Digby Fairweather’s Half Dozen at the Bull’s Head Barnes.

a review from Jill Summers

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‘Surely such fine music deserves more than this’. These were Digby Fairweather’s words as he and trombonist Chris Gower climbed back onto the stage at the Bull’s Head, on Tuesday 26 th September, after adding to the audience’s applause for clarinettist Julian Marc Stringle’s tour de force ‘Running Wild’. But Digby was not admonishing the twenty or so souls present, whose appreciation was unstinting all evening. He was ruefully referring to the rows of empty seats in front of him and lamenting the inevitable absence of the crackle of alternating electricity between players and audience, the life blood of live performance.

During Julian’s feature it was natural to be drawn to a non-stop stream associated with Benny Goodman and, perhaps, I like to think, the muscular endurance of Johnny Dodds, if that isn’t too high flown, but distilled into an own brand heady brew. Two whole choruses delivered without accompaniment had the seamless iridescence of water plunging over a high fall. The effect was stunning and was given an ovation and was also a prime example of why this band refuses to be pigeon holed.

Members have totally assimilated influences on them: The lyricism of Ruby Braff and fire of Wild Bill Davidson for Digby, and perhaps Oscar Peterson and Errol Garner for Craig Milverton. I’ve made suggestions for Julian Marc Stringle and I’m open to suggestions for trombonist Chris Gower, Dominic Ashworth, guitar, Bill Coleman, bass and Nick Milburn, drums who, in a band that has a very tight ensemble and excellent arrangements, all soloed brilliantly. During one such I was ‘szuzzing’ away in my head and just stopped myself whistling as if from Winetka. My aside that Bill’s bass was beautifully resonant, was hushed with, ‘It is amplified!’, to which I indignantly replied, ‘It sounds bowed!’

Distance from originators, used to mean surviving on recordings and tribute bands. Is it too much to expect us now to be capable of welcoming and supporting a band that refuses to be categorized, has made its own niche and can be likened to a blend of fine sherry containing elements going back decades? The best of this band is that it follows the American tradition of the thirties and forties of being a ‘good little big band’, ‘good’ being an understatement for the best.

True to jazz origins and to touch base the evening began with a barnstorming ‘At the Jazz Band Ball’, immediately balanced by a middle ground but incontrovertible ‘She’s Funny that Way’, which had Digby and Chris, who moments before had been pawing the ground, cooing like sucking doves. This also featured the first of many excellent guitar solos from Dominic. We were privileged to have, as company in the audience, Joyce Stone, widow of famous Dance Band leader of the thirties and forties, Lew Stone. Digby dedicated the next number, ‘Serenade in Blue’, originally from a Glen Miller film, appropriately enough for this occasion, called ‘Orchestra Wives’, to Joyce with gracious thanks. Here Julian’s soft centred alto was matched by Digby’s whispering trumpet and the normally gruff trombone interrupting tenderly.

In the interval gentle probing of the origin of Digby’s embouchure was inconclusive. Not necessarily Nat Gonella, Wild Bill also used a similar technique and, like Digby, played a trumpet-cornet. So maybe that’s a clue. An early attempt at correction was disastrous and reversion to ‘side of mouth’ revealed pure gold and there was no looking back! More importantly, it was also amazing to learn that Digby only formed his first band just over ten years ago, indicating a lengthy prior gestation period to formulate ideas on the sound he was after.

Halfway through the second set we relaxed as the close harmony group, Digby, Julian, Craig and Dominic was introduced firstly, displaying their true colours with ‘I Should Care’ and then rapidly getting to grips with ‘Liza’. Certainly not Lambert, Hendricks, Ross: more a residue of ‘Rhythm Boys’ piloted perilously through the ‘Roaring Forties’ with a healthy dash of ‘Four Freshmen’ and all performed tongues in cheeks, an art in itself, to raise a cheer. This was not before Digby had once more displayed his Braff/Davidson amalgam with a ‘My Honey’ replete with some ‘Louis’ stop-time, followed by a stylish ‘I Cover the Waterfront’.

Last but nowhere near least, the audience got their just dessert as Helen Baden floated onto the stage and delivered, with a tuneful and graceful ease, an appropriate ‘September in the Rain’ followed by an agonizingly cathartic ‘Gee Baby Aint I Good to you’. Helen, at the risk of teaching granny to suck eggs, can we ask you to get the boys to back you on Kurt Weill’s ‘The Saga of Jenny’? After Helen’s final offering, ‘So Nice to Come Home To’, we were ushered onto the riverside wondering whether as these words were articulated Helen was glancing towards the sales table where copies of the band’s latest CD were temptingly displayed.

October 13, 2006