breezy eloquence well-suited to Victor Sangiorgio, whose low-key appearances here were undoubted enhancements. Reeves then took the stage for a smooth while insinuating take on Gershwin’s late standard ‘A Foggy Day (in London Town)’, before Morrison upped the ante when turning Ray Noble’s forceful ‘Cherokee’ into a bristling toccata workout. The moody soulfulness of Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’ responded in equal degree to Morrison’s restrained intensity, as did Gershwin’s ‘Embraceable You’ to Reeves’s nailing of its high notes and dextrous playing from her regular pianist Peter Martin. Mauceri then put the BBC Concert Orchestra through its collective paces with Duke Ellington’s Harlem – the most enduring of his essays in symphonic jazz, given with just the right combination of discipline and panache.
Neither was the orchestra found wanting in the Latino sultriness of Ernesto Lecuona’s Jungle Drums, spearheaded by the tom-tom assaults of Alasdair Malloy, Stephen Whibley and Julian Poole. Reeves and Morrison together negotiated the shifting time-signatures of Gershwin’s ‘Fascinatin’ Rhythm’ with aplomb, while Morrison and his Trio surged through Manteca – Gillespie’s explosive collaboration with Chano Pozo and Gil Fuller. The BBCCO provided respite with the sombre and ominous motion of Caravan, penned by Ellington and Juan Tizol, before Reeves was joined by Sangiorgio for ‘Tango du Jour’ – the singer’s collaboration with Raúl Midon in this affectionate yet high-octane tribute to the tango artists of her youth, fairly taking off in the closing samba. Morrison retook the stage with his heady take on A Night in Tunisia, one of Gillespie’s early successes which remained one of his musical calling-cards, before singer, trumpeter and pianist shared equal billing for Lullaby of Birdland – George Shearing’s highly affecting tribute to the legendary jazz club which mad for a suitable finale.
Mention of Shearing is a reminder that his centenary falls in 1919 and would be well worth a similar commemoration at one of these concerts. For now, however, all those taking part duly reassembled for an encore in the guise of ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’, Ellington’s 1931 evergreen which gave rise to Reeves’s best scat-singing of the night, as well as summoning a truly stentorian response from Morrison: arousing conclusion to an evening in which the essential purpose of these tributes was successfully and engagingly reaffirmed.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms