Saturday, 9 February 2013

In Review: Beats & Pieces Big Band at Live at LICA

Beats & Pieces Big Band

Beats & Pieces Big Band at Live at LICA,
in the Great Hall, Lancaster University
Thursday, 7 February 2013, 7.30 pm
Reviewed by Henry Prince

Beats & Pieces style themselves in print as a Big Band. But I found myself wondering which of those two words carried the accent in speech. Are they a Big Band or a big band?

Their repertoire and musical style suggest that they are the former and are following the traditions laid down by predecessor bands like Stan Kenton’s. There were some wonderful musical examples of the big band tradition being adopted and, significantly, adapted by this group. Delightful solos early on from trumpet, flugel horn, trombone and saxophone. And later the brilliance of the individuals in the rhythm section - keyboard, string bass, lead guitar and drums - shone through.

This ensemble filled the hall with energy and creativity. Their biggest asset was their youth: a collection of early twenty-somethings, each of whom was stuffed full of musical ability, technically skilled and artistically able. The kind of people with the musical world at their feet. Who cares about awards and competitions they may have received or won: this lot could play!

The pieces were composed or arranged by band members themselves; principally by the musical director. Much of it was in standard big band style but occasionally we were surprised by the unexpected. A trumpet accompanied by a trombone, with other brass and reeds joining in one at a time. A beautifully minimalist section where the percussionist played some notes but left as many others to the aural imagination. Lead guitar and muted trumpets playing a figure in unison; a surprisingly interesting combination of sounds. And a measure of live electronic sampling somehow feeding magically into the performance toward its finale.

But the band’s stage presentation suggested that they are not a big band but rather a band that is large. Two-thirds of the space was allocated to the rhythm section. Was this the ‘band’? Two guitars, piano, bass and percussion? Or was it the modern equivalent of the Baroque continuo? The very first piece a passacaglia with ground bass?  Into the remaining space, they crammed the other 9 musicians; three each of saxophones, trombones and trumpets - making the ‘band’ large. Can it really be called a 'Big Band' with only 3 of each instrument? You need five reeds to play a proper ensemble and, more importantly, you need five trumpets to part the hair of the audience sitting on the front row. Three trumpets cannot get that done, although the back row of Beats & Pieces had a serious attempt at doing it in the first piece after the interval.

Whichever is the case, this big band ensured that the audience got its money’s worth. The musical director even provided us with a visual rendition of the music (you know, like flames or bars on the screen of an mp3 player) - a sort of mute Mick Jagger without his tambourine,  the band comprising not 14 but 13 players plus a dancer much of the time.

I would like to have heard the piano player more, either on the fancy grand or the battered digital. What we heard was superb but he clearly had more to give. And I missed the ensemble playing of a proper big band lineup of saxophones - and, frankly, longed to feel my hair being parted. But this young band of musicians cannot be criticised for adapting the traditions of jazz. That is what the development of jazz has always done and adaptation of what has gone before is, in itself, a tradition.

I hope no one read the programme notes to decide whether to attend this concert in the Great Hall; endless awards and acclaims for the band;  its players chosen from the ‘most exciting and in demand young musicians’; its musical director associated with a scheme funded by, among other bodies, the Arts Council. But nothing about the band’s music. That needed putting right.

What did the audience think? Clearly they loved it all.

H. Prince
Ticket Price £17.50 (concessions available).
For further information on the Live at LICA programme of events visit

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