Reviews

“We’re so lucky to have Walsall Jazz Orchestra” 

The constant things are the ones we most risk taking for granted. Like the excellence of the Rush Hour free sessions on early Friday evenings in the Symphony Hall Foyer Bar. And the Walsall Jazz Orchestra.

That rather dull town to the north of Birmingham has something of a comic reputation – people are likely to make nudge-nudge, wink-wink comments about the Leather Museum, and complain about the one-way system, or remark that it is one huge tip attached to Ikea.

But there are some redeeming features. One is the New Art Gallery; the other is the fact that many years ago a man called John Hughes got a whole bunch of young people together and called them the Walsall Jazz Orchestra.

They have been gigging ever since, have seen young rising players pass through their ranks and go on to fame and fortune, while the hard core WJOers keep doing the day jobs and relieve those post-work tensions by blasting out the joyous sounds of Jaco Pastorius, or Pat Metheny, or their own Tim Amann.

They’ve played in hotel bars, in tents in provincial city parks, at beer festivals, and on at least two occasions they have played at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

When that little funky electric piano figure from Tim Amann starts, Carl Hemmingsley adds the rim shot, Adam Gilchrist the bass line and the horns gently add a quiet pulse before the saxophones top it with the curling melody and Richard Sandford launches into his distortion-laden guitar solo, then I have no choice but to grin.

This is Amann’s Little Steps, one of their great showpieces, which really should be available on prescription from the NHS. It’ll cure most things.

The other thing I love about WJO is that it breaks strongly with the tradition for big bands to be all-male affairs. And, no, the good women of the band are not restricted to the genteel occupations of playing the piano and singing – they blow, and, my, how they blow!

The dedication, determination and good old-fashioned optimism of the band clearly won over the Rush Hour regulars who voted for them above all others in the annual Audience Poll.

– Peter Bacon, Birmingham Post, June 1, 2009

“Big band with a whole heap of talent”

There are some damn fine big bands around and there are some damn fine composers too, but to have such a composer a long-standing member of such a band is a treat indeed.

The WJO is the band in question and keyboard player Tim Amann is the composer.

This is a band that plays modern jazz with a strong rock-fusion element and a very distinctive sound. They have always leaned towards Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius tunes rather than Ellington and Basie, and Amann sounds like he has a special affection for Steely Dan.

I first heard the large-scale suite All in Good Time, written for WJO by Thomas Haines, back when they were giving some movements and early airing at the Lichfield Jazz and Blues Festival. It’s sounding far more assured now and is a fine showcase for the band’s orchestral range.

Overall, though, I think they are at their best playing Amann’s music, and there are four fine slices of it to build an acquaintance with here.

You’ll hear a rich ensemble sound, an absolutely cracking rhythm section, and strong solos from guest and WJO alumnus Martin Shaw on trumpet, Richard Sandford on guitar, Sam Rogers on saxophones and Amann himself.

– Review of “Little Steps”, Peter Bacon, The Birmingham Post, April 16 2007

“What is most striking about WJO is the apparent ease with which these young musicians dismantle any chart, no matter how formidable. On Devil in the Detail, it seems that no detail has been undervalued or overlooked. A devilishly beguiling album by a world class Jazz ensemble”

– Jack Bowers (allaboutjazz.com)

“Walsall Jazz Orchestra? Stunning – the town’s best kept secret”

– Terry Grimley (Birmingham Post)

“With its concise section work and fine used of dynamics this is a superb big band in its own right”

– Chris Yates (Jazz Rag)

“Walsall Jazz Orchestra was playing a rendition of Pat Metheny’s “Have you Heard?”. I sat on the grass in the Montreux sunshine and had one of the best and  least expected festival experiences ever”

– Mike Bradley (The Times)

“Once upon a time there was a Walsall Youth Jazz Orchestra … but it became so good, and made so many highly acclaimed recordings that a crucial decision was made. The word “Youth” would be dropped from it’s name. Since then the band has gone from strength to strength”

– John Watson (Express and Star)

“I have to say at the outset, that it is a phenomenally successful outcome for all concerned. Not only does the group play out of its skin, but also offers respect and restraint in the process; the precision of their performances is awesome and so seemingly effortless, negotiating the oft-time complex charts with a panache and relaxation – brilliant and authoritative, incisive, confident and, when called for, blistering and sizzling”

– Ken Rattenbury (Crescendo)

“This is one of the most thought provoking big band albums to come my way in a long time and I have no hesitation in recommending it to all open minded big band fans”

– Stan Woolley (Jazz Journal)