Sunday morning, free coffee and a top class big band in a plush venue for 6 euros. What more can anyone ask for? That was obviously what the other 350 or so concert goers thought this morning at the Dr. Anton Philipszaal concert hall in The Hague as we enjoyed the hour long set by the big band of the Royal Conservatoire directed by John Ruocco.
The set was introduced by a radio announcer who had prepared his notes very well, but it meant we missed out on John Ruocco´s own commentaries and he was restricted to directing, which he does superbly. The music can be cool but his control is total: his long, clear count-ins give every number a confident, sure start and his directing ensures excellent ensemble playing even on the syncopated stabs and in backing phrases.
As far as I could tell the band decided to take advantage of the excellent acoustics of the concert hall, more used to symphony concerts by the city´s Residentie Orchestra, and not use amplification. Only the string bass and electric guitar were amplified, with a mic for the singer. This had its undoubtedly positive side as we heard the players’ own personal instrumental sound and their lovely playing without a sound engineer´s distortions, especially in the lyrical trumpet solo on Thad Jones’s Mean what you say, the beautiful piano solo on Barry Harris’s I love you so, and the trombone chorales which opened and closed Cole Porter’s Every time we say goodbye. The downside was that the sax section was not always clearly heard in the tutti moments, and even the solos played in situ lacked definition: In the closing number, Gus Arnheim’s Sweet & lovely, the alto soloist was clearly heard because he played at the singer’s mic.
I spent a few moments wondering how the balance would have worked if the string bass had played unplugged and if the guitarist had used an acoustic guitar: in this concert hall I think it would have worked well.
This is a great band with a long and admirable history. The ensemble and solo playing is all superb and the technical accomplishment is impeccable. According to the programme, the band was already active before the jazz department was set up at the conservatoire in 1979 by Frans Elsen, whose arrangement of the Barry Harris tune I love you so was included in the set. John Ruocco has directed the band since the early 1990’s and has led the band in performances at top venues including the North Sea Jazz Festival on numerous occasions, including the most recent one. Ruocco’s own playing experience at the highest level means that all the details of style and quality are present in every number.
The line up for today’s concert includes players from 11 nations. Here are the names according to the programme notes:
Trumpet – Floris Windey, Daniel Clason, Sascha van Loenen, Paul Instance
Trombone – Juanga Lakunza, Christopher Rennebach, Sten Valdmaa, Mattia Petrogalli
Alto sax – Manvydas Pratkelis, Marija Medvedeva
Tenor sax – Rokas Jaunius, Allessandro Bianchi
Baritone – Emilio Tritto
Guitar – Tamas Zador
Piano – S’Yo Fang
String bass – Bernardo Sacconi
Drums – Thomas de Visser
Singer – Katharina Ritzel
Without any desire to criticize, three questions buzzed around my mind while I enjoyed this excellent set, which was just as good, though not as relaxed, as the show I saw at an open day at the conservatoire in the spring. Yes there are Dutch names listed as arrangers on several of the numbers, but why are there no works by Dutch composers on the programme? Yes, the credits on the set list are like reading a jazz hall of fame, including composers I have already mentioned plus Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker and Benny Carter, but why are there no works by living composers on the show? Yes, this is a great band in the most open and fair European city I know of, so why is there only one woman in the band, apart from the singer?
Thank you to the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague for starting my weekend with a concert of electronic music (see a later post), and for this lovely Sunday morning big band show.