Jazz Voice: Paean to the art of the song gets EFG London Jazz Festival off to coruscating start

Is it just me, or do Guy Barker's orchestral charts for Jazz Voice get more refined, more nuanced, more richly detailed every year? Effectively becoming earworm central last night, the Barbican resounded with tintinnabulating glockenspiels, delicately plucked harp strings, punchy horn charts and luxuriant strings, as Barker sprinkled his arranging magic over the customary epoch-spanning celebration of anniversaries, birthdays and milestones stretching back from 2014.
Grounded by the fabulous rhythm section of pianist Dave Newton, bassist Chris Hill, drummer Ralph Salmins and the colouristic percussion of Paul Clarvis, the 40-piece orchestra, brilliantly led by Sonia Slany, created the impressively varied textural backdrops that ranged from the languid to the barnstorming. As I write, countless riffs and motifs are still bombinating around my skull.

And the singing wasn't half bad either. Following a languorous orchestral intro, Kurt Elling set the benchmark ridiculously high with his fabulous take on Joe Jackson's “Steppin' Out” from his 2011 album The Gate. Elling's incredible control of the melodic line never fails to impress, but the way in which he sculpted seemingly endless phrases in the standard “All the Way” was quite extraordinary.

Jacqui Dankworth's “Smile” provided the first half's still, moving centrepiece

Effortlessly drawing you into the song's narrative, Dee Dee Bridgewater's take on Horace Silver's “Lonely Woman” was a standout, while 23-year-old Jacob Banks showed why he's being tipped as one of the UK's most promising new talents, with a voice that channelled classic Motown. On “Ribbons in the Sky” and “What's Going On”, Vula Malinga threatened to dislodge some of the Barbican's light fittings with her fantastically big sound.

There were some real surprises too: Natalie Williams shone in an unlikely, soul-drenched Beatles medley, and, featuring her fulsome legato, Jacqui Dankworth's “Smile” provided the first half's still, moving centrepiece. Caressing the lyrics with a practised ease, Emma Smith's timbral richness lit up the evergreen “Blame It On My Youth”. Sachal proved a suitably seductive protagonist in a superb, gear-changing arrangement of “There's A Boat That's Leaving For New York”.

And the prize for the most heartwarming sight of the night? Georgie Fame, gamely belting out his 1964 number one hit, “Yeh Yeh” and bringing the first set to a rousing conclusion. Featuring Elling and Bridgewater on backing vocals, Fame's take on “Georgia” in the second set confirmed that the pipes are still in fine working order.

Jovially hosted by Jumoké Fashola and Ian Shaw, the latter leading the crowd-pleasing finale with everyone on stage, this paean to the art of the song got the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival off to a coruscating start. Given the ease with which song details could have slipped out in advance, the artists' collective vow of silence in this age of oversharing was unusually refreshing. In any case, it's so much more fun trying to second guess which anniversary Barker will choose to celebrate.

Rating: * * * * *