Retro Pack at the Public Trust Hall
Andrew London (guitar); Kirsten London (bass and vocalist); James Tait-Jamieson (saxophone); Lance Philip (drums); and April Phillips (vocalist).
Public Trust Hall, Stout St, Wellington
Wednesday 21 July, 2021
Jazz is a polarizing genre. For aficionados, it’s all about innovation, pushing the boundaries, expanding the genre whilst respecting its traditions. Technical skill is prized, but always in the service of new ideas. For your average classical concert-goer, it’s pretty much a mystery, and sometimes incomprehensible.
But everyone loves a jazz standard. Jazz musicians know them inside out and sometimes reference them on their way to something else. Every Wellington Jazz Festival includes two or three gigs that incorporate standards in some way – this year Whirimako Black performed ‘Cry Me a River’ and’ Summertime’ alongside traditional Tūhoe waiata, while Ruth Armishaw channelled Ella Fitzgerald at Cable Top.
This concert of jazz standards by candlelight, presented by Fever Original, was commercially well judged. There were two concerts on the same night. I went to the 6.30 pm concert, and the Public Trust Hall was almost full. The audience was pretty mixed in age – from RNZ Concert to the Rogue and Vagabond crowd. Someone had done a great marketing job.
The quintet, billed as the Retro Pack (an indication to expect some Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin), wore dinner suits with bow ties or sparkly dresses. The volume was on the low side for a jazz concert, so it was perfectly comfortable for a non-jazz audience. And the stage area was marked by a bank of electric candles, flickering pleasantly.
Of the members of the Retro Pack, only James Tait-Jamieson (saxophone) and Lance Philip (drums) were familiar to me. Lance Philip has taught percussion in the jazz programme at Massey since the early 1990s and now at NZ School of Music. James Tait-Jamieson is a Massey graduate in saxophone who has also spent time on cruise ships. Lance plays all around town and is always excellent; Tait-Jamieson is a good sax player. The ones I didn’t know were Andrew London, guitar (ex-Hot Club Sandwich); Kirsten London, bass; and April Phillips, vocalist. The Retro Pack goes back to 2002, and the line-up has been remarkably constant over the years, though April Phillips seems to be a recent addition. She is billed elsewhere as a ‘singer, actress, playwright and movie-maker’. She researched, scripted, and delivered all the song intros, and did much of the singing.
The repertoire was, as promised, jazz standards, from the 1920s to the 1960s. The programme began with ‘Summertime’ from Gershwin’s groundbreaking opera Porgy and Bess, but there was no hint of the stage production in this version, just a tasteful cover version that showed off April Phillips’s low notes, with lovely vibrato. She had a nice duet with the saxophone, subtle, tasteful, understated, and all too short. And that was how the show went. The bass player took the vocals for Jerome Kern’s ‘Can’t help lovin’ that man’, with harmonies from the guitarist and lead vocalist, and another short sax solo. I felt that the key was too low for Kirsten London, who has a pleasant, untrained voice; and I felt the same about the other songs she sang, Peggy Lee’s ‘It’s a Good Day’ (livened up with close harmonies from the others) and ‘Why don’t you do Right’ (with the sax solo providing some heat).
I would have preferred to hear more from April Phillips, who has a wider vocal range, and offered more colour and more power, with a gorgeous lower register. But that is a minor quibble.
April Phillips was a dab hand at suggesting whose version of a well-known song she was channeling. She did Ella Fitzgerald’s version of ‘Cry me a River’, and Ella’s version too of ‘Night and Day’ and ‘Witchcraft’, but the Billie Holliday version of ‘The Man I love’, complete with Holliday’s choppy phrasing and asthmatic in-breaths. It was subtle, and would have provided reassurance to someone less familiar with the repertoire than me. Andrew London did a couple of great Louis Armstrong covers, ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ and in ‘Mack the Knife;’ where the vocals were shared around, and he provided the Satchmo growl. Even Tait-Jamieson got in on the act, in his pleasant light baritone, doing a passable Frank Sinatra. The audience loved ‘Mack the Knife’, but not being a jazz audience, they left their applause until the end of the song.
It was all a bit too tasteful for me, I’m afraid. There is a terrific singer inside April Phillips who barely got allowed out – we had just a glimpse of her in Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’. There were some classy tempo changes. The sax solos were all well-judged and, I thought, too short. This is a polished act. But it wasn’t until the encore, a Cuban number made into a hit by Dean Martin, that the band showed what they are capable of. A faster tempo at last. Lance Philip was even allowed a (very short) solo, and the higher energy swept the audience away into raptures. The welcome rise in temperature made me sorry that there wasn’t a Cuban set to follow.