Jazz and classical music have always enjoyed an interesting relationship. Nigel Jarrett was at the Wales Millennium Centre’s Hoddinott Hall for a jazz and classical concert that marked a collaboration between the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne, featuring Iain Ballamy and Fiona Monbet.
If you’re a crabby commentator and a purist to boot, history’s several moments when jazz and so-called ‘classical music’ met have always resulted in a dilution of both, a defusing fusion. Less petulant verdicts see the best examples as one inspiring the other, albeit sometimes disproportionately. Jazz for contemporary composers in the mid-20th century was part of the exciting modern world, fit to be embraced. In 1945 Stravinsky wrote his Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman’s ‘First Herd’; with their increasing virtuosity and revolutionary musical outlook, jazzers such as Charlie Parker were attracted to the music of Stravinsky, Hindemith and other Europeans exiled in the US or enamoured of it through long visits, in Parker’s case to the extent of wanting to compose under their influence; his early death at 34 meant it was never to be. The Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet famously lauded the clarinettist and saxophonist Sidney Bechet’s arrival in Europe in terms that alerted his less perceptive colleagues to the musical horizon Bechet and his like had widened.
Today the connection is more subtle and aided by the collapse of prejudices, at least among musicians and composers. The early connection was between aleatory music, with its promise of chance happenings, and the improvisatory nature of jazz. Not all jazz is created on the hoof: much of it, and a lot of it most of the time, is arranged and notated to sound spontaneous. But its essence is creativity in the moment and its guarantee is the unexpected – what the American jazz critic Whitney Balliett called ‘the sound of surprise’.
The UK-Australian composer Luke Styles, featured in this concert, would be aware of all the foregoing. So would the Franco-Irish conductor and violinist Fiona Monbet and Iain Ballamy, the soloist in Styles’s new saxophone concerto, titled Tracks In The Orbit, here receiving its world première. The concerto is predicated on jazz’s inventiveness and the personalities of the musicians it illuminates; Ballamy is one of European jazz’s leading saxophonists, and a member of the erstwhile and ground-breaking British collective Loose Tubes. Monbet’s jazz credentials are secure, she having been one of the many guests on an award-winning album by the violinist Didier Lockwood dedicated to the memory of Stephane Grappelli. She is also conductor of the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne, and this concert was the first of a ‘Celtic collaboration’ between it and the BBC NOW, though none of the French orchestra’s musicians was involved.
‘Unearthing the musical personality of Iain Ballamy’ was Styles’s declared intention in his concerto, which was written for the soloist; his view that the concerto was going to be ‘a deeply human and uplifting musical experience’, was perhaps forgivably pre-emptive of any lesser assessment. The three-movement work wasn’t half bad but its possible shortcomings might have been predicted before a note was sounded. As Milhaud indicated in the opening of his La Création Du Monde, which began the concert, the alto is the saxophone of choice in a ‘serious music’ setting, the tenor lower in pitch and therefore possibly having to justify the large orchestra Styles assembles. (By the way, one of Milhaud’s students was Dave Brubeck.) The expectation for anyone who knows Ballamy the world-class jazz saxophonist in his eponymous setting was never going to be realised; but no surprise there. The problem for a composer is that the solo instrument is immediately associated with jazz and dance bands, but there is absolutely no reason why a saxophone concerto should have any connection with jazz at all. Adolphe Sax patented his invention in 1846, when jazz was barely nascent.
The three movements of the work are titled The Mill, Devotional, and The Whirlpool, which turned out to be reasonably helpful descriptions. Certain it is that Ballamy rendered dynamics and inflexions in the work that were not specifically written down but in terms of the sometimes chugging simplicity of what was actually written for him, Ballamy the jazzman must have been in Easy Street. Regular xylophone taps soon established the opening momentum, with the soloist adopting plenty of instrumental effects in an atmosphere that became constructional, with discrete sonic events in the orchestra forged into shape by mechanical means mirrored in the returning xylophone hammering and aided by strings and the sax’s repetitive motor figures. The beautiful opening of the second movement, with the soloist flowing and improvisatory against the drone of quiet sustained strings, was supported by Styles’s masterly control and Ballamy’s unshakeable poise in front of large forces ever likely to unleash their power but mostly holding its excesses in reserve.
It was a spiritual, other-worldly feeling, nevertheless enveloped before the end by bad weather or intimations of same. By movement three, into which two segued via saxophone fluttering, the mood had become relentlessly ongoing, with the sax obliged to become part of the orchestral forward motion. The overall effect, however, despite the livelier passages, was restraint and the way in which Ballamy’s super tone and temperament took the orchestra with them, like a vessel now becalmed, now fighting fit. The shortcoming was the too close proximity of the soloist to what the orchestra was up to, and the shortage of episodes, such as the opening of the second movement, in which he could take off bird-like – as is the jazz musician’s reason for being.
Monbet the composer’s over-long and sprawling Trois Reflets ended the programme. It incorporated, variously, the full orchestra; Monbet the violinist and conductor; her jazz quartet (violin, drum kit, double bass, and piano); and Iain Ballamy popping in now and then. Sometimes stomping, sometimes lyrical and often as banal as a second-rate Hollywood film score, it nodded towards folk dance, film musical, tango, gypsy jazz and goodness knows what else. It was formless and lacked direction and, at the end, threatened the sort of response in which, having outstayed its welcome, a music-hall ‘turn’ was pulled off the stage with an extended shepherd’s crook.
In a programme enriched by jazz, Monbet appeared not to have heeded the lessons of the Milhaud work with which she began. Its astringency and inspired if sometimes corny borrowings from jazz – brassy wail, riff, spikey woodwind, Gershwinesque melody (though La Création came a smidgen earlier than Rhapsody in Blue), economy of numbers and means – stood little chance in her odd and often lush cataract of a piece, yet as its conductor she had essayed the Milhaud work with fair attention to its colour and eccentricity. The ultimate paradox and disappointment lay in the sight of a fine symphony orchestra woefully under-employed. But the audience enjoyed it, giving Monbet & Co. a standing ovation. There’d certainly been surprising sounds, but perhaps not as Mr Balliett meant them.
Featured picture of Iain Ballamy courtesy of Dave McKean.
To find out more about the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne visit their website.
Nigel Jarrett is a former daily newspaperman and a double prize-winner: the Rhys Davies award and the inaugural Templar Shorts prize, both for short fiction. He is a frequent contributor to Wales Arts Review and a reviewer and columnist for Jazz Journal magazine. This year sees the publication of his latest work of long fiction, Notes From The Superhorse Stable (Saron Publishers) and his fourth story collection, Five Go To Switzerland (Cockatrice Books). In August he will be Author of the Month for the National Library of Wales’s digital libraries project.
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