sound festival 2019 review: Gareth Davis and local musicians

Gareth Davis: Bass Clarinet
Matthew Kilner: Saxophone
Richard Glassby: Drums
Colin Black: Guitar
Finley Campbell: Bass Guitar

with Pauline Black, Josie Fairley-Keast, Lisa Marie Ferguson And Hannah Glassby

The relation between composer and performer in jazz music is a fascinating one. There are jazz scores especially for larger bands and sometimes for a solo pianist where the music is fully scored except perhaps for passages of improvisation. I have even seen some piano versions where the improvisation is written out in full too. Purists of course will argue that this is just not jazz. Having been close enough to the performers to see something of today’s scores I got the feeling that the players were faced with the equivalent of me being told, 'Get in your car and drive from here to Edinburgh. We have put a couple of notes on the passenger seat suggesting possibilities of routes to take but it is basically up to you'. I thought, ‘Well, the composers don’t seem to have all that much to do with the music. Is it actually being composed by the performers?’ Actually, having thought about it for a while, perhaps that is what most jazz is. There are composers, like one of my favourites, Hoagy Carmichael, who have composed what are known as jazz standards and then hundreds of soloists and groups of all sizes take his music and run with it in a multiplicity of ways, then as the saying goes – now you has jazz!

Bass clarinettist Gareth Davis has taken part in at least one famous recording of a version of the first piece we were about to hear, Talking about Charlie by the Swiss trombonist and composer Roland Dahinden (b. 1962). The Charlie in question, for those who do not know much about jazz is of course the American jazz saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker (1920 – 1955) a leading figure in the development of bebop. The full title of the recorded version of Roland Dahinden’s famous piece is ‘Talking with Charlie. An Imaginary Talk with Charlie Parker’ in which he imagines how Parker would react in musical terms to the changes in jazz up to the present day. Gareth Davis is of course a real aficionado of this music and he was supported in today’s performance by four of our local jazz musicians with whose musicianship I am well acquainted from past Blue Lamp concerts. I am willing to put my reputation on the line by saying that these guys are as good as it gets. I am always astonished at how the best jazz musicians are imbued with the most amazing creativity, but more than that, their mutual connectivity when playing together is second to none. Of course classical musicians need to be able to play together perfectly as well. Chamber players can achieve that and in large orchestras, that is what the conductor is for. There was no conductor as such today – or was there? I will get back to that in describing the two next pieces by Christian Marclay.

The first piece, Talking About Charlie began with riffs from bass guitarist Finley Campbell while Richard Glassby created a gentle ‘shushing’ background with his drum brushes on the side drum. Guitarist Colin Black was followed in by Gareth Davis on the upper registers of his bass clarinet, not the sound I had expected from this instrument. Soon Matthew Kilner on sax was there while Glassby on drums stroked the cymbal with his brushes, interrupted by aggressive drum strokes. Possibly it was Glassby who impressed me most in this performance. He was there most of the time giving us a fantastic variety of drum sounds. The music rose to an exciting climax and then in front of crazy drums, Gareth Davis and Matthew Kilner engaged in a friendly musical duel with their two instruments. The music slowed to allow guitar and bass to indulge in a duo with rattling drums behind them.

Bass guitar and drums were involved in a duo before the guitar entered and there was a surging rhythm leading to quiet percussion with the bass clarinet taking flight across the entire range of his instrument. The bass clarinet then had a passage where he sounded like a crazy alto sax then the piece came to its magnificent conclusion with the musicians disporting themselves on shared thematic material.

Gareth Davis gave us a short introduction to the next piece, Shuffle by Christian Marclay, which he described as a sort of game. Marclay was born in 1955 in California to a Swiss father and an American mother but the family moved to Geneva where he was raised. He is described as a visual artist and composer which explains what we were about to hear and indeed to see. I mentioned the word ‘conductor’ earlier on. Sitting at the table next to me were four young ladies, Pauline Black, often a conductor of the University Jazz orchestra and band, Josie Fairley-Keast, a saxophonist and two young singers, Lisa Marie Ferguson and Hannah Glassby (sister of the drummer). They produced packs of quite large cards and began to sort through them into four separate piles. Then they took turns to go onstage showing the cards to the performers and occasionally signalling to them to get louder or softer or to stop and make way for another player. The piece began with Richard Glassby tickling the side drum with what looked like nutshells on a string. The saxophone had an exciting high-powered, almost screaming, passage. I was obviously taken with what was on the cards. A few seemed to have short snippets of music, one had a picture of a statue possibly on a church and another looked like a darkened theatre auditorium with misty light emanating from the stage. I presume these were to inspire the musicians to play something to match the cards in their imagination. 

The second of Marclay’s pieces, To Be Continued was an imagining of the kind of background music for a dream experienced by someone who had spent their lives reading colourful comics. Pauline and her crew acted as page turner for the musicians. The score was large and full of many colourful comic illustrations. On some pages there were actual lines of music while on others there were illustrations of instruments, wind, guitars or drums and it was these that were played in response. One page had a whole aviary of birds and the wind players reacted as you might expect. I was hugely impressed by the instant imagination displayed by the performers and they still managed to add to their imaginations the ability to work together as a proper integrated ensemble. How amazing was that? Long ago, before I was born, my father was a policeman and one of his duties was to stand at the back of cinemas in the days of silent films. He told me about a pianist Alice Stevenson who was particularly adept at creating music scores for the films. Today’s lads would surely be just as good but they have an extra requirement, they have to be able to make their music fit together perfectly, and today they did just that.

Have I begun to ramble on a bit? Well, let me just say that this is my version of improvisation!  

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