Plong Reaches The Dizzy Heights

Pete Long’s new band recreates the big band sound of Gillespie.

He’s the great contemporary jazz chameleon. You never know what colour jacket he’ll be wearing - and even less idea about the repertoire. Having echoed Ellington and built the Basie-based 9.20 Deluxe, Pete Long’s next move was to join up with Jools Holland. Now he’s back with a new band of his own, playing the music of Dizzy Gillespie from the 1940s.

Gillespieana made its debut at The 100 Club on Thursday 27 December 2001 with an enthusiastic crowd of friends ‘n’ rellys, jazz buffs and even a few dancers to cheer them on. The band was bigger than Echoes of Ellington, with five trumpets, three trombones and six saxophones laid on top of a five-piece rhythm section that included two drummers - but not at the same time.

And what a fine sound they made. Kicking off the first set with Dizzy’s radio opener Play On and then into Cool Breeze, the tone was set with some mighty fast rhythms and some hot horn. In this case, not only hot but loud, as Johnny Scott pinned the front row to the back wall with sheer volume. Winston Rollins helpfully moved the mike back three feet to sort this out.

No glam lady vocalist on this occasion, but the singing duties were ably taken up by Colin Skinner ("Edinburgh’s voice of sex") and a familiar looking "Specky McVoutie". Ooh Ya Koo was their opening duet, consisting (as did most of the songs) of endlessly repeated nonsense interwoven with some scat.

Gillespieana saxophones
Gillespieana saxophone section

The Gillespie repertoire allows for the musicians to really shine, as most numbers have at least three solo spots. Algo Bueno featured a fine sax line from Pete Long, While trumpeter Steve Fishwick led the band through Our Delight, a tricky little swing number. Vibes man Alan Grahame then got his chance with a rhythm-section only rendition of The Nearness Of You.

Looking around, you could have thrown together a decent band from the audience, with Juliet Lewis, Peter Ripper, Jay Craig and Ray Gelato in the audience. Gelato in particular appeared to have a twin brother when vocalist Specky McVoutie took the mike. Arranger Alan Prosser, who also did the Ellington book for Long, was introduced and got a well-deserved round of applause for his work. When asked later if that was how it all sounded in his head he replied, "Yes - only not as loud!"

Bassist Jim Richardson laid down some fine lines for One Bass Hit in the first set, and followed that with the imaginatively-titled Two Bass Hit later. Colin Skinner then had a solo vocal on I Waited For you, which Pete Long was sure would have been covered by Frank Sinatra had it not been for the "crap lyrics". Guy Barker provided the necessary vocal line in Ooh Bop Sh’Bam, as well as some rugged high-register trumpet.

There were not many opportunities for the dancers, since most numbers were unknown to them, and even when they started promisingly, there was always the danger that 12 bars in it would become a polyrhythmic soup and leave them stranded and struggling to find a beat. This kind of music is featured in the short film "Jivin’ In Bebop", which has dancers, but much more in a jazz and tap style than partner dancing.

As if to hammer home the point, the second set opened with Salt Peanuts, where you’re lucky if the bar ends with the same rhythm as it began. But musically it is exhilarating stuff. The band, initially nervous, were settling in to the mood, and this really came through on Emanon ("No Name" backwards!) and especially Groovin’ High, a rare big band arrangement of this tune.

Gillespieana vocalists
Specky McVoutie and Colin Skinner

There was more vocalising from Mr. McVoutie on The Land Of Oob-La Dee and He Beeped When He Should Have Bopped. He was joined by Colin Skinner for Oo-Pop-A-Da (Lyrics? Gillespie could barely manage a decent title!) before the band went Cuban with Guarachi Guaro, featuring more fine horn work from Johnny Scott. According to Plong, this was an early example of an arrangement being based around a chant, rather than a popular song of the day.

The final number of the night was introduced by Pete Long as a sort of arrangement-of-death, the most difficult tune of the evening. It was aptly called Things To Come, and really blasted away at a furious pace. Mark Armstrong played an astonishingly fast solo before Alan Grahame matched him on vibes. No encores but lots of applause from an appreciative crowd who went off happy into the night.

Although this is not a dance band in the 9.20 Deluxe mould, there are a few numbers to get you on the floor. Listen out for Good Bait, Emanon and Groovin’ High (for fast swing or Balboa), and if you don’t mind a bit of polyrhythmic improvising, anything with a vocal should be challenging enough. But stay seated for Salt Peanuts and Things To Come!

Gillespieana takes us to a place where swing became bebop. The old saying that "Jazz is art but swing is business" is the line here, where bands were no longer playing to please the dancers. Gillespie was followed by John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis - and how many of their tunes do you dance to? But as you would expect, the musicianship is high and there’s much enjoyment to be had from sitting back and listening to some well-played exciting arrangements.

The Band:

Saxophones: Paul Nathaniel (baritone), Martin Williams, Alex Garnett (tenors), Colin Skinner, Lisa Graham (altos)
Trumpets: Gavin Mallett, Johnny Scott, Mark Armstrong, Steve Fishwick, Guy Barker
Trombones: Winston Rollins, Andy Rogers, Chris Traves
Rhythm section: Simon Wallace (piano), Jim Richardson (bass), Alan Grahame (vibraphone, congas), Alan Cox, Clark Tracey (drums, percussion)
Leader and saxophone: Pete Long
Vocals: Specky McVoutie and Colin Skinner

          First set:

  1. Play On (radio opener)
  2. Cool Breeze
  3. Ooh-Ya-Koo
  4. Algo Bueno
  5. Our Delight
  6. The Nearness of You
  7. One Bass Hit
  8. I Waited For You
  9. Ooh Bop Sh’Bam
  10. Good Bait
  11. Manteca
  12. Second Set

  13. Salt Peanuts
  14. Emanon
  15. Two Bass Hit
  16. The Land Of Oob La Dee
  17. Groovin’ high
  18. I Can’t Get Started
  19. He Beeped When He Should Have Bopped
  20. Alan Grahame vibraphone number
  21. Ray’s Idea
  22. Guarachi Guaro
  23. Oo-Pop-A-Da
  24. Minor Walk
  25. Things To Come

© December 2001 Andrew Winton.

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