Callum Au Big Band with Nigel Hitchcock – Live in Oxford

These live tracks from a performance at Oxford’s Corpus Christi College confirm the dynamic talents of 21-year-old arranger, composer and trombonist Callum Au.  Callum, who cut his teeth in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, has built his band from the top drawer of young talent, but to get it sounding so good so soon is a major achievement.

For this gig, he persuaded elusive saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock, revered among horn players for his technical flair, to guest, and Hitchcock fits the arrangements – with their grounding in blues and soul language – like a glove.  All charts are Callum’s, with the exception of Tom Stone’s uplifting Return Flight.  Tom, who contributes a heartfelt tenor solo, has a knack for Maria Schneider-ish lyricism, closer to modern large-ensemble writing. Callum, on the other hand, is decidedly a big band guy, with all the baggage that phrase conjures: his touchstones include Thad Jones, Stan Kenton, Quincy Jones, Gordon Goodwin.

It Ain’t Necessarily So begins as a bluesy jam with Chris Eldred on Hammond, and features a puckish solo from Henry Armburg Jennings before Hitchcock lifts off into snaking runs and altissimo yelps.  What Is This Thing Called Love? is based around a mean afro groove, enhanced by John Russell’s weaving and wailing guitar, but snapping in and out of uptempo swing.  Though instrumental, it brings out all the unease and bewilderment of Cole Porter’s lyric.  Another Porter tune, All Of You, is a vocal feature for the formidably swinging Emma Smith.  Expanded from Emma’s own small-group arrangement, which in turn was inspired by a Miles Davis recording, its tour de force is a vocalese lyric crammed with Cole Porter titles.  It includes a great solo by the “other” lead altoist, Lucas Dodd.  Smith also sings on My Romance, whose bossa nova textures reveal a gentler side to Callum’s writing.

On Stage and Barker Is Willing are both originals written for NYJO.  The latter began life as a feature for Ed Barker (here playing second alto), and its down-home soul gives full rein to Hitchcock’s chops.  The former is in a Neal Hefti vein, showing off the band’s tight section playing.  Neither, though, reaches the imaginative heights of the standards material. Caravan, all ominous brass blasts and anxious countermelodies, is a case in point: with Hitchcock and drummer Dave Elliott going full pelt, it’s – there’s no better word – badass.

Most of the players, like Callum, have come through NYJO, but the levels of professionalism, focus and restraint on display here go well beyond that band’s standards.  In large part this is down to the galvanising presence of Hitchcock, but it’s also a credit to Callum’s leadership and writing.  Not bad for the start of a career.

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