Mr Benn, as some will know, is a bowler-hatted character created and illustrated by David McKee. For a while, he regularly appeared on children’s TV in animated incarnation. Mr Benn would go into a magic shop and have all kinds of adventures. When Mr Benn’s creator David McKee found out the character was going to be animated and shown on the BBC. David McKee arrived at Duncan Lamont’s house one day with a copy of the book under his arm. He asked Duncan to write tunes to accompany the illustrations and stories. Duncan found tunes to accompany the illustrations came easily – as if by magic. Apparently, when he played the theme he thought for Mr Benn, playing it to David, on a bass clarinet he had nearby, David said, ‘Don’t change it-that’s Mr Benn!’
Musicians were gathered and Kenny Wheeler came in on the sessions – Kenny Wheeler went on to become a world renowned player – he was part of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and played on hundreds of recordings both in jazz, improvisational music and rock. He died in 2014 and is missed but his magical touches can be heard on this CD, along with musicians from Duncan Lamont’s Big Band who, on this recording, interpret the re-arrangements.
Mr Benn’s adventures were aired by the BBC in 1971-2 and every time, the pattern was the same. Departing his residence, 52 Festive Road, Mr Benn, attired in his trademark black suit and bowler hat, would visit a certain fancy dress shop where the owner – a slightly sinister character with a moustache and wearing a fez allowed him to try on costumes. Dressed in the costume he would leave the shop through the magic door at the rear of the changing room and had adventures appropriate to the costume he was wearing. Quite why a middle-aged bowler-hatted man did this was never explained, nor what he did for a living. At the end of each adventure, the shopkeeper appeared and took Mr Benn him back to the shop. Mr Benn always found he had a small memento of the experience. All the tunes on this CD have a relationship to adventures, places and the life of the fictional Mr Benn but that aside, this makes for an enjoyable and delightful listen.
Whether or not you knew Mr Benn as a child, in book or animated form, this CD is magical and fun from the start. It begins with ‘Mr Benn’ the signature tune for the opening titles of the animated series. Here it is given a bossa Latin twist and solos from trombone, trumpet, flute and flugelhorn add even more tone, a whisper of magic dust and a dusting of happiness – and this sets the tone for the CD. As an introduction, this swinging, gleeful number is perfect and the essence of big band with accompanying solo work is resplendent in its efficiency. The flute solo from Andy Panayi is simply wonderful. At over 9 minutes, this is a long track but it divides neatly into many sections, sandwiched by the familiar theme make it feel shorter and you just want to keep listening to the fun. ‘As if By Magic’ was used to depict the fancy dress shop where Mr Benn had his adventures and also the shopkeeper. It begins with piccolo introducing the theme, which is picked up by xylophone and then underpinned by the rest of the band, over which the theme itself continues, soars and is worked up and out. When listening to this it is almost impossible not to grin as it is quirky, cheeky and the piccolo solo in the first third is a delight. This is big band, swingy, bassy and absolutely gorgeous. The theme comes back time and again, sometimes the same, sometimes with a twist; this is a wonderfully arranged number. ‘ The Dragon’s Tale’ is slow, gentle , melancholic and features Martin Shaw on solo trumpet, under which the music ebbs and flows like waves, carrying the haunting melody across to the listener. A beautiful and eloquent piece and there is a truly exquisite section where trumpet and bass interact to produce an eerie yet beautiful interlude. Cleverly arranged and delivered with aplomb. ‘Coming Home’ is a swinging, sassy number with emphasis on the trombone section of Richard Edwards, Andy Wood and Alistair White. The recurring theme is happy, light and the piece allows plenty of solo work from band members including lovely glissando from the trombone. There are quite a few blasts from the band in full formation too which lifts and enhances the music. For Mr Benn aficionados, this theme was played as he returned to his house after his magic adventures. ‘The Balloonist’ is floaty, other worldly and light as a feather, depicting the English pastoral countryside ( it was written for a balloon ride Mr Benn took) and there are some great solo parts from Brian Dee on piano, Andy Panayi on flute, Paul Jones on alto sax, Frank Ricotto on vibraphone and Kenny Wheeler on flugelhorn. There are some clever time changes on this track that add interest and texture. In the second third, it builds and builds with scale ascensions before coming back down to the tranquil, quietude the title might imply. There are always little rivulets of sound running through here, in the background like wind in your hair. Lovely.
‘52 Festive Road’ is gentle, peaceful and has a disarming skipping time signature which makes you imagine Mr Benn skipping as he returns home filled with thoughts after an adventure. Skippy, trippy and joyful, with a terrific bass solo from Chris Laurence included which crosses from joyful quirkiness into swing where the sax of Jamie Talbot picks up the theme and rolls with it before the whole band play and evolve the by now familiar tune. ‘The Sea Monster’ is rolling, and slightly ethereal with its rising and falling in the sound landscapes, like an ocean, although quite what ocean would provide the impressive flugelhorn solo from Kenny Wheeler which makes this track who knows. It is laid back, gentle and so so impressive.
‘Don’t Forget The Dragon’ closes the CD and this track features many soloists from the band. It was written as a companion piece to ‘The Dragon’s Tale’ where the dragon is evidently sad and feeling blue. Here he is positively buoyant and full of almost uncontrollable energy. This comes across in the effervescence of the music. There is a touch of ‘Putting On The Ritz’ in there somewhere at one point, the Saxes mix it up especially brilliantly on this track, and there is a short drum solo to knock your teeth out.
There is so much to love about this CD, from Mr Benn himself if you remember him, who comes to life throughout the music, to the great arrangements, superb soloists and above all, the sheer class and quality, which shines through, both from the band in unison and the solo work. The musicians’ calibre speaks volumes and not just from this recording; Jamie Talbot, Paul Jones and Andy Panayi all bring strong credentials to this work and so do many of the other musicians. So, as if by magic, Mr Benn is here, alive and kicking, bowler-hatted and dancing away to a little jazz tune all of his own making but alongside is a band of quality, superb musicianship and the arrangements have been crafted carefully to make this appeal to any listener. A little touch of magic in the world and just like Mr Benn always has a memento of his adventures, that little smile on your face will be a memento of listening to this terrific CD.
Personnel: Brian Dee – piano
Chris Laurence – drums
Ralph Salmins – vibraphone/xylophone/percussion
Yasmin Ahmed, Tom Rees Roberts, Noel Lanley, Martin Shaw – trumpets
Andy Wood, Alistair White, Richard Edwards, Pete North – trombone
Jimmy Hastings, Jamie Talbot, Andy Panayi, Paul Jones, Duncan Lamont Jnr – Saxes
Kenny Wheeler – Flugelhorn (guest)
Label: Jellymould Jazz
Images: JellyMould Jazz & wikipedia