Bigger Pictures – The Art of Nigel Waddington
You Got it (Barry Finnerty) [4:45]
I Fly (Nick Holmes) [6:03]
Is this a Rainbow (Nigel Waddington) [5:28]
Talking to Thomas (Nigel Waddington) [3:41]
Bigger Pictures (Nigel Waddington) [6:58]
September (Nigel Waddington) [4:42]
Jazz Chops, No Hang-ups – an ode to Steely Dan (Nigel Waddington) [6:03]
Lantern on the Stern – in memoriam Malcolm Arnold (Nigel Waddington) [6:56]
James (Pat Metheny) [4:43]
Like Someone in Love (Johhny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen) [4:11]
Tristesse Lili Boulanger (Nigel Waddington) [2:45]
For Dave (Nigel Waddington) [4:51]
all arrangements by Nigel Waddington
Recorded mixed & mastered Red Gables Studio, Greenford London 2003-09
CALA RECORDS CACD77011 [61:06]

Cala continue to prove themselves to be one of the most eclectic and quirky independent record labels. Unlike just about any other I can think of it is just about impossible to know what type of musical programme will turn up on the label next. Quite whether this disc was commissioned by them or whether they are simply the vehicle for its distribution is not clear. Not that it really matters but I suspect the latter given that it has the prime function of showcasing the arranging/composing abilities of Nigel Waddington. As such it has the feel of a self-promoted product. This is not a qualitative judgement more that the diversity of the styles and music presented here under the umbrella term of ‘big-band/jazz’ smacks more of a ‘look at what I can do’ sampler than a coherent programme.

One thing to make clear: the quality of the playing here is first rate throughout – all of the frontline solos are taken with virtuosity and flair. I suspect others may respond to the diversity of styles more favourably than I. I find it too much of a mish-mash. One minute it’s 1970s jazz funk, next a mellow ballad, throw in a couple of ‘serious’ piano pieces, something sounding quite like Manhattan Transfer and you will get my drift. Worthington provides brief descriptions of each work and the liner also, commendably, lists all the players. Half a page is taken up with acknowledgements which given no biography and the brevity of the discussion of the pieces or their context seems excessive. Worthington points up his use of non-standard jazz instruments such as double reeds, harp and strings. In fact his handling of them seems to me to be very standard indeed once you accept they are in the line-up at all. As a string player I get endlessly irritated by the ‘white-note-itus’ that afflicts pop and jazz arrangers. Unending lines of long slow notes from the strings act as some kind of cosy bed of harmonic warmth or clichéd high counter-melodies. Don’t these arrangers ever listen to the fantastic driving energy a well-written string part can inject into a piece? Try the opening track here – You Got It. It’s a cracking homage to 1970s Jazz/Funk right down to the Shaft-like wah-wah guitar and period synths. Some of the keyboard solos reminded me John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra. Really stunning drumming from Chris Dagley too. But I’m waiting for the strings. After all Waddington writes “I liked the idea of adding strings to this piece to expand the impact as far as possible.” But all they do is exactly the kind of padding I’ve described above AND worse it’s been engineered – again in typical manner – so they sound like they were recorded in an adjacent room. What is the point in paying for a 21-piece string section and then mixing them to sound like five? Vocalist Claire Martin recorded two tracks and these are very appealing in a not particularly individual way. The first of the ‘serious’ pieces is Talking to Thomas which Waddington wrote for his baby son. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the piece for a moment, I just wish it were better; it’s a rather po-faced folk-song with jazz inflections. Pianist David Frankel seems rather heavy-handed here too. For me the most successful tracks are those where the line-up is fullest – track 5 Bigger Pictures and the closing For Dave; great trumpet solos on the latter. Waddington seems fascinated by his use of his non-standard instruments again. Even so, didn’t Mike Westbrook explore the jazz band/standard orchestra fusion more deeply and more challengingly on albums like London Bridge is broken down or on John Williams’ New Perspectives album of A.E. Housman settings.

Lantern on the Stern is a tribute to Malcolm Arnold who apparently was “largely self-taught” which might come as quite a surprise to Gordon Jacob. I couldn’t hear anything at all Arnold-ish here - I’m thinking wit or melodic flair or feel for instrumental colour. Again this wouldn’t be an issue if the piece itself were more memorable. The next track is an arrangement of Pat Metheny’s James and I enjoyed it much more. It features some great trombone work from Paul Taylor and Richard Pywell. Both this and the following track – Like Someone in Love – show Waddington’s strengths as an arranger. Perhaps my ear for jazz harmonies just isn’t sharp enough to pick up the felicities and subtleties of what he writes but this strikes me as solid but unexceptional arranging. The next serious piece is Tristesse Lili Boulanger which “helps express her tumultuous life”. Sorry, the pedant in me has to point out that the one thing her life was NOT was tumultuous as in the dictionary definition “loud/excited & emotional” or “uproarious, riotous, or turbulent”. Extraordinary and tragic in its brevity and circumscribed and limited by life-long ill-health yes but tumultuous … ? I only point this out because it seems to me that the use of such a description is trying to give the piece a significance or weight it does not merit. Call it Short Piece No.1 by all means and then it can be judged for what it is. The disc closes as it opens with a cracking track where, heaven be praised, the strings get to play something with a bit more oomph; not great engineering of the string sound at the beginning of this track although better for being much more up-front.

So from my perspective very much a mixed blessing of a disc. Fine playing throughout but these arrangements and compositions are of too diverse a range of styles and quality to allow an unqualified welcome. There are a lot of similar albums out there that are more inspired.

Nick Barnard

There are a lot of similar albums out there that are more inspired.