The Apollo Big Band with singer Ellan Mangham at the Corn Exchange on Saturday October 1st. Review by GAVIN WILKINSON
The Apollo Big Band staff has remained remarkably stable over the years, but some seasoned musicians will inevitably be in demand. The leader of Les Bruce has earned such a good reputation that he is able to call on the best musicians when needed, and tonight three members of the rhythm section have made an appearance: bassist Brian Throup, Cliff Rowley (piano) and Mike Creech (drums), who deftly launched the band into the overture, a bustling, up-tempo caravan, then Session at Pete’s Pad, led by the trombone section and a lengthy piano intro from the excellent Rowley.
Singer Ellan Mangham, freshly graduated but already on the lookout for West End talent, opened with an unusually slowed-down arrangement of Fascinatin’ Rhythm, but good for once to hear the lyrics clearly. Facing a big band can be a daunting prospect for a youngster, but Mangham exudes confidence and the talent to match. On At Last, by Etta James, one of the all-time great songs (and futile to imitate), she found her own vibe, giving the melody plenty of blues, with a beautiful lush solo from tenor sax Trevor Hayward, who was honored during the evening.
The group spans incredibly broad musical genres, and Dancing Men, treated like an 80s movie theme, was a dynamic vehicle for a lively solo from Hayward, beautifully answered by trombonist Diane Prince and a full drum break from Creech, which skilfully combines lightness with power.
On Let’s Face the Music and Dance, so often covered in many forms, the band did what they do best, with an up-tempo swing, putting on a light and airy show.
Mangham introduced us to his sleazy side with laid-back All That Jazz. She has the voice and personality to rock the show, which is clearly her preference, and what singer doesn’t have Summertime in her repertoire? Ella Fitzgerald’s brooding original is hard to beat, so the band played a full arrangement, with Mangham tastefully finding a fresh and original take, punctuated by a direct but perfect solo from trumpeter Neil Armstrong.
The strong trombone section set the tone for Where or When, with fat, fat Wagnerian harmonies, as they also did with Count Bubba, a contemporary work by Gordon Goodwin, punctuated with unaccompanied passages by first all the saxophone section, then those powerful trombones again, and counterbalanced by the biting precision of the trumpet section. Jed Roylance and Brian Yule, on trombone and trumpet respectively, have given their single player slots a distinctive individuality. Unlike many big bands, Apollo boasts a plethora of excellent soloists, who bring variety and color to the repertoire. The band is at its best on these modern and demanding arrangements, and is really committed.
A beautifully played electronic keyboard passage introduced an inventive version of Eleanor Rigby, with a fantastic extended solo from trombonist Prince, a true star of this band.
Mangham has the vocal strength and talent to tackle the territory established by Barbara Streisand and Shirley Bassey, and the Adele version of Skyfall was a leap into the big voice arena where she obviously thrives. She sang this somewhat tricky tune very convincingly, delivering with power and credibility. Evoking the heyday of the legendary Bassey, Mangham delivered a full delivery of Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend and Hey, Big Spender.
The band saved the best for last, with a thrilling arrangement of McCartney’s Live and Let Die, played with confidence and precision, deftly navigating its complexity of rhythm changes and contrasting thematic passages. A sensational end to a very entertaining night.