Milnrow Band: Sunday Brass at the Boarshurst Band Club

Another great night, with a little help from Count Basie, Herb Alpert and Duke Ellington

Regular readers would be wondering why Count Basie and Duke Ellington would be featuring anywhere near this week’s Sunday Brass review. Unlike most concerts at the Boarshurst Band Club, our fellows a short distance from Rochdale turned to jazz and swing influences for last night’s [17 July] programme. In front of an excellent turnout at the Boarshurst Band Club, Milnrow Band took an experimental approach – and succeeded.

Milnrow Band have a proud history, though their rise from Fourth Section band (in 1995) to Championship Section band (in 2006) is the envy of most brass bands from Lerwick to Lands End. They have maintained their position as one of the top brass bands helped in no small part by Russell Gray, his wife Mareika Gray, and the present musical director Mark Bentham.

The present band was formed as St. Stephen’s Band in 1869. After a couple of name changes, they settled on Milnrow. Its turning point from local band to national player came in 1998 when they absorbed the Rochdale Co-op Band. Sponsorship by Rochdale’s most famous export continued till recently.

The present musical director, Mark Bentham, has an excellent brass banding record. He was the youngest conductor at the All England Masters in Cambridge at 22 years of age for the Ever Ready Band. In 1999, he moved to Drighlington Band resulting in immediate success. Then a seven-year stint at Hepworth Band, before crossing the border to Pemberton, for Pemberton Old Wigan DW Band.

Mark has also had many several years at the top of brass banding as a player for Black Dyke Band, Leyland, and Brighouse and Rastrick. His journey with Milnrow began in late 2014.

Though the jazz and swing pieces may have upset some concertgoers used to a traditional programme, Milnrow Band’s performance was polished. It was tighter than Scrooge on the eve of payday. As for the band’s percussion section and showbusiness element, magical.

The Programme

First Half

  1. Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing), (Louis Prima, arr. Jock McKenzie);
  2. Tenor Horn Solo (performed by Jenny Brown): Autumn Leaves (Joseph Cosma);
  3. Sweet Georgia Brown (Ben Bernie/Maceo Pinkard);
  4. Cute (Neal Hefti, arr. Philip Sparke);
  5. Caravan (Duke Ellington, arr. Steve Sykes);
  6. Flugelhorn Solo (performed by Natalie Beer): Misty (Erroll Garner);
  7. Blue Rondo a la Turk (Dave Brubeck).

Second Half

  1. Trumpet Blues and Cantabile (Harry James);
  2. Bass Trombone Solo (performed by Tristram Cox): Show Me The Way To Go Home (Irving King);
  3. Rhythm and Blues (Philip Sparke);
  4. Lil’ Darlin’ (Neal Hefti);
  5. Mack The Knife (Kurt Weill);
  6. A Taste of Honey (Herb Alpert):
  7. An American in Paris (George Gershwin).


  • Sir Duke (Stevie Wonder).

The first piece was an object lesson in how well the big band sound could transfer to brass band music. We opened with Louis Prima’s Sing, Sing, Sing (With A Swing). Mr. Prima’s song was popularised by Benny Goodman, one of many profound influences of Milnrow’s latest visit to Boarshurst. The volume from all sections of the band was loud, bombastic, and worked well as an opening piece for the concert.

Before introducing us to our next piece, Mr. Bentham stated how his summertime concerts had a theme. This year’s theme, as we have established in this review, paid homage to the greats of 20th century jazz and swing greats. Following this was our first soloist of the night, Jenny Brown. This time on tenor horn with Autumn Leaves, which quietened things down a little. The piece was well played with a degree of delicateness.

Piece number three was the Harlem Globetrotters’ signature tune, Sweet Georgia Brown. Written in 1925 by Ben Bernie and Maceo Pinkard, it has been covered by Nat King Cole, The Beatles and the Count Basie Band. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band too covered the jazz standard. Milnrow Band’s treatment of the song would have done Mr Basie and Co proud.

Fast becoming one of the most played pieces of the Boarshurst Band Club’s 2016 season was Neal Hefti’s Cute. Many of you would have come across Hefti’s work in the Adam West episodes of Batman. There was some improvisation involved. Wow! rather than Splat! or Kapow! was a most appropriate exclamation for Milnrow Band’s performance.

This took us to the Henry Mancini-style Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol standard Caravan. The original version was performed and recorded in 1936 – the same year when Arthur Bliss composed the Kenilworth contest march. Its brooding percussion section with well bodied tenor and bass instruments made for an atmospheric jaunt.

Our sixth piece was Misty, beautifully played as a flugelhorn solo by Natalie Beer. Written by Erroll Garner in 1954, it was the only song of the programme to have inspired a film. The Clint Eastwood film, Play Misty For Me. The most celebrated version of Garner’s song was performed by Johnny Mathis. As for the most left field version, Ray Stevens’ 1975 cover, which saw the jazz standard turned into a Country and Western song.

Closing the first half was a bit of Dave Brubeck (no jazz or swing themed concert should be without his works). Instead of Take Five, Blue Rondo a la Turk rounded of the first half in style. Within six minutes, we went from a piece that inspired a Clint Eastwood film to one which inspired an early 1980s pop group (part of which later became the more successful Matt Bianco).

The second half’s opening piece was just as bombastic as our very first one. This time, Harry James’ Trumpet Blues and Cantabile lifted the listener. This was shortly surpassed by our third and final solo piece.

Performed by Tristram Cox, his playing of Show Me The Way To Go Home on Bass Trombone wasn’t only brilliantly executed. The amount of comedy value involved was tremendous. Before you could say “a song from our Bernard” (if familiar with The Wheeltappers’ and Shunters’ Social Club), much of the comic value involved trickery from the percussion section. There was also beer involved and much laughter from the band as well as the audience.

The comic interlude was perfectly placed for leading us to the raffle. We reconvened with a jazz-influenced piece by Philip Sparke. Rhythm and Blues was a great contrast to the test pieces which Mr. Sparke is best known for. The 1930s to 1950s style atmosphere was brilliantly captured by the band.

The above was true of Lil’ Darlin’, our second piece by Neal Hefti for the Count Basie Orchestra. This was popularised by Oscar Petersen. Written in 1957, lyrics were added by Jon Hendricks. Another solid performance.

Also written the same year as our previous piece, for The Threepenny Opera, was Kurt Weill’s most famous number. This time, the oft-covered Mack The Knife. The amount of people that have covered this piece could warrant a separate blog post on East of the M60. These have included Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, and a rockabilly version by King Kurt. Milnrow Band’s treatment of the enduring standard was impressive.

Instead of the rather macabre theme of Weill’s song, we sincerely wished Mack’s knife was used for something else. This time, with one of the greatest things to have come from bees. Our sixth piece of the second half was the Herb Alpert classic A Taste of Honey. Its conversion from Tijuana to Harmony Street was faultless. The original piece was a smash on the U.S Billboard Chart in 1967 and featured on the album, Whipped Cream and Other Delights. The rest, as they say, is history. It put Herb Alpert’s record label (A&M Records) on the musical map, with acts like The Carpenters, The Police, Supertramp, and Joe Jackson swelling Herb Alpert’s and Jerry Moss’ coffers.

For the penultimate piece of the night was a bit of George Gershwin, hailed by Mark Bentham as the fellow who influenced Messrs Basie, Ellington et al. Prior to the encore, we were treated to An American in Paris, an atmospheric piece which neatly rounded off the second half. The combination of Howard Snell’s arrangement and Milnrow Band brought images of 1930s New York to the West Riding of Yorkshire.

As for the encore, our only concession to UK chart music. Taken from the 1976 album, Songs in the Key of Life, we finished with Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke. A rousing climax to a fantastic concert.

Next on the calendar for Milnrow Band is the British Open Contest at the Birmingham Symphony Hall, on the 10 September. This is after a break from performing and a number of rehearsals prior to the British Open. Their next concert will be at Christ Church in the Lancashire village of Chatburn (16 September, 8pm).

Next Week…

To help towards funding the costs of Boarshurst Silver Band’s British Open campaign, there will be a special concert on the 24 July. This time, Boarshurst Silver Band will be playing pieces from stage and screen. Instead of a traditional programme and cabaret style seating, the audience will be facing a big screen, cinema style. Whilst Boarshurst Silver Band are playing, the big screen will be used for projecting film clips.

Next Sunday could see the peanuts and crisps eschewed in favour of choc ices, popcorn, and oversized cups of Coca Cola. Regrettably, the left hand side of the auditorium will not be allocated to smokers. For five pounds, you could get over two hours of entertainment for the price of two teas at your local multiplex.


  • 180: Greenfield [Clarence Hotel] – Lees – Oldham – Hollinwood – Manchester [Oldham Street];
  • 350: Ashton-under-Lyne – Mossley – Greenfield – Uppermill – Dobcross – Delph – Waterhead – Oldham.

Alight at Greenfield Conservative Club. Both services operated by First Greater Manchester.

Twitter details: @boarshurstband#SundayBrass.


S.V., 18 July 2016.


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