SSBB doesn’t just smoke, it crackles.

Jazz Sound Records — JSR0019

Current SSBB line-up, main instruments: Michael Lamb musical director/ arrangements; Saxophones: Steve Summers – alto; Keith Robinson – alto; Jamie Toms – tenor; Mathew Forster – tenor; Sue Ferris – baritone; Trumpets: Dick Stacey, Michael Lamb, Pete Tanton, Gordon Marshall; Trombones: Kieran Parnaby, Mark Ferris, Chris Kurji-Smith, John Flood; Rhythm: Graham Don – piano; Pawel Jedrzejewski – guitar; Michael Whent – bass; Guy Swinton – drum kit

 Softly as in a Morning Sunrise (featuring Mike Lovatt – Trumpet) / Cool Struttin’ (featuring Ross Stanley – Organ) / Love for Sale (featuring Polly Gibbons – Vocal) / Sweet and Lovely (featuring Mark Nightingale) / Pete Kelly’s Blues (featuring Bruce Adams – Cornet) / Devil May Care (featuring Anthony Strong – Vocal) / Daisy Mae (featuring Gareth Lockrane – Flute) / Airegin (featuring Alan Barnes – Sax) / Twitterbug Waltz (featuring Paul Booth – Soprano Sax)

Another embarrassing South of Watford admission from me. As was the case with the excellent Doncaster Big Band (back ref to Feb 1 review?), I had not heard of the similarly excellent North-East of Watford Strictly Smokin’ Big Band. Well, I sure as heck have now and I’m wondering how I can teleport myself up North to experience a band show first hand. Better still can Ronnies or Pizza Express perhaps think about bringing the band down to London?

SSBB was founded in 2003 by Michael Lamb (trumpet player, bandleader and chief arranger/composer). Members only leave if they move away from the area. Most of the current band have been there for around 10 years, some nearer 20.  By my quick reckoning drummer (SSBB prefers the title ‘kit’) Guy Swinton has been on the band for 18 years; saxist Jamie Toms for 16 years. Only a couple of player names change across the three CDs and current line-up. Trombonist Chris Kurji-Smith had been depping in second-eleven fashion since the early days and only became a regular in January 2019. On the latest album David Hignett joins as fifth trumpet, Chris Gray is in on fifth trombone plus Dave Kerridge on tenor.

Together they pack a powerful but beautifully controlled punch. As soon as I heard this album, Strictly Smokin’ and Friends – with ‘big name’ guests on each of the eight tracks – I asked for the chance to hear SSBB’s previous projects. Harlem ’58 was a musical impression of the photo that Art Kane took in 1958 after persuading the cream of New York’s jazz talent to get up and travel uptown before crack of noon. SSBB’s Ella album features the band with terrific vocalist Alice Grace, who is ex-NYJO and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Thankfully she makes no attempt at sounding anything like Ella. Her voice is her own and all the better for it.

The three CDs were crowd-funded so the band clearly has a loyal following. Player motivation, with weekly rehearsals, is by putting on stage shows, with a theme like the Art Kane photo-shoot and audio-visual effects to accompany the music. This review kinda glues the three CDs together.

The Ella/Alice Grace album has ten tracks recorded by the band plus a fourteen-strong string and wind orchestra. Cleverly the songs are not what you immediately associate with Ella. So, there’s no scatted Mac the Knife. Instead, we get glorious versions of songs including Why Can’t You Behave (arranged by Buddy Bregman), Lullaby of Broadway (arr. Frank de Vol), I said No (arr. Marty Paich, with leader Michael Lamb on trumpet) and a hard-swinging There’s Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York (arranged by Michael Lamb). I just love this album. Alice Grace has such a tuneful and refreshing voice. The tenor sax by guesting Vasilis Xenopoulos on I Fall in Love Too Easily is a joy.

The Harlem 58 album gathers eight tracks, variously associated with musicians caught in Kane’s iconic photoshoot; Evenin’ for Jimmy Rushing, Blue Skies for Mary Lou Williams, Round Midnight for Coleman Hawkins, Bemsha Swing for Thelonious Monk, Doxy for Sonny Rollins, Song for My Father for Horace Silver, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat for Lester Young and Charles Mingus, and Blues Machine for Count Basie. To understand more about the somewhat convoluted musician/music connections, go to our web site, says SSBB. There’s no room on the sleeve note which is already in decidedly microscopic font.

I duly went online and can happily report that SSBB has an excellent web site (https://www.strictly-smokin.co.uk). There’s a treasure trove of colourfully presented information, including musician bios along with opportunities to buy CDs, merch and book tickets to concerts.

The premise behind the Strictly Smokin’ & Friends album is what it says on the sleeve; the regular band with a different super-player or singer joining forces for each track. The friends are all leading British musicians: Bruce Adams, Alan Barnes. Paul Booth, Polly Gibbons. Gareth Lockrane, Mike Lovatt, Mark Nightingale. Ross Stanley and Anthony Strong,

Bruce Adams on the ‘Pete Kelly’s Blues’ theme is a revelation. Mark Nightingale on ‘Sweet and Lovely’ is just that. If you hanker after the cooking sound of Jimmy Smith, Ross Stanley’s version of Sonny Clark’s ‘Cool Struttin’ perfectly fits the bill. I found it irresistible and have already played the track many times.

Gareth Lockrane revels in George Duke’s ‘Daisy Mae’ while Alan Barnes is wonderful Alan Barnes for Sonny Rollins’ ‘Airegin’. Anthony Strong sings ‘Devil May Care’ and Polly Gibbons nails ‘Love For Sale’.

On ‘Twitterbug Waltz’ Paul Booth, who wrote the catchy tune, conclusively disproves the old adage that the soprano sax is an ill wind that no-one blows any good.

If you enjoy West End theatre shows, or like to see big bands at the Proms backing big stars, or just go to the movies, you will very likely have heard Mike Lovatt’s trumpet, without knowing the name. Over recent years he’s become the go-to lead session and pit man and the way he cuts through and over a band is instantly recognisable. He’s credited here, of course, and predictably terrific on ‘Softly as In a Morning Sunrise’.

Although the album is ostensibly about the featured guests, they are blessed here with the backing of a truly great band. Those weekly rehearsals with regular personnel help explain why everything sounds so bright and tight, while gloriously fresh.

“When arranging a standard for the band I deliberately try not to listen to, or be influenced by, previous versions” says Michael Lamb. “I like to start with a simple lead sheet and go from there — generating my own ideas”.

The band clearly love playing what Lamb writes for them or finds for them to play. SSBB doesn’t just smoke, it crackles. After playing and writing about three such consistently invigorating albums, I need a good lie down.