Ulster Youth Jazz Orchestra

The Class of 2012/13 show remarkable maturity, eclecticism and togetherness in this, their first full concert as a unit

By its very nature, the Ulster Youth Jazz Orchestra is constantly in a state of flux.

The young musicians who each year add to the ranks inevitably grow older, go off to university, pursue careers, form their own bands or, conversely, lose interest altogether, so it is a daunting challenge every year for director Ken Jordan to bring in new blood and ensure the quality of the orchestra is maintained.

That is why the big band’s first public outing of the year at the Crescent Arts Centre is so impressive. Although celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the UYJO in its present incarnation has only been together since September 2012. So for them to produce a performance of such cohesion, exuberance and skill is, frankly, astounding.

A large crowd at the south Belfast venue observe around 30 talented young musicians comfortably master an impressive range of styles, from 1940s era swing to bossa nova, mambo, driving funk and jazz rock.

The concert begins with a delicious piece of fusion, an arrangement of soul standard 'The Chicken' with some funky guitar riffs and impressive soloing from Rebecca Montgomery on drums and James Doherty on trombone.

Next up is UYJO debutante, vocalist Natalie Addis, who lends her classic pop vocals to two swinging versions of ‘Lady is the Tramp’ and ‘The Glory of Love’. Her fellow chanteuse, Rachel McAdam, obliges with lovely renditions of Michael Bublé’s 'Everything' and the classic 'My Funny Valentine'.

The band display a youthful vibrancy and energy that lights up the room. Guitarist Paul McParland is all attitude on a classy arrangement of John Lennon’s ‘Come Together’ from the Beatles' Abbey Road album. And Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ receives the big band treatment, with some lovely sax, trumpet, trombone and keyboard solos featured.

But the highlight of the first half is undoubtedly an old time, jazzy version of Elton John’s ‘Honky Cat’, with an arrangement by UYJO old boy Conor Mulvenna, who now leads the Leeds University Jazz Orchestra. The second half then opens with a rousing version of 'Chameleon' from Herbie Hancock’s mould-breaking, fusion album Headhunters.

Natalie Addis performs a lovely version of Norah Jones’s ‘Don’t Know Why’ to a Burt Bacharach-style accompaniment. It assumes added poignancy when it emerges that the famous singer-songwriter’s father, the legendary sitar player Ravi Shankar, had died earlier in the day.

Ken Jordan tells the audience that the young people who form the band are not content doing the usual jazz standards before they launch into a hi-energy arrangement of the Jamiroquai monster hit 'Insanity'. Other highlights include a thumping tribute to the Blues Brothers, with many of the band donning dark glasses and a fantastic rock version of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Wish’.

The band then show that they can also do soothing Latin rhythms with Rachel McAdam singing the 1950s Mambo favourite, 'Sway', made popular by the relaxed delivery of Rat Pack regular, Dean Martin.

The concert ends on a high, with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s hyperactive ‘Mambo Swing’. This, of course, gives members of the band the chance to show off their chops, with drummer Rebecca Montgomery performing a manic Gene Krupa-esque solo.

If this is how these young jazz stars of the future perform together for the first time, I can’t wait to catch them when they really begin to gel. The Class of 2012/13 will surely be hard to replace.