Julian Bliss Septet play Gershwin at Birmingham Town Hall

Julian Bliss Septet at Birmingham Town Hall ★★★★

There are two sides to clarinet virtuoso Julian Bliss. Look for his CDs on Amazon and the search engine even treats him as two different people. There’s the classical wind player of the Mozart and Nielsen concertos and Brahms chamber music with the Carducci Quartet. Then comes his alter-ego who shrugs off the tuxedo, loosens up and plays jazz with his septet on ‘A Tribute to Benny Goodman’ and their new album devoted to Gershwin ‘I Got Rhythm’, which was the focus of this gig. Bliss’s connection with Gershwin goes back a long way though. A YouTube video, viewed 320,000 times, shows the five-year-old wunderkind dressed like a diminutive Acker Bilk – fancy waistcoat, sparkly bow tie and bowler hat worn at a rakish angle – playing ‘Summertime’ on a television variety show. Already a model pro he tells the audience the title and then cues the bandleader – “Thank you Trevor”.

Thirty years on and here’s a refreshingly different arrangement of ‘Summertime’ by the Septet’s vibes player Lewis Wright – “Dark and spooky,” Bliss tells us. So it is, Summertime by moonlight, shimmering vibes with quivering clarinet and trumpet, more modal than tonal. It’s typical of the evening – classy, inventive, a real team of players relaxed and intently listening to each other. In ‘Embraceable You’, Bliss and trumpeter Martin Shaw were about to enter but were so enjoying Wright’s inventive vibes solo that they exchanged nods and winks that said ‘Let him carry on for a bit longer.’ Wright’s arrangement of the opening tune ‘S’ Wonderful’ kicked things off stylishly. Everyone had chance to shine: ‘I Was Doing All Right’ allowed the rhythm section – Connor Chapman (bass), Colin Oxley (guitar) and Ed Richardson (drums) – to swing; Welsh pianist Joe Webb, always prepared to explore off the beaten track, duetted with Bliss in a tender, yearning ‘I Loves You Porgy’. Webb’s dabs of characterful colour on trumpet and flugelhorn were crucial and his plunger-muted solo on ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ produced the perfect period ‘Wah, wah’ tone. A very enjoyable set.

Norman Stinchcombe.

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