John Dankworth: What The Dickens! / Off Duty!
What The Dickens! / Off Duty!
This reissue contains two very different prospects. Off Duty!is really Dankworth-lite. What The Dickens!, by contrast, is the real thing and one of four fine suites the orchestra recorded in the '60s-that's counting wife Cleo Laine's Shakespeare and All That Jazz(Fontana, 1964) here as well. Dankworth's work often invites admiration in critics first and only pleasure and deeper satisfactions later. Perhaps to some, he was a victim of his own success. His facility in creating memorable, admittedly sometimes lightweight, tunes and ability to please a wider audience than many of his peers kind of made him suspect in some quarters. He might not have been a genius of the art of jazz but he was certainly a craftsman of the first rank.
The other two albums Dankworth made in this period-Zodiac Variationand $1,000,000 Collection-came out in 2011 on Dutton-Vocalion. The addition of What The Dickens!now gives lie to those who would limit his achievements as a composer, bandleader and alto player.
That Dankworth had ambition goes without saying. He wanted to be both popular and respected critically-ever a hard and difficult path to negotiate. His work always had a tendency towards theatricality, indeed this was one of the reasons he was so successful as a composer for film and television. His music was often relaxed and gentle on the ear but it should never be presumed that this meant it wasn't also beautifully framed and a constant challenge for his musicians. It's actually bloody hard work making it sound this easy, and that's what Dankworth did with remarkable skill.
The duet between saxophonists Ronnie Ross and Bobby Wellins on "Weller Never Did," and the leader's own alto solo on "Little Nell" are perfect cases in point. On the first, Wellins' tenor provides a lovely counterpoint to Ross' baritone, before the two switch places and Ross does the honours for Wellins. It's witty, light-hearted and utterly charming. A moment later, Dankworth's alto takes the stage for a warm and romantic, if wry take on Dickens' unfortunate heroine that locates his sound halfway between Parker and Hodges. Humor was never far away in whatever Dankworth did and it's there in Tubby Hayes' tenor solo on "Demndest Little Fascinator," which plays with a Viennese waltz complete with harp, and which brings out a typically rich and throaty performance from Hayes.
Often, and sometimes confusingly, Dankworth's musical pictures could be at odds with their subject. "Dotheboys Hall" in Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39) was a grim, forbidding place of education, but here the composer uses five of his tenorists to create an atmosphere of rebellion that would have given its headmaster Wackford Squeers instant cardiac arrest. And who could dare refuse Oliver Twist seconds ("Please Sir, I Want To Some More") when asked so poignantly by Leon Calvert's trumpet? Such quirky perceptions pervade Dankworth's oeuvre and it was part of his talent that he was willing to give them their head on so many occasions.
Perhaps this all sounds a little too clever, too calculated. Maybe so, but it never appears that way in the execution. On "Dodson and Fogg," the altoist duets with Hayes, playing the unctuous clerk to the tenor player's verbose, untrustworthy solicitor. It matters not, whether you've read the Pickwick Papers (1836-37) or seen Noel Langley's lovely film depiction from 1952, though knowing the source just a little bit does add something and makes it possible to hear Dankworth for the fine musical caricaturist that he was. This is gorgeously, warm-hearted optimistic jazz, which, coming from a furrow-browed, purveyor of doom like this reviewer, must say something.
Off Duty!is not in the same league but, to be fair, it wasn't intended to be. Here, Dankworth harks back to an earlier era of jazz, innocent and intended for dancing. The tunes are in the main standards arranged here by Dankworth, David Lindup and pianist Laurie Holloway, with four originals (one from Holloway, three from Dankworth). The tunes that come off best are the leader's own slinky title track, a new take on Galt McDermott's "African Waltz" and the two Duke Ellington pieces, "Sophisticated Lady" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," the former featuring some rather nice trumpet. But this all has the feel more of easy listening than jazz. Shame that Dutton-Vocalion didn't pair What The Dickens!with Laine's Shakespeare and All That Jazz. Never mind, What The Dickens! should be more than enough for most mortals.
Tracks and Personnel
What The Dickens!
Tracks: Prologue; Weller Never Did; Little Nell; The Infant Phenomenon; Demdest Little Fascinator; Dotheboys Hall; Ghosts; David And The Bloaters; Please Sir, I Want Some More; The Artful Dodger; Waiting For Something To Turn Up; Dodson And Fogg; The Pickwick Club; Sergeant Buzfuz; Finale.
Personnel: Gus Galbraith: trumpet; Leon Calvert: trumpet; Kenny Wheeler: trumpet; Dickie Hawdon: trumpet; Tony Russell: trombone; Eddie Harvey: trombone; Ron Snyder: tuba; Alf Reece: tuba; Johnny Dankworth: alto saxophone, clarinet; Roy East: alto saxophone, clarinet; Vic Ash: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Art Ellefson: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Alan Branscombe: piano, vibraphone, xylophone; Kenny Napper: bass; Spike Heatley: bass; Johnny Butts: drums; Jimmy Deuchar: trumpet; Tony Coe: tenor saxophone; Tubby Hayes: tenor saxophone; Peter King: tenor saxophone; Ronnie Scott: tenor saxophone; Bobby Wellins: tenor saxophone; Dick Morrissey: tenor saxophone; tenor saxophone; Ronnie Ross: baritone saxophone; Ronnie Stephenson: drums; Roy Webster: percussion.
Tracks: Ja-Da; Off Duty!; Little Brown Jig; Sophisticated Lady; African Waltz; Bernie's Tune; Skyliner; Basin Street Blues; To Emma; Don't Get Around Much Anymore; Song of India; Holloway House.
Personnel: John Dankworth: alto saxophone, arranger; David Lindup: arranger; Laurie Holloway: piano, arranger; Brian Odgers: bass guitar; Herbie Flowers: bass guitar. Orchestra unknown