Prom 27: Ella and Dizzy: A Centenary Tribute review – virtuosic hat tip to jazz legends' greatest hits

Royal Albert Hall, London
Contralto Dianne Reeves and musical polymath James Morrison are lively guides through a classical tour of the jazz songbook

This Prom celebrates the centenaries of Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, two legends who defined and transcended jazz. It is tricky to find anyone who can fill their boots, but the Proms have rustled up two suitably extrovert performers: singer Dianne Reeves and the Australian trumpeter James Morrison.

Reeves’s voice is closer to that of Dinah Washington or Sarah Vaughan than to Fitzgerald’s; her chesty contralto sounds more like a powerful trombone compared to the dainty clarinet that was Fitzgerald’s mezzo-soprano. But she certainly has the latter’s facility to tell a story as she improvises over a melody, each grace note and melismatic sweep animating the lyric.

Morrison is an astonishing multi-instrumentalist. He has recorded albums where he multi-tracks a 17-piece big band, playing each instrument to an astonishingly high standard. He’s also led bands in London and New York, and worked with dozens of legends, including Gillespie, but living on the other side of the world means he often gets ignored by the rest of the music scene. Tonight he proves that he can do all of Gillespie’s show-pony tricks, hitting the thrilling high notes on A Night in Tunisia and Cherokee, and holding on to trills for so long that you start to think he’s got a tank of air hidden under his suit. He can also carry a ballad such as Round Midnight, elegantly slurring through the melody as if sculpting molten metal.

Reeves with Australian trumpeter James Morrison at the Royal Albert Hall, London.
Straddling the jazz-classical divide … Reeves with Australian trumpeter James Morrison at the Royal Albert Hall, London. Photograph: Mark Allan

As with many jazz Proms, there’s a slight self-consciousness to the programme, as if cautiously introducing the genre to an audience who have never heard jazz before. This might explain the inclusion of pieces whose interest seems to be anthropological rather than aesthetic: a neutered arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Caravan and a 1930s piece called Jungle Drums by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona were pointless pieces of exotica, while Ellington’s 1963 mini-symphony Harlem is far more interesting to discuss than actually listen to.

However, this desire to straddle the jazz-classical divide does mean that there’s an awful lot of George Gershwin, which is always a good thing, and Reeves’s versions of Gershwin tunes, arranged with Billy Childs, serve as the highlights. There is also a killer version of Fascinating Rhythm in 5/4 time (where Reeves and Morrison trade four-bar improvisations, as if in a Harlem cutting contest) and a deliciously lazy orchestral reading of Embraceable You (listen to how Reeves ekes seven syllables from the word “gypsy” in the lyric). This is music that comes to life when all caution is cast aside.

• On BBC iPlayer until 3 September. The Proms continue until 9 September. Box office: 020-7589 8212.


John Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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