One of my great artistic experiences was going to see Hamlet at the Globe Theatre. I was a groundling, where Mark Rylance shouted at us and we shouted back. A brass quartet played Tudor-style fanfares between acts. The last event on stage was a joyful “dance with death” accompanied by primitive percussion.
Using European classical music as a resource for improvisation is standard practice. Generally speaking, the more avant-garde the jazz, the more explicit the references to the tradition of European modernism. In 2018, serious improvisors all over the world can make beautiful abstract music in real time, creating sounds that would have taken a midcentury composer weeks to notate.
Jazz and improvising musicians have done more and more literal performances of repertory classics. In the Bad Plus we played a faithful rendition of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Uri Caine recorded a thrilling set of Wagner in Venice with an unusual quintet.
Bach can be arranged for any instrumentation successfully but he is hard to deconstruct for improvisation. I am not really a fan of Jacques Loussier and his rather corny “Play Bach” stuff, I’d rather listen to the Swingle Sisters sing Bach straight with a hint of swing.
Earlier baroque fanfares might be easier to appropriate…or at least that’s my thinking for a night at King’s Place.
The AACM school is full of square marches that open up for chaos. Anthony Braxton’s Creative Orchestra Music “March” is famous.
Purcell was one of the great fanfare composers. The melodies are strong and beautiful, the counterpoint is simple, yet the emotions are as complex as a joyful dance with death. My contention is that these fanfares will offer a smooth gateway to improvisation in the manner of an AACM march.
We have a wonderful singer, Brigitte Beraha, so there are not just fanfares planned for the set of “Raising Hell with Henry Purcell,” but I don’t want to give anything else away in advance (also we need to see what works in rehearsal). But here’s a quick (one take) voice memo recording of prelude I’m going to play on harpsichord with perhaps additional theatrical elements from the band. Purcell is damn quirky, that’s for sure. He offers a tune, bangs a drum, gets lost in arpeggios, and modulates to the subdominant only just before screeching to a halt. Great stuff. Looking forward!
For “Ethan’s Rent Party” I am joined by two brilliant UK keyboard stylists, Adam Fairhall and Alexander Hawkins. I can’t wait to hear what Adam and Alex get up to. Among other things we are all playing a song by Ray Noble….
The following are notes for two of my own selections, “In Dahomey” by Percy Grainger and the first movement of “Piano Sonata” by Constant Lambert.
Black music from America went all over the world in the first part of the 20th Century. Eventually the 1920s would be called “the Jazz Age.”
The piano was central to the incursion, especially the notated ragtime of Scott Joplin. However Joplin never toured. African-American ensembles and shows were what made it to London. On the 16th of May 1903, Will Marion Cook’s revue “In Dahomey” played at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Percy Grainger was in attendance, and the resulting concert rag “In Dahomey” (based on themes by Cook and Arthur Pryor) is a rare example of exceptionally detailed notation in the service of a syncopated style. It also tries to emulate the slide trombone. Overall “In Dahomey” is of a piece with the transcription of folk elements exploited in so much Grainger, including what many consider his greatest work, “Lincolnshire Posy.”
Apparently Grainger worked off and on “In Dahomey” for six years, but then didn’t publish it. After Ronald Stevenson finally oversaw an edition in 1987, it has become one of Grainger’s most popular piano pieces. A brilliant concert pianist like Marc-André Hamelin plays it to the virtuoso hilt, but there’s also an argument for a more quotidian approach emphasizing dance rhythm and improvised variation. Incredibly, I had an exchange on Twitter with Mr. Hamelin about this very topic:
Grainger’s exceptional recordings of Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” and Guion’s transcription of “Turkey in the Straw” have informed some of my stylistic choices.
Exactly twenty years after Will Marion Cook played the Shaftesbury Theatre, Constant Lambert saw Will Vodery’s black orchestra in the 1923 revue “Dover Street to Dixie” at the London Pavilion. Lambert immediately began trying to assimilate a syncopated influence in his compositions, including what remains Lambert’s most famous piece, “The Rio Grande.”
The “Piano Sonata” from 1929, written when Lambert was only 24 years old, is a shade over-ambitious, especially as the three movements get longer and harder as they go along. However, the first movement is reasonably self-contained and flows along in impressive fashion. It certainly is just as good (if not better) than other “concert” jazzy works from the era by George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, and a forest of lesser composers. I played it for my hip NEC students this past Monday and they were flummoxed.
My joke is that some of it sounds like things Danilo Pérez would play in the Wayne Shorter quartet. (voice memo recording w. Brooklyn construction in the background)
Duke Ellington is a linking theme. Will Marion Cook and Will Vodery were two of Ellington’s teachers and mentors. Both Grainger and Lambert knew and respected Ellington. There’s a picture of Grainger with Ellington when Grainger invited Ellington to his NYU classroom in 1932. Lambert (who had a major career as a feisty critic) was one of Ellington most vocal supporters in the 1930s, writing in the famously caustic Music Ho! that Ellington, “…Has crystallized the popular music of our time and set up a standard by which we may judge not only other jazz composers but also those highbrow composers, whether American or European, who indulge in what is roughly known as ‘symphonic jazz.’”
Truthfully, most of Duke Ellington’s records are proving to be more immortal than most of the compositions of either Percy Grainger or Constant Lambert. However, all of us in this game strive towards better and better appropriations and synthesis. An opportunity to study and perform Grainger and Lambert is a wonderful and decidedly syncopated event!
Bonus tracks: I feel a special connection to Constant Lambert because I adore the twelve book sequence A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. Powell was close friends with Lambert and put him in Dance as composer Hugh Moreland. Lambert was also involved with literal dance: Indeed, some argue that Lambert’s greatest legacy was as the conductor of the Royal Ballet. Since I myself have been quite involved with the dance world (especially with the Mark Morris Dance Group and Dance Heginbotham), I relate to this side of Lambert as well.
While from this distance Grainger and Lambert seem to have a lot in common, I checked the indexes of the major biographies and they are barely name-checked in each other’s stories. They did meet at least once at a café table in France, in the company of composer Arthur Bliss, but that seems to be the extent of a documented connection. In the end, despite his reputation for English folk song transcriptions like the omnipresent “Country Gardens,” Grainger was a devout experimentalist, and pairs more easily with people like Henry Cowell or Ferruccio Busoni than most other composers of his era. Lambert, for all his enfant terrible attitude in print, was actually more of an establishment figure than Grainger.
Marian McPartland was a pal of my teacher Sophia Rosoff. They were relatively close in age (Marian was born 1918, Sophia 1924) and had known a lot of the same people over the years. Thanks to Sophia, I was featured on Marian’s legendary radio show “Piano Jazz.” Wow, was Marian a pro! Just a wonderful radio personality. At the studio she made me feel really comfortable and even learned one of my tunes. In high school I had listened to “Piano Jazz” whenever I could — I particularly remember the Eubie Blake episode — and it was a bit surreal to be in that situation as a participant.
(Sophia would always tell her students about Marian’s daily question to everybody in her peer group, including Sophia: “Are you getting laid?” Sophia would then respond, “Marian, you are so very English.” Marian was around 90 and Sophia 84 at that time.)
The best McPartland album I know is a lovely recital of Alec Wilder themes. There’s a new interest in Don Shirley due to the movie Green Book, and in a way one can see Shirley and McPartland as part of a midcentury continuum of lush piano that intersects with jazz and song. Wilder and Cy Walter would be one end of the spectrum, Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal on the other, George Shearing and André Previn dead in the middle. If you dared you could put Ramsey Lewis and Roger Williams in there. Certainly both Liberace and Nat King Cole have a place.
I wanted to include a McPartland selection for the night of jazz composers partly because a solo ballad would give the full quintet a break. After listening to all the McPartland ballads I could find (Thad and Mel played “Ambience,” which might be the best known to McPartland piece to jazz buffs) I settled on “Afterglow,” which has a splendid live recording on YouTube.
I left this until the last minute to work out, and finally transcribed it last night. My rhythmic notation involves a lot of guesswork. It’s also just for me, so I cut a few corners that I wouldn’t if I was handing the chart around for rehearsal with a band.
Fooling around with it just now I felt it was too high in range for my usual ballad approach. At first I was transposing to lower keys but then I realized I could just drop the octave for the first half. A voice memo recording from ten minutes ago shows potential.
I still have a couple of days to sleep on it, and then in concert, who knows, perhaps lightning will strike. One of the great things about jazz is how at the last moment, one can decide to do something completely different….
Many jazz musicians roughly in my generation and a bit older used the Real Book when we were too young to know better.
The book was created by two students who were in the Berklee jazz program in Boston. Gary Burton was head of that department and the Real Book had a lot of lead sheets by musicians supported by Burton: Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Pat Metheny, Eberhard Weber, Bob Moses, and so forth, most of whom could be found on ECM records. The most mysterious name might have been trombonist and composer Michael Gibbs. Burton recorded several Gibbs pieces and (I think) suggested “Sweet Rain” to Stan Getz.
Early on in the Real Book was a chart to “And On the Third Day.”
I read through this chart as a kid and it made no impression. However various people have kept mentioning Gibbs’s name to me over the years, so he’s stayed in the “to be investigated further” pile of my subconscious.
When I began assembling a playlist of British composers for my London residency I finally started checking Gibbs out. The 1970 debut album Michael Gibbs on Deram proved to be a thrilling listen, especially the last track, “And On the Third Day.”
“Day” is the precise intersection of British Invasion rock (Jack Bruce is on bass!) and the Ellington/Mingus big band tradition. Amusingly, the overall vibe strongly reminds me of the brilliant compositions of Reid Anderson (although I can guarantee that Reid never checked out Gibbs).
At one point I thought the Real Book charts of the Burton circle were much better than those of the jazz masters. To my surprise, the Real Book chart of “And On the Third Day” is just as bad as selections by Monk or Miles. I had to completely re-transcribe it:
The take has hot trombone from Chris Pyne, incandescent baritone from John Surman, and a delightfully period beat from John Marshall. (Surman will also be represented in my quintet playlist at Kings Place.) Truly, I think this shambling anthem is one of the greatest things ever recorded.
In the early 2000s, I saw Sonny Fortune and Rashied Ali play duo at Sweet Rhythm. The set was “Cherokee” for an hour. After Ali set up the “Indian tom tom” intro, Fortune played for forty minutes, Ali soloed for about ten, and then Fortune played another ten. No bass; no piano: Duo.
Ali was no Max Roach when it came to uptempo bebop, but he hung in there. His stamina was one reason Coltrane hired him all those years ago. Fortune played a mixture of Bird and Trane spiced with his personal kind of incandescent lyricism.
They were already old men but they were there to prove something about intensity, black music, and the lineage. Cecil Taylor was in the corner, grinning. It was a real New York night of real New York jazz.
My brain is far too full of Doctor Who trivia, musical and otherwise. A few things I left out of the essay:
Dudley Simpson died last November at 95, a passing I wasn’t aware of until this week. I once spoke to Simpson briefly on the phone. At that time I was doing a few interviews for the BBC, and thought it would be great to give Simpson some space. While in Sidney for a few days I called all the “D. Simpsons” in the Australian phone directory and reached the legendary composer. The BBC passed on the interview and Simpson was already in frail health and wasn’t up for a visit. However, at least I got to tell Simpson how much his music meant to me. He’s certainly a direct influence. One time in the late 90s I played the VHS of “Pyramid of Mars” for Reid Anderson and Jorge Rossy. They both started laughing at how much the music on the TV serial sounded like some of my compositions for Construction Zone.
Many of the 60s Doctor Who stories are lost. Recently “The Enemy of the World” was rediscovered and released. I loved the novelization as a child so couldn’t resist sitting through all six slow-moving episodes. There’s not much music, what’s there is “stock” and by Béla Bartók. I suspect in the end 20th century genre TV and movie composers imitated Bartók more than anybody else; he’s certainly a big influence on Simpson.
For “Rosa,” Segun Akinola uses some horns borrowed from the Aaron Copland tradition. It’s quite delicate but also suggests the whole span of American experience, which helps the episode from becoming too preachy.
About Murray Gold: Hiring a symphony is obviously a classy move, but the sampling, compression, and click track used in the studio to create a “flawless” product removes the natural grain of a real orchestra playing with a human beat. When auditing this kind of modern product (which is heard everywhere these days, from Hollywood on down), it is hard to tell the difference between real instruments and a good sample library. I want the players to have a gig, of course, but what’s the point of having a real band if they aren’t going to be at least a little out of tune once in a while?