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They walk onto the stage looking and acting a bit like a college band, but appearances are deceiving. The National Youth Jazz Orchestra (or NYJO as they call themselves) features 23 musicians under the age of 25, most of whom will probably go on to become professionals (past alumni include Guy Barker, Mark Nightingale and Amy Winehouse). Their combined talents make for a sound that I cannot do justice to by description or even in a Youtube link – you’ve just got to see it for yourself.
As incredible as their collective harmony is, it’s during solos that the musicians’ skills are really demonstrated. Some of the tunes these guys improvise make it hard to believe that a lot of them are still teenagers, and when they stand up to do their individual bits it’s impossible to take your eyes of their fingers (or arms in a trombonist’s case). Music director Mark Armstrong is also fun to watch. He doesn’t conduct rigorously as some MDs do, but instead seems to focus on enjoying himself (his dancing makes it very hard to stop your own head bobbing). Of course, he does provide the band with direction, but it’s more complimentary than necessary, as proven on the occasion when he left the room to get some music off his iPad and the band didn’t fall apart.
As he pointed out, Lancaster’s Great Hall had a ‘generous acoustic’, but the band made more than enough noise to fill the space. They did do a few more stripped back numbers with singer Jessica Radcliffe (although her delicate voice still struggled to compete with the horns), but the majority of their songs were probably loud enough to be heard from County Bar. They could certainly have mixed the set-list up a bit more (e.g. something to justify the inclusion of a clarinet and a flute in a big band), but no piece was boring, and it was particularly refreshing to hear that many of them were composed or arranged by members of the band. The concluding number, Minor Roast Up by trumpeter Nick Dewhurst, was apparently brought to rehearsals for the first time that day, testament to how accomplished musicians they are as they gave a near-flawless performance.
Next year is NYJO’s 50th anniversary, and by the sounds of it they’ve got a lot planned. If their performance here was anything to go by, they’ll keep going from strength to strength.