Apollo @ Stockcross: the Apollo Big Band with vocalist Ellan Mangham, at Stockcross village hall, on Saturday, March 18. Review by GAVIN WILKINSON
This was a debut performance with the Apollo Big Band for Ellan Mangham, a new guest vocalist fronting the band, and clearly a young, emerging talent.
The players in the band have remained remarkably consistent over the years, but on this occasion Lorna Mountford, long-time baritone sax, was in the audience with her arm in a sling, having lost an argument with a horse, her place filled by Simon Coles.
It’s always good to warm up with something familiar, the band opening with a gentle arrangement by Sammy Nestico of On the Sunny Side of the Street, followed by the staccato phrases of A Little Blues Please. The immediate impression was that the band was back on top form after the inevitable disruption of the Covid years.
Ellan chose Fascinating Rhythm for her first number, a challenge with its tricky vocal cross-timing, which she delivered with mature panache. This was followed by the Peggy Lee classic, Black Coffee, infused with a genuine, sultry, blues feeling, and a sense of a mis-spent life. Blue Skies provided a chance for Ellan to let rip with her enormous, note-perfect voice di lei.
The band featured new material as well as their standard repertoire. Particularly enjoyable was Salford Keys. They created a rich, sonorous mood, with two lovely deep solos from the talented Diane Prince, and an answering, high-register solo from trumpeter Neil Armstrong.
Ellan’s repertoire reflected her vocal strength, that of musical theater and film scores, rather than the Great American Songbook, and All That Jazz gave her the opportunity to present her theatrical side, with high-octane pizzazz and perfect top notes. Hey, Big Spender needs confidence to perform, given that Dame Shirley Bassey defined it. Ellan delivered it at full belt, with complete conviction and a sense of “Follow that!” The band did, with a full, trumpet-led Perdido.
The second half included Charlie the Whale, a minor-key swinger with lots of great soloing opportunities for everyone, with a well-modulated sax solo from Musical Director Les Bruce. Great Scott opened with the rhythm section setting a contemporary fusion beat and Trevor Heywood leading the theme with a sensual, extended series of tenor solos, backed by the might of the very talented trumpet section.
Ellan continued the theme of featuring show tunes, with Summertime much in its original slow and easy form, making more sense of the lyrics. At Last, one of Ellan’s favorite songs di lei (and mine), evoked the spirit of the great Etta James, with a mature delivery of the characteristic bluesy, bent notes.
The Sonny Rollins’ number Doxy was new to the band but played with enjoyable panache, giving the five saxophonists an extended ensemble passage. Ellan featured on two movie themes, her big voice di lei handling Skyfall with conviction, with the trombone section sounding quite Wagner-ish at times. For a young woman, she has already learned to own the stage with style and dazzle (and dressed accordingly), with bags of theatrical delivery.
Birdland was the last piece from the band, and a truly modern jazz work, with its various changes of mood and theme. Made famous by Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius, this time the band played the Maynard Ferguson arrangement, carrying it off with total concentration – and a look of relief from some players!