JJ 05/80: Buddy Rich Orchestra at the New Theatre, Oxford

A review by Ken Cook first published in Jazz Journal May 1980

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Not knowing exactly what the title “orchestra” signifies, we take our seats with some excitement. Eyes settle on the stage: Hmm, five saxophones, three trombones, and four trumpets, judging by the layout of the music stands, plus the rhythm section.

But what is this? A whole battery of microphones, in fact one for each of the instruments. I feel a sense of foreboding. Surely this is excessive? It is obvious that Mr Rich’s men will not spend much time playing pianissimo, the New Theatre is not a huge place, and the combined onslaught of seven brass and five saxes will more than amply fill the hall.

The soloists perform in what is to me a new fashion. They play with the bulb of the microphone actually inside the bell of the saxophone or trumpet. Instead of the natural timbre of the tenor saxophone for example, it is processed into a thinner version of what it really is. The effect on the full orchestra is even more disastrous.

There were just a few moments when the richness and mellowness of sound possible from seven brass and five saxes were recognisable. Harking back to the late 1930s/early 40s, I thought of that superb Ellington sax team of Hardwick, Hodges, Webster and Carney

There were just a few moments when the richness and mellowness of sound possible from seven brass and five saxes were recognisable. Harking back to the late 1930s/early 40s, I thought of that superb Ellington sax team of Hardwick, Hodges, Webster and Carney, and the gloriously musical sounds they made. Those four wonderful individual voices blended into a magnificent whole of unsurpassed beauty. Allowing for their one-off uniqueness, surely one is entitled to hope that a modern section of five saxophones could produce a sound directed at this ideal?

Pity the poor pianist. A solo spot in one number, but Buddy kept up the heavy relentless drive, the arranger (deranger?) had misguidedly kept the sections going, so not much of the keyboard work was audible. Of the other soloists, only the trombonist really sticks in the memory, since he wasn’t spraying out cascades of notes.

The trumpet and tenor are what we have come to expect in the latter-day scene: very skilled technically, no doubt knowing all there is to know about diminished, augmented and altered chords. Impressive in their way, but the solo starts off busy, ends up busy, with no sense of development in between or climax at the end. You know it’s over when the guy sits down.

Sorry, men, I just happen to prefer one of Ben Webster’s slow, breathy performances, where the pregnant little pauses mean as much as the notes actually played, and where the end of the solo has the same sense of inevitability as a river finally flowing into the sea.

Buddy, I assure you: seven brass and five saxophones can be heard at the back of an average-size theatre, even when playing softly, without that vast battery of electronics. And think of the capital saving in the cost of all those microphones and transportation, plus manpower to set them up.