Michael Houstoun and The Rodger Fox Big Band ft. Erna Ferry
Opera House, Wellington, 2pm
Saturday, June 12
The once unlikely pairing of classical pianist Michael Houstoun and big-band stalwart Rodger Fox is now an annual event. They’ve even sewn up the same slot too – an afternoon show and always to a packed house. For this gig they moved away from transcribing and arranging classical for jazz and instead featured some of the regular big band material and then with Houstoun they adapted the works of 70s songwriter and pop act Gino Vannelli. And if you thought that wasn’t going to work, you really needed to be there. This was sublime.
Houstoun has really warmed to his role in this setting – he has a smile on his face a mile wide and feels comfortable with the big band. When this experiment started a half decade ago or so you couldn’t say that. The music was good – often great but the flow was not there. Now he’s just, as Rodger always calls them, “one of the cats in the band”.
And what a band.
Rodger Fox drives this orchestra hard, the players give their all and the sound is never less than fantastic.
A special treat, I felt, was watching Lance Philip steering the ship somewhat from his role behind the drumkit. Over the years the big band has always had a great drummer, usually a protégé of Philip’s – and though he’s worked with the group sporadically he had the right clout for selling the drama of the Vannelli tunes, he has a clarity of groove through bop, samba-esque sway and tender balladry. And when called on to deliver the big bridging fills or a crisp, sharp solo there’s no one better.
The saxophone soloists were given the best chance to shine – particularly on material originally by John Coltrane and Count Basie.
Erna Ferry’s cameo spot was a nice change of direction, a gorgeous rendition of Summertime – with the aforementioned samba-sway sashaying its way into and around the song, and a cool bar-room blues meets big band flip to The Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Women, guitarist Dean Hunter giving it a bit of Albert Collins there in the solo.
Such a great band, an immaculate set of tunes – brave and bold and big but never too much, always familiar enough, always warm. And it’s all wrapped up with Fox’s charm – a cackle as he jokes about cracking the whip. A good time too, never a long time. This was a perfect Saturday afternoon concert. Such a good vibe.