“Battle of the Bands” isn't the sort of thing one would normally associate with the BBC Proms, but that was exactly what we got in this hotly tipped Late Night offering. Two jazz bands – the Count Pearson Proms Band and the Duke Windsor Proms Band – led by two of the foremost names in UK Jazz, James Pearson (if you've been to Ronnie Scott's recently, he's the Artistic Director there, and chances are you'll have heard him with the excellent house band) and Grant Windsor (an equally big name on the jazz scene, having conducted the BBC Big Band and currently collaborating with singer Clare Teal and trumpeter Alison Balsom), were specially assembled for the occasion.

Clare Teal, Count Pearson Proms Band & Duke Windsor Proms Band at the Battle of the Bands © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Clare Teal, Count Pearson Proms Band & Duke Windsor Proms Band at the Battle of the Bands
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The basis of the concert was a sort of “jazz-off” of the kind that might have taken place in the mother of all jazz venues, the Savoy Ballroom at Lenox Avenue, New York. The double stage there was built in order to accommodate two bands; the idea was that one band would take over smoothly from the other as it took a performance break. From the late 1920s, though, this special staging served as host to some epic Battle of the Bands, in which the sets of musicians fought it out to be crowned winner by the dancing audience.

With retro studio lights and music stands bedecked with the initials of the bands, the stage was set for a fantasy Battle of the Bands that in fact never happened in real life: representing the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington respectively, Count Pearson's and Duke Windsor's came together to show what might once have been. Jazz singer and Radio 2 presenter Clare Teal hosted the event, and would later join in singing some numbers. 

Round 1 (there was a big silver bell rung by Teal) comprised mini sets of three tunes each. Count Pearson's band opened with Rockin' the blues. A definite crowd-pleaser that got the arena crowd dancing, there then followed Every Tub, with some particularly impressive solos from the saxophone and piano. Jazz singer Vula Malinga joined the band to lend her sultry voice to Blue Skies.

Clare Teal, James Pearson, Grant Windsor, Gregory Porter, Vula Malinga & JazzCotech © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Clare Teal, James Pearson, Grant Windsor, Gregory Porter, Vula Malinga & JazzCotech
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Duke Windsor's band retorted with a more forward offering of Daybreak Express (if a train were built of jazz, it would sound like this), Cotton Tail, a hi-octane piece loosely harmonically based, as many jazz standards were, on Gershwin's I got rhythm, and Jump for joy, for which the infectiously happy and high-spirited voice of Gregory Porter joined the band.

And so it continued for Round 2, with each band trying to outdo the other. Clare Teal sang with both bands (I suppose she had to remain impartial) as she lent her honeyed vocals to Count Pearson's for Moon Nocturne and gave a sparkling performance of Truckin'. Highlights from Round 3, reduced now to just two pieces per band, included Gregory Porter's rendition of Goin' to Chicago Blues and a piece I hadn't heard since revising it to death for A-level music – Rockin' in Rhythm. 

Round 4 was simply electric: each band played a single piece in response to the other's, and so we had Duke Windsor's band counter Count Pearson's band's Jumpin' at the Woodside with Take the A Train. A battle royal ensued: the bands combined – though with soloists constantly trying to outdo each other – for a series of jazz standards, culminating in the bands and all three singers joining forces for a fabulous It Don't Mean a Thing (if it Ain't Got that Swing).

The bands were joined on stage by four jazz dancers from Jazzcotech for many of the songs. Like the musicians, they took it in turns to improvise solos. All four were excellent, but Christiane Hennecke just had the edge with some impossibly high-energy moves. 

All in all, this made for a glitteringly exciting evening of some very impressive music. I thought I had heard the audience cheer and clap louder for Count Pearson's band, but in the end (and somewhat predictably), Vula Malinga declared a draw. The only thing I felt this Prom crying out for was more music; it seemed so short-lived. Perhaps a full-length Prom would do better justice. I wonder what would happen, too, if a Battle of the Bands were to happen between two symphony orchestras... you heard it here first!