Review: Selwyn Jazz vs. Fitz Swing

Our new jazz reviewer declares Fitz Swing winners by knockout in this clash of the titans.

Birdland c Jazz Fitz Muis Selwyn

Selwyn Jazz vs. Fitz Swing @ Clare Cellars, Sunday 31 January

‘Birdland’ opened the show – but I was annoyed.  From the off, Selwyn did not come together in musical matrimony.  No eyes between drums and keys meant timing conflicts and a certain rhythmic flatness, made worse by the groove master’s intent focus on his sheet music. Come on, guys! This is jazz!  The music is the guideline, not the rule. 

Timing blighted other sections of the band; in general, the ensemble in the individual sections was good, but ensemble breaks – particularly the trombones – tended to push ahead of the beat.  The sax section was quite good, but was tarnished by the inexcusable school-band swoop.  Every phrase was intoned, the essence of provincial casino or middle-brow porn. There needs to be some better solo work in the band. Lead alto Ali Penman’s solos were determined, but predictable.

I did love the trumpet section. Real power and real crispness cut out the higher notes of the arrangements, and the lead trumpet’s wonderfully physical performance had me beaming.  High notes on the trumpet mean very tight lips.  To muster up that muscular tension, Brendan Bates takes a stride, thrusts the hips forward, and tilts the head back as he forces it all out. 

The singers gave me great pleasure.  Emily Sherwin is a very good frontwoman.  She is animated, with charming audience interaction, and depth to her voice. I wanted a bit more oomph, though; she didn’t open out into the upper register, really push from the diaphragm, which left her rendition of ‘Fever’ willing energy.  I thought the lindy hoppers were afoot when I saw the dapper Abtin Sadeghi – black braces and squared-off tie – looking ready to bounce into life.  He is Selwyn’s male singer, and with a broad, warm voice and caddish grin, made my knickers tingle.

And then bang!  There was a mighty opening from Fitz with a teasingly groovy arrangement of ‘The Chicken’, immortalised by Jaco Pastorius.  This band is tight as a shirt buttonhole; the illustrious Gwilym Bowen’s arm chops out the beat, and everybody follows it.  Fitz have got a funky reputation, and the drummer left little to desire; I loved the breakbeat and hip-hop inspired grooves; his meter was generally very good, only occasionally clipping the end off the beat.

Bowen’s fluidity at the keys reminds me of the great – and only very recently late – Earl Wild, a scintillating virtuoso pianist. His rhythmic generosity to Nick Goodwin on guitar gave the rhythm section real clout; it is rare to hear much more than chord work from a big-band guitarist, but Goodwin had the freedom to explore the full extent of his fretboard.

I could not take my eyes off Cat Barker on bass trombone. I have a thing about pretty girls manipulating very large pieces of equipment – and she does it well.  The saxes played a nice ensemble, but were, with the exception of Nick Sutcliffe, individually a little weak. I wanted more from the tenors, and second alto seemed to be looking for a lead too often.  Sutcliffe’s improvisation was dynamic; his sound reminded me of Cannonball Adderley, and his playful lines were a joy to hear.  He tried to bring the level down at one point, but, unfortunately the rhythm section were not listening; Bowen did pick up on a pattern later on, and there was some nice foreplay before the solo climaxed.

Fitz, like Selwyn, play a fairly orthodox repertoire, but the arrangements are more complex and harmonically adventurous than standard renditions. If I have one major complaint about Fitz’s set, it was the lack of compere.  The audience needs to know what’s what, and to leave them hanging when they have come to be entertained is a cardinal sin. A secondary quibble: the trumpets were disappointingly thin in this band – and not only because there was none of Brendan Bates’ shenanigans.

There was a final face-off, with both bands on stage together – but the finale made the truth clear; Fitz dominated the proceedings, without a doubt.  Selwyn jazz is your standard youth band, but you would want Fitz Swing at your posh wedding.