Julian Joseph’s 18-piece orchestra delivers big band essentials with panache and polish. There are impulsive riffs and barnstorming solos, sharp dynamics and well-placed stabs. And with flute and woodwind added to the brass, there are rich high-end textures. But the real draw is the way in which Joseph balances his big band juggernaut with the rhythmic intricacy of his working piano trio. Joseph and drummer Mark Mondesir toy with time and tug at the beat. And, kept on pulse by the firm fretwork and woody tones of Mark Hodgson’s double bass, their maelstrom of invention alternates dense intrigue with simplicity and space.
Joseph’s early inspiration, the soulful, modal jazz of the 1980s jazz renaissance, was referenced by the first number, “Doctone”, a tribute to the late Kenny Kirkland. Elegiac bass, rich with internal dialogue, set up a shifting soundscape of riffs, swapped phrases from piano to horns and morphed from swing to waltz.
There was some nifty phrasing on the up-tempo “The Firehorse” and a burst of high-end trumpet on the end-of-set “Caravan”, but Joseph’s arrangements keep flashy virtuosity to a sensible minimum. In its place we had rich textures, sensitive timing and the knack of adding something new to the tried and tested. “Caravan” was propelled by an odd riff on bass trombone, and “Shadowland Blues” added alternate pathways and odd stops to the well-known sequence.
The standout was Joseph’s arrangement for Monk’s “Ruby My Dear”. Beautifully voiced and full of detail, Joseph added tension by juxtaposing the ballad-tempo melody with a medium tempo lope. Elsewhere there was a fluffy waltz, “Guardian Angel”, the episodic “The Reverend” and a showcase for guest vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, whose edge-of-harmony vocals and musicianly scat captured the scene-setting lyrics of “A Confident Man”.
Equally impressive was the space allowed for soloists to build meaningful statements. Joseph’s band is cross-generational – alto saxophonist Peter King played at the opening of the original Ronnie Scott’s; trumpeter Jackson Mathod is still in his teens – and deserves its “all-star” billing. Highlights included Byron Wallen’s soulful flair on trumpet, trenchant sax from Nathaniel Facey, and Jean Toussaint’s unpicking of Monk’s harmonies. And King matched all for contemporary edge.