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Review: ADELAIDE FRINGE 2016: SWING Superbly Recreates The Big Band Era

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Wednesday 10th February 2016

The Brendan Fitzgerald Jazz Ensemble and eMotionMusic have joined forces to take audiences back to the Big Band Era in their newest show, Swing. The ensemble is based around his regular trio: Brendan Fitzgerald, piano, Quinton Dunne, double bass, and Satomi Ohnishi, drums, augmented with Max Grynchuk, trumpet, Tom Voss, trombone, Peter Raidel and Emile Ryoch, saxophones and clarinets, and featuring special guest vocalists, Charmaine Jones and Ben Gatehouse, while co-writer Steve Gration provides the narration in the role of New Yorker, George T. Simon, drawing on the latter's writing in the famous Metronome magazine.

Amazingly, this seven-piece ensemble sounds so much bigger, thanks to the remarkable arrangements written by Satomi Ohnishi, who was also responsible for researching, locating, setting up, and running the slideshow that accompanies the music. Her contribution to this production cannot be overstated. On top of that she is one of Adelaide's finest drummers, and her solos drew enormous applause, especially when bringing to life Gene Krupa's solos on Sing, Sing, Sing, as recorded with the Benny Goodman Orchestra.

Quinton Dunne is also one of our top bassists, providing rock steady timing and far more than a simple four beats to the bar. His playing is inventive and varies to fit the various styles and eras of the many bands represented. The regular playing together of the core trio is obvious in their in their understanding of each other's approach to every number giving a very cohesive sound to the rhythm section.

The, of course, there is the maestro himself, Brendan Fitzgerald, at the grand piano, covering all of the great names of the past, from the sparse but incredibly vital playing of Duke Ellington, to the much bigger sounds of Count Basie's pianistic fireworks, and all of the others in between. He is the foundation for the group and the glue that binds them into a tight ensemble, as well as being the creator of the whole production, for which we are all to be grateful. Listen carefully to his playing when supporting the front line, as well as his exposed sections, and see what a massive job he has taken on, and in which he succeeds so well.

Condensing the sound of a Big Band down to a much smaller group means that the scores are complex, and so it takes some exceptional musicians to play them and, fortunately, Brendan Fitzgerald has found four excellent players to complement his own top flight trio. Each of them get ample opportunity to solo as well as offer some very tight ensemble playing and there is no doubt that it would be hard to find a better group of musicians.

Fitzgerald and Steve Gration researched and wrote the narration, which is presented by Gration in the role of George T. Simon, partly in original script and partly drawing on Simon Says, the collection of the author's vast output in Metronome magazine. This adds another, theatrical dimension to the performance. He provides introductions to the tunes as well as information about the bands and the times in a way that is perfectly natural, with no hint of lecturing, through his fine characterisation. Some occasional spontaneous repartee with Fitzgerald makes for a feeling of fun, and indicates that the performers are enjoying the evening as much as the audience. Gration, some may recall, was once the Artistic Director of Magpie Theatre here in Adelaide, but he now lives and works interstate. We should lock the border and keep him here.

To top it off, Charmaine Jones and Ben Gatehouse reminded us of all of the wonderful singers of that era, from Sinatra, to Ella, to Lady Day. Although not trying to entirely impersonate the great stars, they fully capture the essence of each, and add their own personalities and vocal styling. Thanks to their choreographer, Diana Scalzi, they also engage in some very stylish dance work. Both change their costumes regularly throughout the show but, of course, no matter how stylish Gatehouse looks in his suits and ties, there are no prizes for guessing that Jones gets to wear the most spectacular outfits of the two, to the envy of some of the audience sitting near me.

Both are marvellous singers, and throw themselves wholeheartedly into every song, with many solos and a good few duets dotted amongst the instrumental numbers, making for a nicely balanced and varied performance. Members of the band add some backing vocals here and there, too. Gatehouse would, no doubt, have found himself in great demand as a crooner had he been around in the 1930s. This music fits him like an expensive soft kid glove. Jones is one of the most versatile singers around Adelaide. From this performance it would be easy to assume that she had been singing jazz exclusively all of her life, so wonderfully does she interpret the songs and engage in scat singing. If you were to hear her singing a Bossa Nova, , though, you'd be equally willing to swear that all she ever sang was Latin American music. She has to heard, as the quality of her voice is beyond words, so go and hear her while you can.

Having been given permission at the start of the show, from time to time couples left the audience to dance at the side of the stage, showing considerable skill in both jitterbug and swing. These were not part of the ensemble, but patrons who love the music and dance styles of the era and simply could not resist the pull of the music that was being played with such authenticity and enthusiasm.

Brendan Fitzgerald has had enormous success with his previous production, showcasing the music of the great Dave Brubeck, so much so that he has recorded a second CD of Brubeck's music. There is a CD of music from this production as well, and all three are available for purchase, if they don't sell out before the end of the Fringe. It was noticed that quite a few people were clutching them, and even asking for them to be autographed by the performers, after the show.

This new show looks set to follow the previous one, with many repeated performances and numerous interstate trips, perhaps even more so due to the much wider audience who know this music better than that of Brubeck. It was certainly a big crowd of music lovers at this performance, all tapping their feet and many almost dancing in their seats, so booking as quickly as possible cannot be too strongly advised. Two hours of some of the greatest dance music ever written, played brilliantly, and with an interval to refill glasses, is a perfect way to spend some time. Try it for yourself.

This performance was reviewed at the Brighton Performing Arts Centre - Brighton Theatre, Brighton Secondary School, 305 Brighton Rd, North Brighton, but this is one of three venues, with other performance at the Arkaba - Top Of The Ark, 150 Glen Osmond Rd, Fullarton, and Salisbury Secret Garden - Salisbury Institute, 17-19 Wiltshire St, Salisbury.

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