In 1954 George Lewis, clarinettist and figurehead of the revival of New Orleans jazz, recorded his album Jazz at Vespers in Oxford, Ohio. 65 years later in a very different Oxford, Alyn Shipton and his New Orleans Jazz Friends perform a selection from this recording in addition to the hymns and spirituals that made up Lewis's wider repertoire.
Like Lewis's band in the '50s, the Friends played entirely acoustically, without amplification. Any apprehensions I had about the sound - I'd been to jazz gigs at Freud where performers have abandoned sets half way through because no one could hear anything - were dispelled as the band began to play. Their collective sound was never swamped and the nuances of each individual instrument, and their interactions with each other, were easily picked out if you chose to listen in.
Adrian Cox on clarinet was sublime. His range encompassed with ease the solemnity of the more pensive spirituals, and moments of playfulness shared with Finlay Milne (trumpet) as they vied to have their melodies heard in the head of each piece. As a fan of rhythm section solos, I was pleased that after the interval Shipton, plus Emile Martyn and Simon Picton (on bass drums and banjo respectively), had more time to improvise and bring their sounds to the forefront of the mix.
In some pieces, after solos had been passed between clarinet, trumpet and Richard Simmons' piano, the band quietened to allow a verse or two from the hymns and spirituals to be sung. When Milne or Cox sang, we were often coaxed into clapping along. Involvement in the music, even at such a simple level, felt spiritually beneficial somehow. I was a slightly reluctant choral scholar at University so have sat through my fair share of services, not being fussed about partaking in anything other than the pieces I was contracted to sing - but here in St John the Evangelist I welcomed the impulse to join in. Some audience members sang along too - I was surprised that more didn't, and even more so that irritated glances from others in the audience were thrown towards those who did.
There were times where I wished we'd been on our feet instead of sat dutifully in rows, and judging by the restlessness and enthusiasm of the band, Martyn on drums in particular, I think they wish we'd been up and dancing too. This isn't to say the atmosphere was at all dead - as the band received their entirely deserved standing ovation, some of the audience whooped for more as if it were Saturday night at the Bullingdon.
In A New History of Jazz, Shipton himself writes of George Lewis that he played 'in a manner highly charged with emotion' and that he exuded a 'sincerity and down-home charm'. Much the same can be said of the New Orleans Jazz Friends - this concert straddled the religious and the secular beautifully and all with great reverence for the man who inspired it.