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Dancing on the Edge?

Published: 7 Feb 13, 11:11am  |  Author: Katy Miller

In terms of dramatic content it certainly does dance on the edge, but musically the BBC might be playing it a little safe…

For any TV drama fans, the BBC is currently airing Stephen Poliakoff’s latest creation, Dancing on the Edge. This 5 part series was given a huge £8.3million budget to recreate the sights and sounds of London’s 1930s Jazz scene.

The series follows the journey of protagonist Louis Lester’s Big Band trying to find fame and fight prejudice. And as you might expect from such a budget and such a playwright, the drama is overflowing with fabulous costumes, stunning set designs, and memorable performances. 

The Music

Composed by Adrian Johnston, the music of the Louis Lester Big Band is brilliantly entertaining and a fantastic accompaniment to the on screen drama. However, I think it is perhaps lacking in authenticity. I should imagine that the soundtrack had to appeal across a mainstream audience, and so Johnston could not be completely true to the 1930s style (for fear of being inaccessible). I don’t doubt that the soundtrack will subsequently be released and marketed in the current music charts.

Where the series is excellent in portraying the dark underbelly of the jazz scene, it falls down in a realistic sense of what the music would actually have sounded like. The compositions feel more like a caricature of the 1930’s, taking the key elements of jazz and swing and hugely exaggerating them in order to provide something glitzy and glamorous.

This ambiguous ‘feeling’ made me wonder why I wasn’t as excited by Johnston’s compositions as I am by Ellington, Basie or Goodman. 

The Difference?

What strikes me as the main difference between Louis Lester’s band and the famous orchestras just mentioned is spontaneity. In Basie’s orchestra particularly, arrangements were often written by members of the band and were approached with flexibility.

Each performance was different, each unique, and if it was a little ‘messy’ at times, well that was part of its charm.

Vocalist with Basie’s band from 1954 – 60, Joe Williams, talked about how Basie would turn a blind eye to mistakes within the orchestra…

‘I finally got the essence of what that was about. When you do something real exceptional, then you go with that, so you have to go with things that are not.’

And what did this result in? Well…

They played the charts like nobody else, they made them breathe, live…’*

It just seems that Louis’s band is so glamorous, so seductive, and so polished that it loses credibility as an authentic sounding big band. But that is a petty criticism, obviously the BBC need to appeal to the masses, and obviously everything (including the music) needs to be scripted to the finest detail.

Although, I do find it interesting that challenging subjects of racism & prejudice can be tackled with fervour and yet the music still needs to remain 'safe' and accessible.

As a side note, whilst writing this piece I stumbled across this little piece of musical gold! Check out Duke Ellington & his Cotton Club Band, recorded in 1930.


*image courtesy of http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/mediapacks/dancingontheedge/


About Katy Miller

Katy has been working at DG Music since July 2012, and is in charge of Web and Blog content. She graduated from Oxford Brookes last summer with a degree in music, and will be undertaking a Masters in Popular Music Research this September.

View all posts by Katy Miller →

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