Did the young Elvis Costello once dream of fronting a 21-piece band, swinging and singing his heart out, just like his dad, Ross MacManus, or Frank Sinatra, with a hat on the back of his head? If so, his dream came true at the end of Tuesday night when he sang the role of Singleton, the narrator of Roy Nathanson's Fire at Keaton's Bar and Grill, which had its UK premiere at the London jazz festival.
But though this magnum opus used a big band, with a six-piece rhythm section, six horns, eight singers and an accordion (Karen Street), they only appeared together on stage for the final "Fire Suite Reprise," with Costello on terrific form while the band wailed and images of smoke, bars and close-ups filled the video screen behind in what was also a live, global webcast.
Nathanson, the saxophonist and co-founder (with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes) of the Jazz Passengers, deployed his augmented forces sparingly. Smart changes of mood, tempo and timbre meant singers such as David Driver, Darius de Haas, Nancy King and Kenny Washington had only a few minutes to shine before making way for the next line-up.
Nathanson apart, the most constant presence was JT Lewis, a terrific drummer whose sure-footed swing was teamed with Brad Jones on double bass and organist Reuben Wilson's bass pedals. Guitarist Adam Roberts and pianist Deidre Rodman fleshed out the chord changes and percussionist Bosco d'Oliveira was a great asset.
Ashley Slater, suitably villainous, sang "Last Call" and Cleveland Watkiss, yet another local hero, led a male voice quintet for Carol Ann, a driving groove augmented by the banshee sax wails of Nathanson and Marty Ehrlich.
Carol Ann is "Cups," the Keaton's bartender and a character sung by Jazz Passenger regular Deborah Harry, who delivered a couple of songs — "Imitation of a Kiss," with its live fade, and the closing "Cups" (for which she wrote the lyrics). Harry announced Jazz Night at Keaton's in brisk, barkeep style: she has a certain iconic presence, which Nathanson deploys as skilfully as he directs his improvisers.
His achievement is to make his show sound something like a Broadway one. Both music and lyrics are shot through with nostalgia and loss and a remembrance of good times that couldn't possibly last - something with which every greying jazz and punk fan in the audience could identify.