Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

March 08, 2017


The ensemble playing is excellent throughout and the individual solos are consistently engaging and sometimes highly exciting.

The Duncan Lamont Big Band featuring Kenny Wheeler

“As if by Magic ...”

(Jellymould Jazz JM-JJ025)

Duncan Lamont (born 1931) is not only a fine jazz saxophonist but also a highly accomplished songwriter, composer and arranger. As a songwriter his songs have been covered by such revered vocalists as Cleo Laine, Norma Winstone, Tina May and Natalie Cole.

As an instrumental composer and arranger he has written for jazz big bands as well as writing for television and cinema. In the early 1970s the supremely versatile Lamont was invited by the author, illustrator and animator David McKee to write the theme music for his BBC children’s television series “The Adventures of Mr. Benn”. Thus began a particularly fruitful creative collaboration with Lamont also providing the incidental music for the fondly remembered series.

Many years later McKee approached Lamont again, this time with the notion of making a big band recording of the Mr. Benn music and, perhaps most importantly, offering to finance it. Lamont had already arranged one piece from the Benn repertoire for big band and it was seeing this performed in concert that gave McKee the idea.

Thus in 2011, the year of his 80th birthday, Lamont assembled a stellar ensemble to play his arrangements of the Mr. Benn repertoire. The original TV soundtracks had been performed by an octet including the late, great Kenny Wheeler (1930 – 2014) and it was therefore appropriate that Wheeler should appear as a guest soloist on the Benn Big Band project, playing flugelhorn exclusively.

The rest of the ensemble lined up as follows;

Yazz Ahmed, Tom Rees-Roberts, Noel Langley, Martin Shaw – trumpets

Andy Wood, Alistair White, Richard Edwards, Pete North – trombones

Jimmy Hastings, Jamie Talbot, Andy Panayi, Paul Jones, Duncan Lamont Jr. - reeds

Brian Dee – piano

Chris Laurence – bass

Ralph Salmins – drums

Frank Ricotti – vibes, xylophone, percussion

The most important advice that McKee offered Lamont at the start of their creative partnership was;
“although it’s for children, don’t write down for them. Just write as good as you can”. These were wise words, for despite the fact that this music may evoke a warm glow of nostalgia for many listeners the compositions stand on their own merits and offer an enjoyable and convincing listening experience in their own right. I was already a teenager in the 1970s so Mr. Benn doesn’t mean that much to me in terms of childhood memories. You don’t need to be a fan of the series to appreciate the music.

The album commences with “Mr Benn”, the signature tune of the series and a melody that even I was familiar with. There’s an engaging warmth to the lightly bossa tinged arrangement with Andy Wood taking the first solo on fluent, mellow toned trombone. He’s followed on trumpet by the eloquent Martin Shaw while Andy Panayi’s lightly dancing flute adds an unexpected but nevertheless delightful instrumental voice. Finally we hear from Wheeler on flugelhorn, still sounding thoroughly assured, and almost regal, even in his later years.

The theme of the title track depicts the Fancy Dress Shop and its mysterious owner that viewers of the original TV series will doubtless remember with affection. Panayi’s quirky piccolo sets the scene with Ricotti’s xylophone doubling the melody above bottom end brass and reeds. Panayi and Ricotti deliver perky, pithy solos with Ricotti’s xylophone sounding like something out of a Raymond Scott score. The piece mutates into a rousing minor blues with further solos from Noel Langley on incisive trumpet, Alistair White on fruity trombone and the veteran Jimmy Hastings on earthy, bluesy tenor sax. There also some exuberant big band climaxes with drummer Ralph Salmins featuring prominently.

“The Dragon’s Tale” was written for an episode when Mr. Benn, dressed as a red knight, encountered a melancholy dragon with a sad story to tell. Lamont’s ballad has a suitably mournful feel and represents a showcase for the beautiful trumpet playing of Martin Shaw, an inspired blend of emotion and improvisational fluency, superbly supported by a suitably sympathetic arrangement and ensemble performance.

The piece titled “Coming Home” always signified Mr. Benn’s safe return home after that episode’s adventure. The big band arrangement is delivered in the gently swinging style of Glenn Miller and is a feature for the trombone section with Richard Edwards, Andy Wood and Alistair White soloing in turn, with each impressing with their fluency and agility.

“The Balloonist” was the first piece to be arranged for big band and acted as the seed for this project. Mr. Benn was taken back to the early days of the hot air balloon and Lamont says of the piece “this composition depicts this ethereal floating world and the English pastoral scene unfolding below”. There’s a warm, nostalgic, slightly quirky feel to the music with solos coming from Brian Dee on lyrical piano, Panayi on frothy flute and Paul Jones on smooth toned alto. Ricotti moves to vibraphone for his solo and Wheeler is again heard at his imperious best. An unexpectedly rousing big band section depicts the balloon encountering some sudden turbulence before a passage of unaccompanied piano from Dee helps to bring the vehicle safely back down to earth.

“52 Festive Road” represents the home of Mr. Benn and in the TV series was based upon a house in Putney where McKee used to live. The warm hued, laid back feel of the piece depicts the quietness of a 70s suburban street and features subtly blues tinged solos from Dee on piano, Chris Laurence on melodic double bass and Jamie Talbot on smoky tenor.

“The Sea Monster” is sourced from an episode featuring Mr. Benn as a diver in which our hero encountered submarines, mermaids and King Neptune’s pet sea monster. The shimmer of Ricotti’s vibes allied to a lush horn and woodwind arrangement helps to give the music a lustrous “undersea” feel, something enhanced by the sound of Wheeler’s soft, gently lugubrious flugel. One gets the feeling that this particular “sea monster” is warm and friendly ,and certainly nothing to be frightened of.

The closing “Don’t Forget the Dragon” is a companion piece to the earlier “The Dragon’s Tale”  but the mood couldn’t be more different. Instead this a barnstorming, Latin-esque, big band number with every member of the ensemble going at full throttle. The piece is peppered with individual and sectional solos with trombonists Edwards, White and Wood being heard first as they vie with each other for supremacy. Next it’s the duelling altos of Jones and Panayi and then the blazing trumpets of Langley and Shaw. Hastings gets to enjoy an unchallenged solo on tenor before the final drums and percussion feature from Salmins and Ricotti.

Given that this was music originally written for a children’s TV series I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoyed this album. Lamont’s melodies sometimes have an intentional naivete and melodic themes and fragments reoccur but this is music that is childlike rather than childish. There’s a great deal of subtlety and skill within the compositions and arrangements and, of course, the presence of a superb eighteen piece band obviously helps no end. The ensemble playing is excellent throughout and the individual solos are consistently engaging and sometimes highly exciting. “As if my Magic…” represents a considerable all round achievement for everybody concerned, not least Mr. Benn’s creator David McKee who is credited alongside Clive Juster as the album’s co-producer.

Although recorded in 2011 the album wasn’t released until November 2016. Well done to Jellymould Jazz for getting this music out there.   

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