4BarsRest was at the North West Area Contest at Blackpool and we cast our ears over all the performances in the Championship Section. Here’s what we thought about them all.
Ashton Under Lyne kicked off the contest from the dreaded number one draw, and even though playing first isn’t such a handicap in a field of just nine bands, there seemed to be an air of doom about the band even before they played a note. This is a band that has made great progress over the past couple of years, but they ran into a brick wall on Jazz. They didn’t seem comfortable with the style of the piece and the technical demands were a little too much for many of the sections. However, in light of the progress they have made, this was still a good effort. We’re sure they will be disappointed at coming last but things will surely get better for them. 182pts from Mr Brownbill in the box was par for the course for us.
Wingates are also a band that has made progress in recent times after a few years in the wilderness. The last time they played Jazz, they came second at the English Masters in 1997 with Howard Snell at the helm. However, that was then and today’s band is not at that level. Brian Grant has worked hard, but the band is still in the recovery stages of development and the playing showed why. Too many slips and a brassy almost hard edge to some of the playing did not impress Mr Brownbill, the audience, or us for that matter. Again though—a band starting to improve all be it a little slowly. 184pts seemed fair.
Leyland and Garry Cutt were a different kettle of fish all together. Leyland has drifted carelessly over the last couple of years, with disappointments far outreaching successes on the contest stage. This seems to be something they have corrected on the standard of this showing though. Garry Cutt showed last week with Grimethorpe that he is a class conductor, and again he gave the music a sense of style and time that was most impressive. Andrew King on trombone was sensational—just 16!—and soloists on baritone, euph and flugel were just as good. Robert Westacott showed off to good effect on top man, and the whole performance confirmed that the good times could well be returning to Leyland. We gave them 193pts and second, but the man in the box disagreed and awarded 190pts and third. Qualification for the Finals was well deserved.
B.T. next up and a solid performance from a band that has also been going through a bit of an upheaval of late. Mike Fowles is a young conductor with a lot of experience with young bands, and again he gave notice of his talents. Clean and very angular beats gave clear directions to the band and soloists, with the end result being a performance that was memorable for being not memorable. Couldn’t fault much but couldn’t get too enthusiastic either—they played to their strengths, which many bands on the day didn’t. 186 pts and 5th place in the middle of the field summed it all up.
Fodens Courtois were looking for a record equalling fourth title in a row, but from the moment they kept the audience waiting nearly ten minutes to get on stage and ready, to the last note of the piece, it was clear things didn’t go quite to plan. There was a liberal contingent of cracked or split notes around the band and the percussion seemed sluggish and almost a beat behind in places. The drive was just missing and it wasn’t until Mark Wilkinson stamped a bit of class on the show with his solo work did you feel that this was going to be a performance that could win the contest. James Gourlay brought some lovely touches throughout, but somehow it was too much of a curates egg performance. When they were good they sounded brilliant, but when they weren’t it left the door open for them to be beaten. We gave them 192pts as did the adjudicator—but he had them second and we had them third.
Besses o’th’Barn gave a good account of themselves especially as they seem to be one of the youngest bands around on the day. Both the solo cornet and sop players seemed barely old enough to have started school let alone take the lead on a piece like Jazz. However, their conductor Gareth Pritchard gave a sensible approach to the work, which meant that it was aimed at showing off the strengths of his young charges rather than trying to copy the bigger blowing bands. Again the percussion seemed to intrude a bit too much on occasions but there was good playing from the soloists, especially the aforementioned youngsters and the flugel. Good solid stuff—we had them in 4th a point ahead of Freckleton, but Mr Brownbill gave them 185pts and 6th place.
Stalybridge Old and David Hirst seemed to play the piece in a way that mirrored Brighouse and Rastrick the week before — straight in both style and content. The problem was however that they are not the band that Brighouse are and so their playing seemed strangely dated in execution. It was the clearest example of a brass band playing Jazz as only a brass can and shouldn’t. That was a pity because it was neat and tidy, but stylistically wrong and contained the best bass trombone playing of the day from Mark Frost. How on earth he isn’t playing for a professional orchestra is beyond us—what a player. Last but one was fair on 183pts—150 of them just for the bass trombone.
And so to the winners. No problems for us, the adjudicator or the audience on this one. Williams Fairey gave an outstanding performance. Howard Snell had unbelievably not won the North West Area contest since 1989 so this was very overdue indeed, and he for one made sure he was going to end the day at the top of the pile. A reading that was redolent of class gave the band all the time in the world to execute the different styles of Jazz playing in each of the movements more clearly than any band on the day or anything that had been performed in Yorkshire less than a week before. It was the way in which you could actually hear them swing or bebop, which so caught the ear. There were a few clips, but they in no way distracted from the performance. Brian Taylor on top man seemed rejuvenated by having Howard Snell directing in front of him, whilst Owen Farr on solo horn and especially Kevin Crockford on soprano played out of their skins. The day belonged to Howard Snell though—this was a master class in how to prepare and perform with a band, and his players did not let him down. We put them two ahead of Leyland and Malcolm Brownbill two ahead of Fodens, but it didn’t matter really—Fairey’s were the clearest of winners in anybody’s book.
Freckleton had the misfortune to play last—and to play after Fairey’s—but this did not seem to faze them at all as they gave a solid if somewhat unspectacular account of Jazz that was notable for the playing of their young solo cornet player. Afterwards someone told us he was only 14,(since confirmed as Matthew Palmer aged 14! — editor) but we may have been duped on this one. However, whoever he was, he was very good indeed and this we were sure got them up the table and into fourth spot. We didn’t quite think it was a show that deserved as high as it got, but it was brave—especially following Fairey’s and so we felt the adjudicator was a little more charitable than we would have been. We had them 5th behind Besses but ahead of BT. 188pts Mr Brownbill though.
So that was it then. Fairey’s deserved winners, and clearly too. Fodens disappointing but clinging on to second, with a rejuvenated Leyland third and feeling a trifle unlucky. The others ranged from the good to the not so good, but showed that the North West is a strong area in terms of Championship bands. Howard Snell however, was in a different league all together though.