Taking my seat at St Giles’ Church for the Varsity Big Band Jazz Off, I had no idea what to expect. Would this be similar to a Pitch Perfect riff-off, but with jazz improvisations? Would there be an arena for the best musicians from each band to battle it out? As it turns out, the evening was much more civilised than that, as both bands showcased some of the best pieces of their repertoire, with camaraderie and mutual appreciation. The musicians took their places, and I wondered who would be the winners of this fabulously jazzy evening.
The first contenders were the student-run, 19-piece big band from Durham. They kicked the evening off with a vibrant, fast-paced opener, to highlight their superlative brass section. The complexity of the trombone part in particular was astonishing to hear, with expert solos. A great array of rhythm and dynamics from the drummer further enhanced the exceptional quality of music. This very strong start looked promising for Durham!
In fact, they maintained this extraordinary quality throughout, with the grooving, growling greatness of the saxophones and a terrific variety of pieces. A funky highlight was ‘Pete Wheeler’, which displayed the adept musicianship of the saxophonists, who were responsible for the intricate opening melodies, and for driving the piece from the blissful baritone.
Popular Sinatra classic ‘I get a kick out of you’ was another memorable moment, as the stunning vocals blended beautifully with the band. Unfortunately, some of the other pieces saw the vocalists drowned out somewhat - but all in all the singers were spectacular.
Towards the end of Durham’s set, we were treated to a gorgeous flugel solo from Society President Honor Hornsby, relaxing the audience with a dreamy sonority. Durham’s ‘Riverdance’ then exhibited the woodwind section and was a magnificent finale. Although Durham had finished playing for the night, we were promised more (and I quote) ‘sick jazz’ in the second half from Oxford University Jazz Orchestra - time to see how they compared to Durham...
Oxford also had a fantastically strong start, with a tenor saxophone solo out of this world. Looking back at my notes, all I have written down is ‘wow’ as the music was too brilliant to tear my attention away from it and write much else! Looking around the audience, there were extreme levels of toe-tapping, to the extent that we were probably burning calories whilst listening to the lively rhythms and coordinated syncopations!
Oxford’s vocalist Alex Moss had an angelic voice, and delivered many marvellous performances including ‘Almost like being in love’. Her scat sections and French singing were divine, and Moss was clearly in her element. ‘Lil Darlin’ was another wonderful performance from the orchestra, as the delicious harmonies were complemented by the exquisite trumpet section. Contrasting this, ‘Cheek to Cheek’ was Oxford’s final piece and finished their set with energy and pizzazz.
But the evening wasn’t really over: for the real finale, Oxford invited some of Durham’s performers to join them in a show-stopping rendition of ‘Squatty Roo’ which was a complete joy to behold! Truly virtuosic musicians from both bands performed; the two pianists stood up and seamlessly switched between who was improvising, as though they were dancing a choreographed routine. The last number was mesmerising and a highlight of the entire evening, with top quality performers sneaking in on the action to entertain everyone with their excellent improvisations!
So who were the winners? Both bands were outstanding - but the real winners were the audience, who had the pleasure of witnessing these incredible young musicians.