Dan Jacobson reviews The Big Easy, a night of New Orleans jazz, presented by UCL Jazz Society and UCL Stage Crew.
If we have learnt anything about the UCL Jazz Society throughout the years, it’s that wherever they are, they know exactly how to create a good time. From the weekly Phineas Jazz jams to the Shaw Theatre, from Bloomsbury Studio to the Adelphi, their ability to capitalise on the undeniable talent of their members has made them distinctly chameleonic. Despite having not been at UCL long enough to remember the previous Bloomsbury Theatre, there was something particularly comforting about watching the Jazz Society perform in a 547-seat theatre just downstairs from the Pi Media offices. For lack of a better description, with their newest show ‘The Big Easy’, it feels like the Jazz Society has returned home.
‘The Big Easy’ sees the UCL Jazz Society and UCL Stage Crew come together to present a night of New Orleans jazz. Often credited as the birthplace of jazz, going back to as early as the late 19thcentury, the vibrant sounds of blues and ragtime emerged from the melting pot of African and Caribbean cultures meeting around the Gulf of Mexico. Crafted as a chronological journey and celebration of the region’s musical history, and featuring a 48-piece Big Band and 36-strong choir, ‘The Big Easy’ promised to be a night of bright, joyful performances displaying the lasting influence of New Orleans Jazz on modern music and, unsurprisingly, Jazz Society did not disappoint.
Despite sitting below a speaker on the far right of the auditorium, every song sounded superb, and not one felt dull or stretched out. Some of the songs were thrilling and bombastic, namely the fantastic ‘Round One’ and ‘Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho’, the latter utilising the choir and Big Band to ensure that the added space in the theatre was not wasted, whilst others, contrastingly, were captivatingly suave, to the point of forgetting that I wasn’t the only one in the hall (this included the wonderful ‘Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans’ and, my personal highlight, ‘St. James Infirmary’, which left my jaw firmly on the newly carpeted floor). All the while, everyone on stage seemed to be having the time of their life – what could possibly have not been to like?
The sheer scope of the show epitomised the priority taken by Jazz Society to ensure maximum engagement and was a perfect descriptor of both the breadth and the tightness of the community which has been created through it. Particular mention, however, must go to a number of awe-inspiringly talented individuals, most notably the solo singers, particularly Emily Craig for her gorgeous, charismatic rendition of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ and Seun Oyeleye, for leading the Big Band in the Jungle Book’s ‘I Wanna Be Like You’. Additionally, kudos must go to Chris Soelistyo, whose brilliant performance more than made up for his acerbic cheekiness during his drum solo in ‘St Louis Blues’, which he also arranged.
At one hour and twenty minutes, the first half, admittedly, ran a little longer than expected, and there may be something to be said regarding transitions between songs. However, given the scope of the concert, the extraordinary number of individuals involved, and the overall quality of everyone involved, from the conductors to the performers to stage crew, these are measly remarks. Overall, ‘The Big Easy’ was a wonderful Friday night, and further evidence that the Jazz Society remains one of the most consistently enjoyable arts societies at UCL. And it’s reassuring to know that, for the foreseeable future, they have finally returned to the Bloomsbury Theatre.