A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of presenting and performing with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. It was the launch of a yearlong programme of events and initiatives called The EQ Project designed to remix the gender balance in jazz. The concert celebrated compositions and songs written by women from the 30’s through to present day.
We started with a beautiful piece, and a favourite of the band, called Hush by pianist Nikki Illes. I then sang a selection of songs by the likes of Marilyn (And Alan) Bergman (What are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life), Doris Fisher (That Old Devil Called Love) and er…me. Then came a stunning work titled El Viento, composed and arranged by the incredible musician and American band leader Maria Schneider.
Excitingly it was then time to unleash the first brand new commissioned piece of the evening. You Do? By saxophonist Issie Barratt. It was very well played and brilliantly received.
We opened the 2nd half with songs written by Dorothy Fields (A Fine Romance), Peggy Lee (alternative lyrics to Fever) and Ann Ronell (Willow Weep For Me) before moving on to pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite written in 1947 and very recently orchestrated for big band, by young trumpeter and composer Laura Jurd who herself was a member of NYJO till 2011.
I am a big Mary Lou Williams fan, to me she was as great as Duke Ellington. He was a great admirer himself, saying “Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing have always been a little ahead throughout her career. Her music retains, and maintains, a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul.”
Laura’s reading of Mary Lou’s work was just brilliant. At the end of the concert whilst searching for the trumpet 4 part of A Fine Romance, I had a 5 minute chat with Laura and Issie about the wonderful Ms Williams.
Muddy and I finally set off only to find ourselves stranded on the M4, 30 cars behind a broken down lorry in single lane roadworks. Although she never said a word I could sense that the question on Muddy’s lips went along the lines of, “When does a 5 minute conversation about one of the jazz world’s most unsung heroes warrant sitting in the dark for 3 hours in the freezing cold. Discuss.”
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