HB Jazz Club Big Band

2 June, MTG
By Jamie Macphail

Nothing quite says “Golden Age” like a Jazz Big Band. Mere mention of one evokes lush and opulent images. Think The Great Gatsby and that wonderful Coppola movie Sugar Club. Champagne and foxtrots. The glittering side of Art Deco.

Walking into the auditorium of the MTG on Saturday night for the HB Jazz Club Big Band the opulence was lacking. Here was a stripped back version, with a contemporary electronic keyboard and Fender guitar on stage, and an iPod on the bandleader’s music stand. But the brass and wind instruments caught the light and I settled in to my seat with an open mind.

The 21st Century doesn’t do ‘formal’ quite like the 20th Century did.  The band arrives in black jeans and shirts embroidered with a bold logo. Shirts open, some sleeves rolled up.  No tuxedos or matching linen suits here.

There are eighteen musicians in the band, and they walk on and get straight down to business with Night in Tunisia, a superb Dizzy Gillespie tune. There’s a bright, energised sound to it all, it’s exciting.

Short songs, a few individual flourishes, but this is an orchestra and they work as a very tight team.  The songs are familiar and this is fun. One song ends, a quick, slick vocal introduction, and Bam!, we’re into the next one.

Lyn Fry, looking glamorous, joins them on vocals for Sunny Side of The Street, her voice working like another instrument in the band.  It doesn’t soar above or shine out, but it works nicely.

Then Alan Stephenson comes on stage. A 7” single of his was in my record collection as a teenager.  That was back when he was Steve Allen, and he won a competition to write and perform the NZ Commonwealth Games Anthem in 1973, with Join Together.

Alan has a commanding stage presence, handles a microphone with the grace and ease of someone who has done it many, many times.  He looks great on stage, and his vocal style is perfect for these songs.  Here’s a crooner, working the words and melodies to make them silken smooth and sassy. Nice work. I just really hope he was joking when he credited “Me & Mrs Jones” to Michael Buble!

The second set begins much as the first did.  Snappy Orchestrated Jazz.

Debbie Harwood is best known for her band “When The Cat’s Away”, primarily a covers band that made the songs they sang bigger hits in NZ than the originals had ever been. She’s also one of our great Women of Rock, working for a time with Jimmy Barnes’ band and many others.  Interestingly Debbie also sang in Te Reo for four years with Moana Maniapoto, once performing for the Dalai Lama.

She’s worked with jazz before, but it’s a real treat to see her with a full Big Band.  It feels like she relishes the opportunity, and the band ups their game a notch to support her. Debbie is able to bring soft and sensitive to a big band sound in the way Sarah Vaughn used to.  I’m not comparing the two, but it is a very fine art to bring softness, lightness and fragility to such a full brassy sound.  Debbie nails it. She sings a personal favourite of hers, a Stan Kenton number, Willow Weep For Me and brings to it a delicate whispishness that’s a delight. When gusto is needed she has it too!  Mambo Italianio is full of verve and oomph.

A night of Big Band Jazz is a night of nostalgia.  This is music from another time. But this crew brought it to life, had fun with it. And so did I.

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