JJ 06/73: George Melly at the Torrington

Fifty years ago, Barry McRae couldn't resist joining the audience at the Torrington in stomping and chuckling at Melly's ribaldry. First published in Jazz Journal June 1973

George Melly at the Lord Napier, Thorton Heath, 27 February 1973. Photo by Frazer Ashford

To team the rumbustious and deliciously vulgar George Melly with the reserved, genuinely creative and sometimes gentle horn of Dick Sudhalter is not one of jazz’s best ideas. Melly is perhaps at his best with a simpler blowing unit, and straightforward trumpeters like Mick Mulligan and Alex Welsh have proved ideal in the past.

At the Torrington [north London jazz venue in the 70s – ed., 2023] both men made the most of the situation. Sudhalter, assisted by promising pianist Matt Matthewson and the ubiquitous John R. T. Davies, depping for regular saxophonist Willie Garnett, played tasteful and inventive jazz. His tone suggests to me Bill Coleman but his ideas are very much his own. He seems happier on the mainstream items, yet played throughout with natural relaxation.

The Melly arrival on stage changed all this. I cannot rationalise my feelings but before the first number was completed I had joined the audience in stomping and chuckling. This man, for all his musical limitations, can pace an audience as well as a Sinatra and as he built up the atmospheric tension he carried everyone with him. Changes, Frankie and Johnny, Viper Mad and Nuts flowed out as he roared and strutted about stage. I cannot say how many times I have seen it all, but it was instructive to observe the reaction of listeners enjoying the Melly experience for the first time.

Sudhalter played some pleasing fill-ins and the band did its best to comply with Melly’s highly specialized programme. Unfortunately, they were never completely compatible and it is perhaps fortunate that Sudhalter’s group, which he calls ‘Jazz Without Walls’, now has a residency at New Merlin’s Cave on Sunday nights. This should certainly prove a rewarding trip for London followers, wanting to hear the trumpeter doing his own thing, rather than that of our most marvellous extrovert.