Two Royal ceremonies in recent times have been but mere hors d'oeuvres to the sensational main menu served up in Sherborne on 20 September 2023, a glittering event celebrating Raymond Wood's 90th birthday, masterminded by the man himself! He certainly does things in style! Raymond is of course widely known as the Stompers' very own impresario, and he has promoted many a jazz concert over the years featuring us, not to mention facilitating our recordings in the wonderful space of Sherborne's Cheap Street Church.
What better way to celebrate a major birthday than to invite his favourite band (we think!) and a host of wonderful guest stars to perform a special concert in this splendid church! Raymond's energy, drive and organising ability are a joy to behold, and he certainly hasn't lost his touch as the years have advanced. This time he produced the biggest audience we've ever seen at Cheap Street and the church was packed to the rafters.
We were delighted to be joined by violin legend Emma Fisk for a set with the band. Although she had already appeared here with Mike Denham, we hadn't had the pleasure of playing with her as a full band before. We're all great fans of jazz violin, having heard lots of tracks by Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli during our younger, formative jazz-listening years, so it was a real treat to hear Emma's swinging, melodic invention in close-up. What a sound!
We had worked with Julia Titus aka 'Ma Bessie' before - on this very stage in May last year - so it was great to welcome her back to entertain us with some more of her Bessie Smith repertoire ... and of course Pete got to perform a gender-correct version of Trombone Cholly with Julia for only the second time in his life. Her energy is massively infectious and she really seems to bring the Empress of the Blues back to life!
Initially, we'd offered Raymond the opportunity to choose the entire programme, but he settled for just selecting a handful of favourite numbers, including a fine vocal rendition of Just A Gigolo by Sherborne's 'Father of Jazz', Cyril White. Still in great form (despite upstaging Raymond in the age department) he performed this lovely old song as if it had been written for him ... now there's a thought!
Younger than either Raymond or Cyril, Hamish Maxwell - despite on-going health problems - was in terrific form, and was on hand throughout to do his usual inimitable thing with the band, including Alan Price's Changes, which we recorded in 2017 in this very church. Given what's happened in the world since we recorded it, it seems even more relevant than ever!
Since Pete Ward stepped down from bass duties, we've generally played without a bass, but we've been lucky enough to hire Tim Heming on several gigs in recent months, including in this very church, so Raymond requested his presence for this very special occasion. Tim fits in really well with our overall sound and style, and we were delighted to have him with us again.
Julian Phillips had also played with us before, down in Bridport, and it was great to welcome him back, despite Mike revealing that on a previous visit here Julian had 'broken the piano'! Whether that was a string, a key, or a whole leg, Mike wouldn't say, but fortunately Julian was unperturbed by this revelation, and treated us to his excellent brand of driving boogie-woogie, both with the full band and in duet with Mike - great stuff! It was Raymond himself who ordained the encore of a trio at the long-suffering Steinway, so Pete joined Julian and Mike for a world's first for this venue - one piano, six hands! Fortunately, the piano survived ...
It was a hugely enjoyable evening, hosted by Raymond with his usual aplomb, and audience and musicians alike had a wonderful time helping him celebrate this impressive milestone. The audience had clearly come from far and wide, for in addition to our local fan base, led by the Duke and Duchess of Margot, we also spotted our former bass player Pete Ward (sprightly as ever and always on the alert for any glitches in perfomance), not to mention the legendary 'Cambridge Contingent', who just don't seem able to resist long journeys - though it must have been Emma Fisk who'd had the longest trip by far! Raymond had clearly come up with what seemed to us the perfect birthday concept, and we sincerely hope he enjoyed it as much we all did - musicians and audience! Thanks, Raymond - it was a brilliant evening!