The Best of Both

Stephen Dnes 7 February 2008

A battle rages in the heart of every jazz fan. We all want to be hip, with it, and digging the latest, coolest, most sophisticated beats. Yet there is a part of us that yearns for the days when pop and jazz meant almost the same thing, when great voices sang great songs in front of great bands. How refreshing, then, for Selwyn College Music Society to combine the two in last Sunday’s double bill from the Lewis Wright Quartet and Atila and his Musicians.

Lewis Wright faced an unenviable task. It was only half past breakfast, Jazz Standard Time, and the Steinway at West Road Concert Hall was more used to Chopin than Chick Corea. His is the complex jazz of the smoky nightclub, but it more than survived the transplant with energy and brio to spare.

Wright is a young man and walked on with a serious face, but any tension translated into brilliant interchanges in the Quartet. Body and soul went into his vibraphone, the ideas fresh, original, and superbly developed by Simon Brown at the piano, Andy Doyle on bass guitar and Will Clark on drums. Brown deserves special praise, his crisp, neat phrasing taking us to a beautiful place somewhere between Bill Evans and George Shearing.

Evans is a big influence, Wright admits, but there is nothing derivative about his Quartet. Their powerful, upbeat approach fuses everything that is good about small group jazz. The result is modern, spellbinding and well and truly sates the trendy half of a jazz fan.

It fell to Atila to indulge the other half with his selections from the Great American Songbook. These are songs we have heard a thousand times, and it is difficult to bring something new to them. It takes skill to know how much to retain from the great recordings of the past. Keep too much, and it sounds like Easy Listening for the Over 80s on Radio 2. Change too much, and you butcher a classic.

From the opening notes it was clear that Atila had got the balance right. Where the songs called for it, he poured his heart out in deliciously full notes, and where the jazz needed it, his musicians would step in to develop a well-crafted phrase, passing it between piano, bass and drums. Then in would step Alex Garnett on sax to polish it off. The effect is as sharp as Atila’s hand-made suit, but it retains a classic touch.

Atila’s voice is somewhere between Nat King Cole and early Sinatra: a winning combination, both tender and sincere. His choice of material suits it well, from the Nat King Cole signature Let’s Fall in Love to the rarely-heard Nancy with the Laughing Face, a gentle ballad from Sinatra’s Columbia days. There are even nods to Mel Tormé in the upbeat numbers, an unusual choice which resonates jazz.

After the show, I ask him how it feels to be walking in the footsteps of such famous singers. ‘Atila’s footsteps’, he insists, and he is absolutely correct. The songs may be old, but the treatment is fresh, imaginative and all his own.

Atila succeeds, then, where so many fail. He brings something new to these songs without smothering them. The result? Too marvellous for words.

Stephen Dnes