Established in 1965, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) is Britain’s longest running organisation for young musicians playing big band jazz. Despite all the players being under 25, the group enjoy international success with performances at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, BBC Proms and collaborations with artists such as Gregory Porter. There is an air of excitement surrounding these talented musicians as their alumni include many of the UK’s most renowned jazz musicians including Guy Barker and Amy Winehouse. On Friday 6th May the ensemble visited Cranleigh School to perform as part of the Concert Series.
NYJO’s artistic and music director, Mark Armstrong, led the group with passion and a genuine enthusiasm for jazz. With a degree in music from Oxford University, Armstrong went on to study jazz at the Guildhall School of Music before starting his career as a jazz trumpeter. It is clear that young people are at the heart of everything that NYJO does and nowhere was this more apparent than during the afternoon workshop with the Cranleigh School Big Band. Our pupils enjoyed a wonderful three hours of music making as they worked alongside NYJO’s players who were encouraging and inspirational. Armstrong led the session brilliantly as he took the pupils through a series of warm-up exercises and standard big band repertoire. The session on improvisation was excellent. Musicians of all ages are often daunted by the thought of improvising but after some initial work on a 12 bar-blues sequence, Armstrong announced that everyone would take a two bar solo which would be repeated by the other players. The look of horror on the Cranleigh pupils’ faces was unnerving and I confess to have been rather worried on their behalf. However, to their credit every single person played brilliantly under pressure and the look of relief and elation afterwards was a joy to see. NYJO’s main aim is to educate and inspire young people with a love of music and jazz, and I felt privileged to have seen this first hand in their workshop.
The evening concert was equally impressive and Armstrong presented with animated enthusiasm. The band opened with a mellow rendition of ‘St. Louis Blues,’ featuring an intricate alto sax solo and some complex tempo changes. Solos from various members of the group were all expertly executed and full of virtuosic vitality, as the band played a varied programme of old standards and newly commissioned works. One particular highlight was the vocal number ‘That Old Black Magic’ featuring the soulful tones of singer Ellie Bignall together with an impressive trumpet solo by the director, Armstrong who demonstrated his ability to play quietly in the high register, in a solo full of subtlety and panache. The first half concluded with a funky Latin number that perfectly featured the vibrancy of the percussion section on this hot early summer’s evening. The second half was no less enjoyable and began with a rhythmic number by Pat Metheny called ‘Rush Hour’ demonstrating complex clapping rhythms and a constantly changing metre. The premiere performance of ‘Blues for Des’ was also noteworthy as this highly intricate and challenging piece highlighted the beautiful timbres of the flugel horn, played by James Davison. ‘Rush Hour’ by Yellow Jackets concluded the concert perfectly and this funky number was brought to life by the hugely talented guitarist Nick Fitch.
The concert was an enormous success and the band perfectly demonstrated their ability to play in a disciplined and rhythmically tight ensemble, fused with contrast, subtlety and balanced timbres. It was a concert to remember and we look forward to welcoming them back to Cranleigh in the future.
Head of Woodwind and Brass