Even though it meant missing the first set of Michael Gibbs’ 80th birthday concert at the Vortex, the idea of hearing Donald Fagen’s first solo album played by the new intake of students on the jazz course at the Guildhall School on Monday night was impossible to resist. The Nightfly is a wonderful album, made by a man in early middle aged in the era of Reagan looking back at how things felt as the era of Eisenhower shaded into that of Kennedy, in that brief period of illusory optimism when prosperity and progress seemed to be the prevailing forces, before the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights marches and the Vietnam protests took over. I thought it might be interesting to see how it sounded in the era of a president whose name I don’t even want to type out on this blog.
Also I wanted to hear a bunch of young players. And first, as an hors d’oeuvre, came a succession of seven small groups under the supervision of their tutors — Tom Challenger, Yazz Ahmed, Gareth Williams, Gareth Lockrane, Robbie Robson, Barak Schmool and Stuart Hall — playing short pieces based on ideas suggested by the album, each group having the benefit of a mere three hours’ preparation. All were interesting, but my ear was caught most readily by a lovely Mingusian variation on a phrase from “New Frontier” played by Challenger’s septet and by Williams’s sextet arrangement of “Ruby Baby”, which soured the harmonies in a George Russell-ish way and provided space for cracking solos by the altoist saxophonist Albert Hills Wright and the trumpeter James Beardmore.
Introducing the evening, Scott Stroman, a professor in the jazz department since 1983, had reminded us: “These guys didn’t even know each other last week” — the start of the academic year. It hardly seemed possible. There were also fine individual contributions from the fiery tenor saxophonist Asha Parkinson, the astonishingly eloquent pianist Jay Verma, and the assured drummer Zoot Warren.
After the interval came the main course. Malcolm Edmonstone, the head of the Guildhall’s jazz programme, had transcribed and arranged the entire album for a group of 57 students, including 13 singers who shared the lead around and fleshed out the close harmonies, and a load of pianists, guitarists, bassists and drummers who alternated the rhythm section roles.
Under the precise, assertive and invigorating baton of Giles Thornton, the band soared through “I.G.Y.” on Mark Fincham’s confident bass lines, articulated the strut of “Green Flower Street” with crisp power, absolutely nailed the sublime hip-swinging arrangement of “Ruby Baby” (with Parkinson’s tenor again making its mark), glided through the yearning “Maxine”, hustled through “New Frontier” (although there doesn’t seem to be a chromatic harmonica player in the class of ’17), locked into the fingerpopping groove of “The Nightfly”, and sauntered and shuffled through “The Goodbye Look” and “Walk Between Raindrops”.
When you think about it, these young musicians were pitting themselves against the achievements of Marcus Miller, Jeff Porcaro, Larry Carlton, Dean Parks, the Brecker brothers, Greg Phillinganes, James Gadson and the rest of the crew of first-call virtuosi assembled by Fagen back in 1982. The result was joy and exhilaration all the way, delighting the large audience of friends and family assembled in the concert hall at Milton Court.
(And I made it to the Vortex for the second half of Mike Gibbs’ birthday celebration with his 14-piece band, a glorious series of glowing set-ups for soloists like the trumpeter Percy Pursglove, the altoist John O’Gallagher and the guitarist Mike Walker. It was nice to think that some of this year’s Guildhall students will be carving out similar reputations before too long.)