Birmingham Town Hall, Birmingham UK
This concert formed the final piece in the three-piece jigsaw that Birmingham Jazz had compiled to commemorate the centenary of the birth of jazz composer and arranger Gil Evans.
In the first half we were to hear a recreation of the music released on Miles Davis’s Birth Of The Cool album in 1957, but actually recorded in 1949/50 (though Evans is only credited with arranging two of the 12 pieces, it is widely acknowledged that his way of arranging and his particular sound palette pervades the recordings); the second half was to be devoted to Gil Evans’ masterpiece with Miles: Sketches Of Spain.
Now it’s de rigueur for the jazz fan to wear a frown and shuffle about a little when attending an event such as this where the words jazz and repertoire are so closely intertwined, and where the stage is dressed as for a classical concert, even down to the conductor’s podium.
So let’s get these concerns stated so we can set them to one side. It is great to hear music that was created in a recording studio by a bunch of jazz master musicians, albeit strongly arranged music, replayed by a bunch of aspiring student musicians who one day may themselves be jazz masters. It’s a treat for these young players and, I am sure, a great learning experience. And it’s a treat for us in the audience who were not around to hear any live versions of these pieces played by the original protagonists (and, I grant you, there were not many opportunities in the case of these particular pieces).
But Davis and Evans is not the same as Mozart or Mendelssohn or Stravinsky or even Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s revealing, isn’t it, that although Sketches Of Spain is in parts very like a concerto for trumpet and chamber orchestra, no complete score exists for it, it must be compiled from scraps and transcriptions made subsequently by dedicated scholars. Gil Evans didn’t write this music intending it, or even expecting it, to be performed over 60 years later. He himself wouldn’t have considered playing it in 1978 when he led a band in this very same building; by that time he was too concerned with reworking Jimi Hendrix tunes for a big band, and exploring rock electricity within a jazz context.
Nope, when he wrote and conducted the band for Sketches Of Spain or his bits of Birth Of The Cool he was concerned with his here and now, not posterity.
So does that mean the Birmingham Conservatoire Jazz Orchestra, or London Sinfonietta or the BBC Big Band shouldn’t be doing these kinds of gigs? No, of course it doesn’t. It just means we jazz people have to wrestle with the particular anxiety stated above before we can sit back, relax and, wearing beatific grins, luxuriate in the wonderful sound sauna that Gil Evans created all those years ago.
So to the gig. Jeremy Price, head of the jazz course at the Conservatoire and conductor for the evening, was never going to take that po-faced classical ambience completely seriously and he brilliantly undermined it at the start by getting the band to intro with a fragment from the Birth Of The Cool cutting floor to welcome him to the stage in true band leader fashion. The cool version of James Brown, you might say.
The band played brilliantly – in place of the original nonet we had eleven, with doubles on trumpet and alto saxophone to spread the contributing skills. This must be daunting stuff, but students are good at remaining undaunted. So what if baritone saxophonist Chris Maddock had the gigantic shadow of Gerry Mulligan falling across him; so what if alto saxophonists Alex Woods and Elliot Drew could feel the breath of a wise-cracking Lee Konitz in their ears; and if drummer John Hirst could hear the echoes of Max Roach’s high hat behind him, well, that’s history for you, man.
And keeping calmest of all, considering their particular precedent in these parts, were Nicks Dewhurst and Dunham, sharing the trumpet lead role. If Dunham tended to rush his rhythm, Dewhurst was better behind the beat, though to the credit of all concerned, nobody was here to extend the “recreation” as far as mimicking the original solos.
Special mention for the finest solos of the first half go to Maddock who was as lyrical as he was gruff on bari (turning the final vocal Darn That Dream into a baritone showcase was a brilliant move and Maddock took the opportunity with both hands), and Tom Dunnett who made the most of his brief trombone slots. But mostly, it was the overall band that must take the credit for doing the whole thing with great style – and great cool.
If the trumpeters in the first half had delivered without getting hot under the collar, Sketches soloist Percy Pursglove, a graduate of the Conservatoire and now, I think I am right in saying, contributing to the teaching programme, had some brow-mopping moments in the course of his time in the spotlight.
The Harmon mute was a crucial part of the Davis sound by 1960, and particularly suited the mood of Evans’ arrangements of the Adagio from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and Manuel De Falla’s Will O’ The Wisp. And maybe Miles’s mute stayed put when he pushed it into the bell of his trumpet, though if it didn’t at least it was a recording session and the band could have broken for lunch while he sorted it out. No such luck for Percy who had to contend with a recalcitrant appendage to his horn for a good part of the evening.
Still, it didn’t seem to affect his playing, which was, for the most part, superb. My only qualm was that his solo in Saeta was not at all true to the spirit of the piece. Now the last thing I would have wanted, once again, was an imitation of the original, but the whole scenario of this piece – an evocation of a Good Friday processional band coming from the distance and pausing beneath a balcony where a woman sings in anguished tones of the Passion of Christ before the band continues on its way, with the trumpet as the woman’s song – demands an emotional solo. Percy can deliver such a solo – in fact he did it in the subsequent Solea, but for Saeta he choice instead to play it cool and investigate the structure of the piece in an intellectual fashion rather than get to its heart. Maybe it was that mute distraction…
Again, the band was just lovely. It was a pretty high peak to scale, one of the most imposing in 20th century jazz, and they still seemed to be breathing freely, despite the altitude.
As I have said before, having heard what the students of Birmingham Conservatoire are capable of, especially en masse, I have always thought they deserved a more public airing for their talents. May this be just the first of many regular performances on the Town Hall stage and elsewhere. BCJO for Town Hall resident artists! BCJO for national tours! BCJO for international tours! I can’t think of a more impressive bunch of ambassadors for the creativity at the heart of this city.
And a thorough congratulatory shaking of the hand of Jeremy Price, who looked like he was really enjoying waving a little baton about even as he was probably thinking that it looked a bit daft and not completely jazzy. How very lucky we are to have him here.
For more of John Watson’s photographs, go to jazzcamera.co.uk
For more about Birmingham Conservatoire, go to bcu.ac.uk/conservatoire
For more about Birmingham Jazz’s upcoming concerts, go to birminghamjazz.co.uk
For future concerts in Birmingham Town Hall, go to thsh.co.uk
Categories: Live review