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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Memorable sax solos and individual flair at the Varsity jazz-off

If this show was about demonstrating the very best they can do, then Oxford delivered

In the World of Oxford jazz, events don’t come much bigger than the annual co-hosted gig with Cambridge. A musical equivalent of a Varsity match, the show involves back-to-back performances from the Oxford University Jazz Orchestra (OUJO) and their Cambridge equivalent, with each side showing the very best they have to offer. Having been held regularly since 2004, this year was billed as one of the biggest yet.

Held in the Magdalen College Auditorium, it took place last Friday in the appropriately chosen venue. Naturally the acoustics were excellent, both for the audience and the performers themselves as you could tell from the tightness of the performance that for the most part the orchestras could hear each other well. Admittedly, there was a small amount of home advantage. Cambridge seemed to suffer more from technical difficulties (sabotage?), and to some extent Oxford was able to be more adventurous given they knew the surroundings better. To be fair though, the Tabs handled the constraints well, and their male singer Harry Castle deserves to be commended for his ability to recover from originally not having a working microphone.

Cambridge were first to take to the stage this year, and worked through a mixture of covers and original arrangements. I particular liked the performance of ‘Crazy’, originally by Gnarls Barkley, which for me was when Cambridge seemed most relaxed and able to enjoy their performance. Robin Jacob-Owens also deserves a special mention for his alto sax solos, which received appraising applause from the audience as indeed did all the solos throughout the show. More generally however, it was a solid and well-executed performance from the Cambridge orchestra that grew in confidence as the show  progressed.

Oxford’s set too consisted of many impressive individual performances and solos, indeed too many to separately name. However, Matt Ward’s many trumpet solos were the most memorable, especially the one in Oxford’s second number ‘Basically Blues.’ Drummer Matt Venvell seemed to have been given greater freedom for moments of individual flair as well as keeping rhythm, ensuring a strong performance all round. Encompassing a variety of covers and original arrangements, the orchestra showed an impressive unity of sound with clear focus.

With at least seventeen musicians on stage at any one time, and sometimes more when singers were present, this was an impressive achievement. It was perhaps best expressed in arrangements such as ‘Pennies from Heaven’, where Oxford had ample opportunity to show everything they had to offer. If this show was about demonstrating the very best they can do, then OUJO delivered. With the show having been brought to a climax with Oxford’s final number, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, as way of an encore there was a slightly rouge arrangement of ‘Wonderwall’. I wish I could say that OUJO managed to breath life back into this tired classic, but to be honest, it’s just too far gone. However, at least this gave the performers a chance to relax on this final number, with all musicians clearly enjoying themselves.

The jury’s out on whether either orchestra can be said to have ‘won’, but it was a highly successful show and on this evidence there deserve to be many more such line-ups in the future.

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