[email protected]’s: Varsity Battle of the Bands

Cambridge showed Oxford how to jizzle their jazzle at this years John’s Jazz Battle, writes TOM BARDSELY

Catherine Harrison CUJO Jazz josh ison trio nat king cole oxford university s.t. john's college Varsity

Fisher Building, S.t. John’s College, 9pm, Friday 27th January, £4

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[email protected]’s leaped into Lent term as Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra went head-to-head against their Oxford rivals to find out which boffins can be-bop the best.

Visitors Oxford University Jazz Orchestra (OUJO) opened the night and set a high standard for their Cambridge counterparts.  The twenty-strong band had to struggle to get the crowd warmed up but their strong set of swing classics soon had most of the room partnered up and dancing (whilst I awkwardly stood in the middle, on my own).

As a band, OUJO were a strong and well-oiled ensemble, but where they really stood out was with their vocal numbers. Vocalists Francesca Aquilina and Alastair Livesey did an excellent job of capturing the mood, particularly with Nat Cole’s Orange Colour Sky and the Gershwin’s The Man I Love. In these softer songs the horn section played sensitively, really leaning into the wonderful jazz harmonies, yet never overpowering the vocalist. If I had one criticism it would be that OUJO’s brass failed to deliver the gut punch that I was looking for in some numbers and I was left waiting to be knocked off my feet by the wall of brass before me. Nonetheless OUJO put on a great show with some outstanding solos from the drummer in Cute by Count Basie, and an impressive, Cannonball Adderley-esque alto sax solo in their final number.

Afterwards I took time to go into the bar and listen to the third act of that night: the Josh Ison Trio. A regular on the London jazz scene, Ison provided a break from the big bands with his free form, post-bop tenor playing. These were certainly three, highly accomplished jazz musicians yet I couldn’t help but find them a bit impenetrable. While a few hardened jazz connoisseurs look on, earnestly bobbing their heads, sadly the rest of the crowd – most of whom were just trying to get to the bar – seemed indifferent.

After a minor delay, CUJO finally took to the stage and immediately lived up to the hype. Although not much larger than their Oxford cousins, the home band had a lot more vivacity and brought the house down with their opener Cut ‘n Run. This was a real homage to Gordon Goodwin with frantic saxophone and trombone soli that could only be described as, in the words of my former music teacher, ‘tight as a duck’s arse’. CUJO were less of a swing band and more of a modern jazz orchestra, they moved through genres as diverse as bossa and funk, effortlessly flicking between rhythms and time signatures whilst maintaining a high energy performance that engaged the entire audience.

The sultry Catherine Harrison joined the band for several numbers, providing soulful interludes and diversity to a very rhythm-heavy set. Highlights for me came in the form of a fantastic guitar solo, highly technical yet subdued, and from the virtuosic bassist that would give even Jaco Pastorius a run for his money (apologies for that reference if you’re not a jazz-bass geek). This talented ensemble really seemed to be enjoying themselves – I have never seen anyone look as happy on stage as CUJO’s conga player – and the home crowd responded enthusiastically. My pinnacle of night was shamelessly dancing to the Brecker Brothers’ Some Skunk Funk; CUJO perfectly conveyed the song’s infectious funk groove and intricate horn parts. It was a real treat.

The music from both bands proved to be technically brilliant, yet easily accessible to all, and CUJO was undoubtedly the better band. Overall, a superb night and I can’t wait until next year.