“Hoods, Horns & Hooch” at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival
It's 1955, every town has it own ballroom, big-band and vocalists and swing's the thing.
Well no it isn't, actually. Unless you're the producer of BBC Radio 2's Friday Night is Music Night. In which case you gather musical forces en masse: the Guy Barker Big Band, the BBC Concert Orchestra and singers Kurt Elling, Curtis Stigers and Lianne Carroll and you create a ballroom extravaganza on air.
As one who approaches these epic broadcasts with cynicism, I have to confess to having been converted by this explosion of a show.
The linking storyline, cheerfully narrated by Jeremy Vine, told the history of the USA's 1920-33 prohibition of alcohol. Bad DJ-type musical links occasionally grated, but the facts beguiled. Did you know that there were 100,000 illegal gin joints in New York?
The opener was Benny Goodman's classic Sing, Sing, Sing played with disciplined abandon by Barker's stunning band.
Yet the real delight was the way each singer adapted to the long gone format.
Liane Carroll, an extrovert Cockney from the soul side of jazz, drilled down to discover her hidden Sarah Vaughan.
The Midnight Sun and The Man I Love are art songs in anyone's book, and Liane lent them vocal precision and emotional development.
It would be great to hear more of the same. Meanwhile, her soulful, sexy, outrageously funny I Want to Love You All Night Long will do very nicely.
Curtis Stigers who enjoyed hit parade success with I Wonder Why is now a singer of all trades, with a likeable talking style.
He found the enjoyment key to simple material like Someday You're Be Sorry and Million Dollar Baby, and the nostalgic edge in Blame it on my Youth.
Most fascinating of all was Kurt Elling, a hugely sophisticated jazz singer with a four-octave range. Would he die of embarrassment singing I Can't Give You Anything But Love? Would Elling fans die listening?
No. Kurt entered full-heartedly into the showbiz camaraderie…and could any singer detach from such a driving band?
And there were his art songs. He has arranged and written lyrics to versions of Ellington tunes: Von Freeman's take on I Like the Sunrise, and Cootie Williams' Tutti for Cootie.
Here was artistry indeed. But he was also the fun king. On Minnie the Moocher the audience had to repeat each of his fantastic melodic inventions. They never missed a beat! Who said Cheltenham isn't hip?
If ballrooms can be this cool, let's have a new one tomorrow!