CBSO Centre, Birmingham UK
This concert was the culmination of trumpeter/double bassist Percy Pursglove‘s year as a Jazzlines Fellow.
Percy could quite easily have put together an entertaining and rewarding concert by simply calling a few musical mates (he has enough of them), writing a few heads and having a blow. He wanted to include voices? Well, he could have written some wordless vocal parts, scored them like horns and had them as a kind of occasional backdrop to the band. He wanted to include words? Well, he could have taken some poems that had a convenient song metre, simple, short, clear words, and that would have done it.
We would all have had a lovely time, Jazzlines would have thought the professional mentorship had been worthwhile, the Jerwood Charitable Foundation would have considered their support justly rewarded, and we’d all have gone home smiling.
It’s what we could have expected.
Instead, what Percy gave us was a nearly continuous hour and a quarter-plus of some of the most ambitious, thoughtful, complex, risky, beautiful and thoroughly uplifting music I’ve heard in this building. I didn’t just go home smiling; I went home head buzzing, heart full and thrilled to have been a witness to this premiere performance.
Taking his texts from the diary of Anne Frank, interviews with Nelson Mandela and Charles Darwin, speeches from Aung San Suu Kyi and Malala Yousafzai and suchlike sources and turning them into coherent vocal music was going to be a challenge, and while some of it flowed more easily, it was all strongly conveyed by the eight-strong choir. The vocal music ranged from incantation to lyrical song, much of it rich with the harmony that I associate with 20th-century English church music. Percy has also declared himself a fan of Fauré’s Requiem.
Then there was the band. No conventional jazz ensemble this, it comprised Percy on trumpet, Julian Argüelles on tenor and soprano saxophones, Melinda Maxwell on oboe and cor anglais, James Allsopp on bass clarinet, Jim Rattigan on French horn and accordion, Helen Tunstall on harp, Hans Koller on piano, Michael Janisch on double bass and Paul Clarvis on percussion.
Percy fully exploited this wide range of timbre and texture, setting harp against accordion, or cor anglais with bass clarinet, or trumpet under voices. There were solo spaces – the lion’s share going to Argüelles whose characteristic rich, rising tenor figures fitted just perfectly at the centre of the ensemble – but mainly this was about interactive, group playing. And yet it never felt over-written – it never felt unlike jazz.
The choir was far from an accompaniment – their full integration with the band, both as a section and as soloists, was one of the richest rewards of the evening.
And then there were the details – Percy doing an extraordinary circular-breathing sound full of breath and bubbles and white noise underneath a massed vocal line: the result was uncomfortable, creepy, dangerous and very effective; the whole group making a rainstorm of finger clicks and claps; the swell of voices in the final Gallileo Galilei section; the brief Central American sound of full, fruity trumpet against accordion.
But most of all was the fact that, those church choral music analogies notwithstanding, at no time in the hour and a quarter that I spent spellbound on the edge of my seat did the thought “that reminds me of” go through me head. Somehow, with a myriad of wide-ranging influences no doubt in his head, Percy Pursglove had created a completely whole musical world all of his own. That is a rare achievement.
A couple of footnotes:
1 It would have made for an even more rewarding audience experience to have had the full texts in the programme, especially as having the band play in the round and acoustically (both ambitious innovations to be heartily applauded) meant that for most listeners the singers were facing away from them.
2 One of the frustrations of hearing something like this which was, in jazz terms, relatively ambitious, is that repeat performances are often neglected. This is something that Birmingham Contemporary Music Group set out to remedy – giving that hard to get second or third performance of a specially commissioned work – and if one upshot of the Jazzlines Fellowship scheme is more works like this (and wouldn’t that be wonderful?) then maybe it’s something they need to think about. In the meantime we can be encouraged by the sight of microphones around the hall last night.
Categories: Live review