It must have been some five years ago now that Sugar Ray Ford, then leading his highly successful rock'n'roll combo The Hotshots, first conceived the idea of rehearsing a ten piece little 'big' band. He wanted to bend its style and material around the jump blues, swing jazz and R&B of the late Forties.
Cynics thought it would stay as one of those over-ambitious 'good' ideas-.-destined to die in the dust of broken promises, personality clashes and daft dreams. And yet after a thorough gestation period Sugar Ray's Flying Fortress burst onto the scene via the London pub/club circuit - notably at Camden Town's 'Dublin Castle' and Oxford Street's '100 Club'. Early on the Flying Fortress gained rave reviews playing behind Richard 'Louie Louie' Berry at the 100 and went on to headline at Europe's premier rock'n'roll festival at Hemsby in Norfolk. The band is still gigging, indeed with most of its original line-up, three years later and have just returned from Stuttgart in Germany, so Europe beckons as well.
The Fortress are just about to launch their debut CD which will be extremely representative of their live performances. There's tight combo R&B with Roy Milton's (You Got Me) Reelin' And Rockin', Wynonie Harris's (one of the fathers of rock'n'roll) Mr. Blues Is Coming To Town both featuring Sugar Ray's unaffected vocals. Then there's Duke Ellington's theme Take The 'A' Train from the pen of Billy Strayhorn and a bow towards crooners with the Frank Sinatra influenced Bim Bam Baby and Nat King Cole's Frim Fram Sauce which is itself a nod in the direction of Louis Jordan.
Evan Jones' clarinet is to the fore in the perennial crowd pleaser Dark Eyes while Evan, together with Barry Few's trumpet, Nick Lunt's heavy toned baritone, Dave Palmer's trombone and Sugar Ray's tenor, forms a powerful horn section. And yet they all get a chance to stretch themselves in this company more than they have with smaller units. Sneaky Pete Watson's keyboards, Mo Kabir's double bass and Terry Orchard's drums make up a swinging rhythm section augmented by Thierry Courault's guitar. Thierry is a Dizzy Gillespie-loving Frenchman who has been a cheerful addition to the band and by the way I suspect that Mo Kabir is playing the 5-string bass once the property of Woody Herman's legendary bass man Chubby Jackson. It's the effort that goes into the detail that makes a successful whole! Then in the tradition, and from the wings, comes the glamourous Miss Volare to take on all the Andrews Sisters at once on Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.
You can't altogether blame those early cynics-.-it's tough enough keeping a quartet together and that's four folk, or even a marriage which is normally two, though not exclusively so in France I understand. However this talented aggregation are keeping swing music alive and kicking without resorting to hamming it up and going for the nostalgia buffs. Indeed Flying Fortress fans tend to be in their twenties and thirties proving that quality can triumph over ephemeral fashion if it gets half a chance.
(Dave writes for numerous music tomes including Now Dig This, Southern & Rocking Music, The Cajun Users Manual, etc)