If It’s ChaOS, At Least It’s Beautiful: University of Bath Big Band play at Komedia 

Images credit: Max Jones

To my friends, fellow journalists, or simply just listeners of University Radio Bath on a Friday evening, many will know that I find myself often possessed by an enthusiasm for jazz music. Whether it’s the magical, swinging tempo found in Dizzy Gillespie’s rendition of Caravan, timeless melodies like Miles Davis’ It Never Entered My Mind, or the more recent but just as remarkable works by present music groups such as Badbadnotgood and Ezra CollectiveBut, as prominent as my relationship with jazz was, it always maintained more of an ethereal quality. Existing in the bars of New Orleans, the basements of Brick Lane, or as more of a digitally ethereal form a.k.a. Spotify and YouTube, it has felt fundamentally separate from my life as a student at the University of Bath. ‘Where was Bath’s jazz scene?’ I often pondered whilst frequenting the disco nights of Komedia and Moles (Rest in peace). The Bath jazz scene felt like a fictional Elysium, constellated in my imagination with thousands of other dreams. 

What is a Big Band? 

When the opportunity came for me to attend a Komedia Jazz night, hosted by our Universities Big Band, part of the ChaOS (Choral & Orchestra Society), I was incredibly excited. To increase the allure further, they recently finished second in the Battle of the Big Bands Southwest competition and are last year’s winners. 

To the readers perhaps uneducated on the jazz jargon, a ‘big band’ is somewhat of a jazz orchestra, often consisting of more than ten musicians and four instrument sections: saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and a rhythm section- providing a beat for the rest of the band. 

The Big Night

As if I was an extra in the film ‘Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Saxophone’, I found the Komedia ballroom as I entered it magically transformed from the depraved Fame nights that I was previously accustomed to a ballroom containing a veneer of sophistication: a scene of trumpets and tuxedos.  I was told excitedly by the organisers of the event that it was actually sold out as over 400 jazz-enthused Bathonians crept out from under the floorboards to attend. Curiously many of them did not provide an impression of being part of the student population. Is jazz therefore the ultimate Bathonian equaliser? 

A part of me was worried that the big band musical style – at the height of its notoriety in the 1940s- would be an antiquated affair, but this thought was instantly expelled from my mind as we were treated to a wonderful warm-up performance by a funk band containing a small number of the Big Band members themselves. I found myself taken away – as funk often does to me- to a breezy autumn drive, and the vocalist of the ensemble made some lovely ‘da da da’ sounds that provoked quite an impression on me. I was reminded very much of a nostalgic 80’s style of music, containing a relevant and impassioned student glow, like Bath student culture was bringing out its neuroticism through a musical journey to the past.  

It was then up to the Big Band themselves to take over the show, and the anticipation was high. A large ensemble of a number so vast that it seemed incalculable entered the stage, each with a large instrument on hand in what was a very finite space. There was a somewhat comedic quality in the early stages as we heard new sounds from new instruments, and I kept wondering how they could possibly have the space on stage (what, so now they have an entire drum kit up there?!, were those keys I just heard?!). Instrumentalists and their musical accompaniments were packed together like sardines, and admiration must go the balance of the conductor, Dan Bowen, who stood nestled at the very edge of the stage. I do not envy who oversaw this event’s risk assessment form, however. 

The Music

It was at that point that Bowen’s arms swung in a way that created a beautiful instrumental sound, beginning with Myles Collins Nous BlueNous Blue, what may be considered by many a classic big band arrangement carried through by solo saxophonists and trumpet ensemble arrangements, provided a wonderful intro to the big band set. Despite arguably being the safest song of the night, the flowing relationship between the saxophone and trumpet sections was a sound to behold, really speaking to the chemistry of the group. 

Bowen emphasised during the performance that, unlike some big bands, members were not music students, performing music in their spare time. It certainly did not appear this way, as the rich, dazzling sounds of some of the instruments cried out exceptionalism and real credit should be given to the excellent harmony demonstrated throughout these performances, without the luxurious time to practice experienced by many full-time music students.  As Bowen said himself on the night: ‘’No one in this band is a professional musician. The fact that we can come together and perform music like this is pretty extraordinary’’. 

The funk, present in the warm-up act of the night, seemed to be alive and well in Big Band’s set as well – showcasing their versatility as a jazz band. Pieces such as Backrow Politics and Funk For Life were performed with a wonderful spirit that drew great animation from the audience as well as the band members themselves. The jazz and funk genres for me can convey an aura of wonderful contrasts, being both quite visceral and nonchalant, blissful yet worthy of powerful crescendos, inclusive as well as being very culturally expressive. I felt that these qualities certainly were carried within the Big Band performance- arguably making them worthy of inspiring their jazz renditions onto the masses in attendance. 

Some brilliant vocalist performances from Sasha Key and Toby NG certainly helped Big Band. Sasha conveyed a voice of great depth and vitality, singing two of my favourite jazz pieces The Look Of Love and Someone To Watch Over Me. The Look of Love involved a wonderful accompaniment by the Big Band, and really allowed Sasha to display her powerful and raw vocal talent. This was further conveyed in Sasha’s chilling, romantic vocals of Someone To Watch Over Me, as the entire room went silent in awe. Toby also exhibited his considerable vocal talent, playing two classics (no pressure!) in Cry Me A River and Fly Me To The Moon. His rendition of Cry Me A River was frankly quite legendary and made musicians such as Michael Bublé look ordinary. I heard many chants of ‘Toby, Toby, Toby!!’ after each of his performances, really demonstrating his popularity with the crowd.  

That being said, it wasn’t just the vocalists that deserved praise on the night. One aspect of the performance that I deeply admired, perhaps due to the leadership of Bowen – who demonstrated over the night more than anything his love and pride for Big Band – was the ability to provide each member with a spotlight to shine at certain moments, even in a band of 50 members. This was particularly reticent as the show ended in a lively funk medley that provided individual instrumental moments for many band members. Arguably, this is a quality that reaches beyond music and one concerning all organised bodies of people, allowing a team to perform well as individuals – an impressive paradox to achieve. 

Big Band And The Power of Music

As I previously mentioned, if everyone who attended this Komedia night was a student, many of them would be very mature students indeed! There was an incredibly eclectic mix of people in the audience. Big Band performed with heart and soul, a feeling that was certainly reflected within the audience. More than anything, they demonstrated once more the power of music to be a uniting force, bringing together both Bath’s local and student populations into one big Komedia concert hall.  

Sometimes it can feel like everything one desires is far away, yet just reach, reach out. It strikes me something awful that it has taken me five years at University to realise the Jazz scene in Bath is not wilting, but thriving. Ultimately, it is this stubborn and despondent mentality that can sometimes prevent you from realising that what you are looking for is just around the corner, and this is a sentiment that can be associated with anything.

Anyway, I’m just pleased that the Bath jazz scene is very much alive and kicking!

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