This gala showcase works like a vocal beauty parade. It's a big-budget affair on a very big stage with a very big screen that kicks off the London Jazz Festival every year, always master-minded by the indefatigable Guy Barker. It's Barker who scores, arranges and conducts, no mean feat when he's writing for nine different vocalists whose stylistic range is so wide. What's more he's scoring for a full big band packed with top players happy to solo on the jazzier things, as well as a lush, 23-piece string orchestra. Each performer's song choice is usually linked to an anniversary of, say, its composer's birth or demise or of the melody's first appearance on record. Eclectic maybe but certainly crowd-pleasing on the evidence of Friday's SRO audience and their whooping reactions.
On first was the ever-resourceful Kurt Elling, bounding in on Steppin' Out, up on his points, taking risks, jazz feeling personified and rewarded by a blazing Barker score. Elling was the only singer to name-check the soloists, notably pianist Dave Newton and drummer Ralph Salmins, the latter a hidden hero of the entire evening, triumphant in the face of a multiplicity of challenges. The London-based Vula Malinga is more of an acquired taste, heavily gospel-oriented with a propensity for the overly histrionic, an affliction that affected a number of singers on the bill. Not so Emma Smith, a classy, straight-sounding performer who impressed on Dance Me to the End of Love or Jacqui Dankworth whose heartfelt version of Chaplin's Smile was both affecting and technically flawless. Unaccountably she was overlooked for a repeat spot in the second half.
Sachal came with plaudits aplenty but looked ill at ease, whereas Dee Dee Bridgwater was in definite command from note one on Pretty Eyes. Expressive doesn’t even begin to cover it for she has the body language of an Olympic gymnast and vocal flexibility to match. I wish I could be similarly enthusiastic about Jacob Banks, Birmingham-born but another who seemed in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then came the first-half highlight, Kurt Elling and the similarly hip Georgie Fame - easily the best-dressed man on this stage - on Minnie the Moocher, hamming it up and having fun. Fame then gave us Yeah, Yeah at full tilt, the big band roaring. Vocal heaven!
Barker's Blue Note Medley - it's the label’s 75th anniversary - kicked off part two, skilfully done before back came Dee Dee Bridgewater and then Jacob Banks, happier on Jackie Wilson's Higher and Higher but still looking a tad bewildered. Emma Smith sang Blame It on My Youth slowly, with feeling, Newton pacing her every move before Natalie Williams appeared, wearing more feathers than Big Chief Sitting Bull, the crowd up for her every soulful syllable. More followed from Georgie Fame on Mood Indigo, the opening wa-wa theme played brilliantly by the twin trombones of Alistair White and Barnaby Dickenson, Fame bending notes and reaching deep down. Vula Malinga and Sachal were next, the latter still sounding like misplaced show singer, before Elling emerged again and sang 'All the Way', a cappella at first, a magical Martin Shaw flugel solo preceding a final jam-up tribute to Ray Charles with everyone getting far too excited, most notably madcap compere Ian Shaw...but then he usually does. As ever, a mixed bag with more golden moments than usual and yes, hugely entertaining.