From Bards to Blues – Dame Cleo & Sir John

The Million Dollar Collection [Selection: Sailor; Madonna; La Clownesse; Hogshead of Hogarth]
Shakespeare Settings [Selection: All the world’s a stage; Blow blow thou winter wind; Where the bee sucks; You spotted snakes; Winter (when icicles hang by the wall); Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?]
Ellington / Strayhorn, arr. Dankworth
Such sweet thunder [Selection: Take all my loves (Sonnet to Hank Cinq); My love is as a fever (Sonnet to Caesar)]
Strayhorn, arr. Dankworth
Take the A Train [World premiere]
Ellington / Strayhorn, arr. Dankworth
Such sweet thunder [Selection: Cleo; Up and down]
Tonight I shall sleep
The Blues Ain’t [World premiere]
Ellington, arr. Dankworth
Creole Love Call; It don’t mean a thing (if it ain’t got that swing)

Dame Cleo Laine (singer)

Soweto Kinch & Tommy Smith (saxophones) and Guy Barker (trumpet)

John Dankworth Quintet
BBC Big Band
BBC Concert Orchestra
Sir John Dankworth

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 8 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Two of this country’s most celebrated jazz musicians, Dame Cleo Laine and Sir John Dankworth both celebrate their eightieth birthdays this year, John in September, Cleo in October. They appeared together at the Proms to mark their soon to be octogenarian status and to herald their 50th wedding anniversary next year. They met in 1951 when they were both in their early twenties and on the first rung of success in the jazz world. John’s mother was musical and his family encouraged him to take up music professionally. Inspired by Benny Goodman, he studied the clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music but, being a Charlie Parker fan, also surreptitiously played alto saxophone. On leaving college he immediately took to jazz and formed his own band, the Johnny Dankworth Seven in 1950.

Cleo is the daughter of a Jamaican father and an English mother. They lived in Southall where Cleo took singing and dancing lessons and eventually went for an audition for John’s band, her big break, since when neither he nor she has looked back. John has continued to play, compose and conduct around the world as well as building up an impressive discography. Remember his early chart hits in “Experiments with Mice” and “African Waltz”? Cleo has branched out into musical theatre while still keeping her jazz roots intact, having appeared in “Valmouth”, “Show Boat”, “The Seven Deadly Sins”, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”, “The Merry Widow”, “A Little Night Music” and “Into the Woods” among other shows. Individually and together they have made some of the best jazz albums ever recorded and worked with all the top jazz names – Ray Charles, Mel Torme, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson et al. They began their Wavendon Allmusic Plan charity in The Stables, at their Buckinghamshire home to promote all types of music and where, thirty years on, they can still command the best musicians to come and play for their loyal audiences. Along the way they have produced two exceptional musicians in their daughter, singer and actress Jacqui, and son, bass player Alec, to form what must now be considered a true musical dynasty.

One of the most successful albums from Cleo and John was “Shakespeare and all that jazz”, which was initially the title of this celebratory Promenade concert, until it was renamed “From Bards to Blues”. One of the main themes in this year’s Proms season is ‘Shakespeare and music’. In 1964 John composed “The Complete Works”, a setting of all the titles of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. It proved to be a delectable collection and one of their most successful albums ever. Cleo performed just six of these magical jazz pieces at the Prom. At almost eighty, she is walking a little slower than before, but her voice has not dimmed and in fact she sounds better than ever and can still take us into those stratospheric layers where the vocalising is so fantastic; you’re not sure if the sound you’re hearing is really human at all. It’s almost otherworldly; so pure and refined.

The other major work in this concert was the world premiere of Dankworth’s “The Blues Ain’t”, to lyrics by jazz musician Duncan Lamont. As the composer explained it’s all about the blues not being just blue because you can have happy blues, sad blues, mean blues, sweet blues, hello blues and goodbye blues. It’s not all “woke up this morning” or “I hate to see that evening sun go down”. The blues is everywhere and Dankworth’s jazz song-cycle proves just that and it makes an ideal vehicle in which Cleo can express all these varying emotions. ‘Dreams of Brazil’ is a delicious samba, which is part of the blues apparently: “But I still yearn for my Brazil / Those dreamy blues were the start of it / But samba’s the heart of it / And I was a part of it”. In ‘Jazz is a lady’ we learn that “They try and change her / But Madame jazz is really the blues / They rearrange her / But Madame jazz is still the blues … The lady’s from St Louis / Back there she’s the Queen of Bling”. That must the first use of the word ‘bling’ in a song – am I right?

Another premiere was Dankworth’s arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ train”, played by all concerned – the BBC Concert Orchestra, the BBC Big Band, the John Dankworth Quintet, guests Soweto Kinch and Tommy Smith on saxophones and Guy Barker on trumpet, all that and Cleo Laine too in an electrifying piece that was so good, they did it all over again as an encore. Barker, Smith and Kinch also played up a storm in Dankworth’s “Million Dollar Collection” from 1967 and there was more Ellington and Strayhorn in excerpts from “Such Sweet Thunder”, another work with a nod towards Shakespeare. Two of the pieces highlighted Cynthia Fleming, leader of the BBC Concert Orchestra and the extraordinary Guy Barker. Lastly, there were brilliant accounts of Ellington’s ‘Tonight I shall sleep’ featuring Dankworth on sax, ‘Creole Love Call’ with Cleo hitting the heights again and a finale of ‘It don’t mean a thing’.

With music and musicians like these, it means a great big thing because it’s certainly got that swing when virtuosos like Laine and Dankworth are around to inspire the rest of the musical world. 80 not out and no signs of retirement – not bad at all!

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