Earlier this month, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s Jazz Orchestra presented a programme of pianist, composer and Guildhall professor Ivo Neame’s original Big Band compositions and arrangements, including his newly composed suite The Rise of the Lizard People. The livestream was recorded at Milton Court.
Music is the the universal heart of all things that unravel into something so powerful, that one truly finds purpose and meaning in its presence. Whilst most live reviews this year often started with a tentative ” ‘This year, during lockdown, we still got to attend a livestream and the experience was grand” , I chose to begin this review by saying: Music is here to stay, live, resonating so vividly and lovingly between the musicians on stage. It was indeed a rather sentimental journey for me personally, returning as it were digitally to my alma -mater, and watching one of my most esteemed professors Scott Stroman lead the way for the talented youth of our future , whilst shining the spotlight on the rather formidable featured guest composer and professor , Ivo Neame.
“Contemporary jazz, with rhythmic undertones which are fun – always grooving, always swinging” – Scott Stroman. That’s certainly the best way to describe the vibe of the impressive first set, under the baton of the formidable Scott Stromann. The evening began with two of his original suites, ‘Snow’ & ‘JT 23’. Featuring the mesmerizing vocals of Aitzi Cofre Real, ‘Snow’ was imprinted with the theme bestowed by it’s title, a perfect choice to introduce the ethereal yet familiar tone of the evening. ‘JT23’ was a joyful contrast to the nostalgia of Snow, beginning with a strong and stellar rhythm section in particular led by a very confident Oliver Peszynski on drums, Sebastian Maniura on double bass, the incredible control of pianist Milena Granci, in full synch with guitarist Nicholas Elmer, who truly captured the joyful spirit of the piece as was evident on camera. The backings to Flo Plugh’s ( tenor sax) brilliant solo created a wonderful image that conveyed joy within chaos , at first quiet and timid, then incredibly dexterous and assertive. A pleasant surprise was had when drummer Peszynski solo’d with such harmonious ease amidst the wonderfully vocalised backings by the entire orchestra , very reminiscent of Arturo Sandoval’s stylised audience invited backings. Sam Gale (trombone ) held his own before taking the stage to render electronic soundscapes for the composer that followed ,Django Bates ( known for his work with Loose Tubes). ‘Fox across the Road’ lent itself to showcasing the more free improvised capabilities of the extremely talented orchestra. Incessant rhythmic changes, dystopian harmony, all owning up to the authenticity of a piece ( and its following neighbour, ‘The Loneliness of Being Right’. Rather than just channelling the fusion and frenetic energy that Delightful Precipice brought, the Orchestra brought their own improvising power to both compositions, featuring Charlie Jones ( guest on Tuba) along with seasoned performers in the horn and brass section ( Noel Langely). It’s a tough endeavour to hold the attention to this kind of fusion , and that said, the brilliant sonic blending of counterpoint between the brass, horn and flautists ( Martina Mihulkova and Ritu Sipola) was indeed, an epic feat. Once again, Stroman put it brilliantly ‘ One has to wonder how wide the road was ‘ – in reference to the ‘Fox’ protagonist. Kaidi Akinibi emerged more confidently on ‘ The loneliness of being right’, charged by the highly intensified and wonderfully organised chaos of his colleagues. The spoken word reference was understated , ( intentionally so) and by the time the piece ended I was somewhat taken aback- that insanity nearly draws you in . A befitting title for the track, no doubt.
It was truly perfect timing to shift direction and move over to the compositions of the guest of honour, Ivo Neame. You could truly feel the joy from the Guildhall students in this set, rising to the opportunity to build upon each narrative soundscape brought about by each composition . Neame’s unique sound lends itself to his incredible award-winning career as a multi-instrumentalist, composer and arranger having worked with a truly impressive diverse range of ensembles , including the London Sinfonietta, The Frankfurt Radio Big Band and Phronesis. There is a certain other-wordly quality to Ivo’s music, starting with the ‘ Rise of the Lizard People’. If existentialism could sound like anything, it would sound like this piece, only heightened by the solos of Finn Bradley ( Trumpet) and Chris Edset ( Alto -Sax). I was especially moved by the delicate yet empowering playing of pianist Milena Granci in ‘ Broken Brains’, a composition leaning closer to the traditional ‘songwriting’ form, and the tite perhaps alluding to a sense of broken ‘dreams’. Softer in tone and richer in texture, it was lovely to hear the individual playing of drummer Theodore Guttenplan on this one. It was greatly refreshing to here Stroman introduce Neame unto the stage, mentioning that his music was especially composed during lockdown,before handing it to Noel Langley ( Trumpet) to co- arrange the parts. ‘Strega’ , an ode to Neame’s wife ( what a truly wonderful gift ) stood out as a 2 part composition, at once echoing a harmonious Philip Glass, then shifting into a wonderful latin groove ( A special nod to the second bassist William Gould), full of breathing space for melodic re-phrasing from featured soloists . Cascading in sound, timbre and groove, it paved the way for a warm and truth be told, humbling introduction to his compositions by Neame, who took the stand to conduct . Paying a heartfelt tribute to the younger musicians who performed his pieces, he spoke about the importance of still creating and playing during this arduous year . A well timed spoken prelude so to speak, to the following medley of compositions ‘ Perseverance One and Two’. If one were to illustrate the imagery of these compositions, it would begin with standing at a waterfall, looking overhead at the water cascading downwards, yet seeming unfaded by what could happen. The music held that kind of strength, signaling a time of hope through change, being forced down a winding road only to end up where one needed to to have started . Ultimately, it felt like perseverance. How Neame managed to capture that so exquisitely is astounding, and truly a mark of a musician who makes a personable story very relatable. It was therefore no surprise to see all the younger musicians onstage truly change expressions as they played; I can only imagine that even for the briefest of moments they were being reminded of the hardship of not knowing what the future held, yet knowing that music would help them figure it out . ‘Perseverance Two ‘ saw Neame on the piano , giving us a wonderful new insight to the word ‘perseverance’. Intense, controlled playing with an intro so invigorating it seemed like the whole piece could rest on it. His solo was a truly direct response to the energised Akkinibi who posed a question of ‘what now’- Neame’s answer was honestly, at least to my ears, ‘just play’. You could certainly hear most of Neame’s diverse influences here, and it’s important to mention that although an artist is not defined by their influences, they certainly shape them. The most favourable moment of the entire evening therefore, was Neame’s solo piano, allowing his genius to unfold unto a melodic symphony all on its own. It was the story, I discovered, of the human spirit, of quiet diligence. The orchestra returned with such effortless precision that only enhanced this, once again with sublime solos from players bringing the evening to a finish that begged a question: will lockdown ever end? Because this music needs to be heard, for an actual audience.with actual people, once again quoting Stroman, ‘ with musicians side by side, like a real big band’.
An honour to listen to such effortless mastery from all.
To find out more about the music and award-winning career of composer Ivo Neame, visit here