Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Cat Project

Levi French’s The Cat Project
CBSO Centre, Birmingham

1. Organ Grinder Swing (Quartet)
2. Blue Bash (Quartet)
3. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (Big Band)
4. Walk On The Wild Side (Big Band)
5. Blues In The Night (Big Band)
6. Got My Mojo Working (Big Band)
7. The Cat (Big Band)
8. Back At The Chicken Shack (Quartet)

(I think this is right – Stewart and I were so excited about the gig that we forgot what we had heard. Let me know if I’ve made a mistake. And sorry guys, but I forgot your names – except for Levi, of course!)
Levi with his quartet (no big band, unfortunately)

This was an awesome gig. As ‘The Cat Project’ name suggests, it was a tribute to the late great Jimmy Smith, the finest exponent of the Hammond B3 organ that music (not just jazz) has ever known. After Jimmy’s passing earlier this year, legions of his fans were denied the opportunity of seeing his greatest works performed live. Well not any more. Now there are a bunch of guys dedicated to keeping his flame alive, and burn they certainly did tonight.

This was the first time that Levi and his band had performed these arrangements of Jimmy Smith’s classic Verve period big-band repertoire, and it was a privilege to be one of the first to enjoy the results of what must have been very hard work. The rest of the audience certainly thought so, with the big band numbers earning rapturous applause as well as a standing ovation at the end of the night. It was then quite something to see Levi come back out onto the stage and sheepishly announce that he had no more arrangements to play. He more than made up for this, though, by storming through an incredible quartet version of ‘Back At The Chicken Shack’. That track has never really done anything for me before – until now, at least.

They say that enthusiasm is infectious, and that was true of this performance. It was wonderful to see the musicians really enjoying themselves, and there was a real sense that you were witnessing the culmination of a dream.

It’s amazing to see such great chemistry between the band members, especially so when you consider that this was the first performance this material. Levi and his drummer and bassist appeared telepathic, anticipating each other’s every move. It was great to see the smiles on their faces during the first big band number – smiles that just got broader as the night went on. It’s impossible to describe the impact created by the opening horn riff of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’. The opening quartet tracks had been pretty good, but this just blew everyone away. And that was just the start…

The horn section started out a little nervously, but the incredible alto sax solo on ‘Blues In The Night’ (where was that on the original?) brought such a reaction from the audience that everyone’s confidence skyrocketed. They also put in a stellar performance on ‘Got My Mojo Working’, with the baritone sax taking over Jimmy’s vocal melody; it’s gruff tone perfectly representing his singing style. Talking of representing Jimmy’s style – Levi proved himself to be an outstanding organ player. He had Jimmy’s sound and style perfected, and after a slightly shaky start on ‘Organ Grinder Swing’, showed that he more than deserves to carry the great Jimmy Smith’s flame into the 21st century.

There's talk of this show being toured, if funding can be obtained. Someone please give this man a fiver right now!

Check out Levi's website, which has some excellent mp3's to download.

Jimmy Smith At The Organ

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