On OUJO’s Facebook page, it states that their various accolades include ‘supporting headliners…[for] The Streets on the Oxford ball circuit’. After seeing them perform a wonderfully executed 90 minutes of driving big-band jazz to an adoring crowd, I can now reveal that they are categorically better than The Streets. Partly because I don’t imagine Mike Skinner’s silky-smooth vocals would go down well at Montreal Jazz Festival, the next stop for this razor-sharp orchestra in the summer.
While many big bands produce a mass of indeterminate horns drowning everything in their wake, OUJO are crisp, precise and brilliantly clear, trading off virtuoso solos and dense group harmonies with effortless ease. Whether swerving between the up-tempo swing-time of Buddy Rich’s ‘Big Swing Face’, or providing gentle washes of sound for a ballad, there is always a satisfying balance between the richly complex arrangements and the punchy accessibility of the melodies and rhythm section.
The orchestra were at their best when gradually building up layers of sound, giving individuals breathing space before swelling to a huge crescendo. One of the standout tracks was ‘Aha’, where a moody, sparse groove from bassist Richard Longdon and drummer Alex Blackwell, supplemented by the low growl of baritone sax from Magnus Rowbotham, built up by blocks of sound from alto, tenor, piano and trumpet to a complex, powerful conclusion worthy of David Axelrod. Equally good was a rousing rendition of Gordon Goodwin’s ‘Count Bubba’ – perfectly choreographed horn stabs and solo bars from all three brass lines keeping up a driving rhythm, rising to something euphoric enough to soundtrack winning the top prize on every single game show in the world simultaneously.
Highlights also included ‘Stella By Starlight’ and ‘Always and Forever’, two superbly understated and tender performances led by band president Michael Dunne. Dunne’s trumpet playing radiated professionalism, channelling as much into the perfectly judged spaces between the notes as the arrangements themselves, refusing to hog the limelight in favour of a quiet, subtle style that only enhanced a sense of passion, energy and intensity. Similarly, Francesca Aquilina’s vocals were wedded perfectly with the band’s subtler side – the performers knowingly altering volume and technique to foreground fantastic renditions of ‘At Last’ and ‘What a Difference a Day Makes’, amongst others. Though it’s traditional for a jazz chanteuse to make dweeby, misty-eyed audience members fall in love with them, by the end of her performance of ‘At Last’ I was considering asking her to elope to Tuscany.
Fantastic drumming from Blackwell throughout, and some very endearing compereing from stand-in host Rory Robinson (‘This one’s quite emotional. Well, I dunno, maybe not. See what you think’) got the crowd behind them for the duration of the show. The only thing that didn’t go in OUJO’s favour was the size of the stage, making sightlines difficult and cramming them next to each other with little elbow room, and an unfortunate anchoring of most of the venue’s seating a disorientating distance from the front. Hopefully, when they take to Montreal in the summer, they’ll have difficulty pushing crowds away.