Andy Wood, Owen Slade and Annie Bielby with the John Wilson Orchestra in Leeds Town Hall, December 2011
Feb 25, 2012 | Categories: musicians, photos | Tags: "John Wilson Orchestra", Andy Wood, JWO, Leeds Town Hall, musicians, Owen Slade, The Imaginal Eye, tuba, www.theimaginaleye.com | Leave A Comment »
This is a review of two new CD albums by the British hornplayer, Jim Rattigan (that’s “French horn”; not trumpet, sax or trombone). Being a British hornplayer myself I’m very conscious of the possible confusion of instruments here, particularly in the context of jazz music where “horn” means almost anything that you blow. So, to be clear, when I use the word “horn” I am referring to that curly, backwards-aiming flared spiral with four or more valves which is most commonly used in baroque, classical, romantic, commercial, pop and film music …but almost NEVER as a frontline solo jazz instrument.
Why is this? In my opinion there are several reasons: jazz is by nature cool, laid-back, spontaneous and easy. The horn is none of those things. Its traditional use is to convey a reassuring degree of control, finesse, and romantic heroism. In film music it’s horns you’ll hear whenever something heroic is going on. The horn is terrifyingly difficult to learn and virtually impossible to control. For rhythmic bounce, speed, clarity and ease of use the instruments of choice for jazz are always going to be trumpet, sax, piano, guitar, clarinet, voice; almost NEVER something so fiendishly difficult as the horn.
Like Jim, I too have had the urge to play jazz but I decided not to pursue it on the horn, it being far too difficult. Instead, I went with the trumpet – a much more practical choice. At this point I have to admit to my prejudice and own up that my underlying feelings around the concept of using a horn to play jazz are those of scepticism, disapproval and even plain dislike. So, what business it is of mine to be reviewing jazz horn records when I am hard-wired to dislike them? It’s a good question; one which I hope I might answer for myself by writing this.
I have noticed, in me and in other hornplayers, a difficulty accepting the freedoms of jazz music. In jazz one can improvise (meaning one can play what one wants) to some extent whereas hornplayers are traditionally taught to play exactly what has been written by composers, down to the tiniest details of dynamics and nuance. Furthermore, to keep the traditional hornplayer to the composers’ written commands, a conductor is usually employed whose job it is to keep a check on the accuracy of the reading and to punish minor transgressions with, for example, public humiliation and/or sacking. It is generally believed that conductors do much more than just this but after more than 35 years of puzzlement I have yet to understand what they are really for. Why do they like waving their arms around while musicians play music? Why do they commonly get paid more than an entire symphony orchestra? In a nutshell, playing symphonic horn parts is all about being controlled by someone with a baton, a huge income and the power to have one sacked whereas jazz is all about freedom. Alternatively put, orchestral musicians are soldiers following orders whereas jazz musicians are hunters in charge of their own destinies.
There is a great divide across which traditional hornplayers gaze at their distant cousins, the jazz musicians, with wonderment. The jazzers look back at their classically trained counterparts with admiration and respect but also incredulity and incomprehension at the strangely archaic power structure in a typical orchestra which subjugates individual musicians.
As an example of the distance between the cultures of jazz and so-called “classical” musicians, it is often the case that classically trained hornplayers have great difficulty listening to recordings of Miles Davis, the greatest giant of all jazz giants, without wincing. In our highly refined and thus limited way all we tend to hear is that he cracks notes, makes a flaky, unfocussed sound and seems to be rather short on what we call “technique”. By default we tend to judge what we hear from players like him by the criteria we employ to continuously refine and perfect our own playing for the purposes of performing Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler. But give Miles Davis the first trumpet part of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and he would be laughed off the stage. I’m absolutely serious – he would not be able to play it, or any classical repertoire, with sufficient finesse and polish to be invited back.
So, the whole thing is quite difficult for me and, I’m sure, for many other hornplayers but Jim Rattigan has somehow overcome all of that and left such problems way behind. Jim is our UK jazz horn champion. Around the world there are a few other jazz hornplayers here and there but it is a very rare breed indeed and, frankly, none are as good as our Jim. Uniquely for a jazz musician his credentials as a straight hornplayer are beyond reproach. He was a member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for six years and played with all the major London orchestras and chamber ensembles as well as being a busy session player. He is one of those extremely rare types who really can traverse more than one musical culture.
In discussing differences between the jazz and the “straight” world of classical music there’s one other thing I should mention about both of these new CDs; something which will make hornplayers and anyone else of an orchestral persuasion gasp and wonder: it is that there was no rehearsal for any of it. No rehearsal! How is such a thing possible? From talking to Jim I have understood the following: that the musicians arrived at the studio and arranged their seats around a sensible setup of microphones; a quick balance test was carried out while they blew a few notes to get warmed up and briefly discussed how the music should go. The “music”, in this case, was a printed melody and some hieroglyphic chord symbols. Then, the red light came on and off they went, playing together for the first time and recording it! Such is the miracle of jazz. I gather, from talking to Jim, that there were more or less two takes of each of the tracks and the editing was simply a matter of choosing the best of the two. So, this is live music – living music – the artists performing to each other, to the microphones and to the recording engineer. It’s very straightforward, very spontaneous, very special and beautifully pure.
The two albums are “Shuzzed” and “Strong Tea”. Both were recorded in 2010 at Fishmarket Studios, London.
“Shuzzed” is a quartet album in which Jim is joined by Phil Robson (guitar), Phil Donkin (bass) and Gene Calderazzo (drums). Three of the tracks (Timbuckthree, Shuzzed and Mung Beans) are Jim’s own compositions while the remaining six are jazz standards. Jim wanted the personal challenge of making a “Bebop” jazz horn CD and here it is, true to Wikipedia’s definition: “Bebop is a style of jazz characterised by fast tempo, instrumental, virtuosity and improvisation based on the combination of harmonic structure and melody.”
Jim’s compositions are quirky, colourful and intriguing. “Shuzzed” (meaning, according to Jim, embarrassed or humbled in the context of playing the music of the legendary Charlie Parker) is the title track and it struts along majestically on a walking bass with a curious interplay between the guitar and the horn – sometimes in octaves, sometimes in parallel tritones. “Mung Beans” is a very catching angular blues in the manner of Charlie Parker. It starts off moving briskly over Caldarezzo’s brushes. Jim’s sure-footed and highly chromatic horn improvisation is handed over to Robson’s guitar for some in-depth exploration of the blues changes. When the catchy melody returns there is no mistaking it, which is a sure sign of a good tune. Of his three compositions, “Timbuckthree” is my personal favourite being enjoyably brisk, virtuosic and well structured. The head (that’s the tune at the beginning for those of us with no jazz jargon) is derived from three oddly sourced fragments knitted together into a very attractive tune. Two of these are from the horn concerti of Richard Strauss, and the third quote is from Ravel’s piano concerto in G. The funny title apparently comes from a spat Jim once had with his eight year old son which resulted in Jim turning and walking away in anger. When the boy asked where he was going, Jim shouted back, “Timbuktu. Where are YOU going?”. The response, shouted back at Jim, was a triumphant, “Timbuckthree!”
The other six tracks are Giant Steps (John Coltrane), Sweet Rain (Mike Gibbs), Cherokee (Ray Noble), Donna Lee and Yardbird Suite (both by Charlie Parker) and Come Sunday (Duke Ellington). These are all brilliantly executed and thoroughly explore the many combinations of guitar and horn sounds. It’s a curious thing that these two timbres are uncannily similar in places, while the attacks, the note-shapes and articulations could not be more different. It’s a fascinating mixture of sounds.
Jim chose his three companions wisely – and they are all brilliant. Again, the lack of any rehearsal for this recording is something which will always amaze me. To prepare for the album, Jim says he spent a whole month practising “Giant Steps” for eight hours every day. “This is a really tough one”, he says. “It’s extremely hard to learn and basically it only has three chords so it shouldn’t really be that difficult, but it is!”
“Sweet Rain”, is a tune made famous by Stan Getz and written by Jim’s colleague and friend, Mike Gibbs (bandleader and composer). Robson uses a very cool guitar sound and drapes some beautiful crystalline chords under the complex twists and turns of the melody.
“Cherokee” begins with an authentic Cherokee chant in a slow, clear pentatonic statement after which it launches directly into its improvisations and there’s no sign of the well known head until right at the end of the track. Phil Donkin nails the eighths with amazing energy throughout. Apparently there was no retake of this as Gene Calderazzo didn’t want to play it through again because his arms were “falling off”.
“Donna Lee” (Charlie Parker) begins with the tune broken up into segments with the guitar and horn in unison – a unique and lovely sound. Jim, uncompromisingly, keeps this version to the original key which forces him to jump octaves now and again to keep it in the most effective range of the horn’s voice. For a definition of “swing” just listen to Phil Donkin’s incredible bass solo.
“Come Sunday” (Duke Ellington): Jim says that he played this one with an American big band in the Rowan Jazz Festival 2009 and loved the tune. It is all about longing and persecution. It is the only “traditional” ballad in the album and features acoustic guitar unlike all the other tracks.
“Mung Beans” (Rattigan): Jim says that this title has no meaning at all (“…apart from being some kind of a lentil”) but that he just liked the sounds of the words. It’s an excellent melody followed by improvisations which push the blues structure to its harmonic extreme, stretching it almost to breaking point.
Jim included the Charlie Parker tune, “Yardbird Suite”, because it lends itself to being played on the horn by virtue of its ideal register. He says that tunes written for alto sax are usually uncomfortably high or impractically low for a horn but that this one fits right in the centre of the horn range and is lovely and comfortable to play.
“Strong Tea”, is a big-band album with Jim playing horn along with his eleven hand-picked top-notch London-based jazz musicians: one each of alto, tenor and baritone saxes, three trumpets (one doubling on flugle horn in “Dulwich Park”), tenor trombone, bass trombone, piano, bass and drums. There are five tracks, each of which is a new and original composition by Jim Rattigan.
The first half of “Parkwood Fair” is completely improvised. Jim wanted to feature the bass in this track and it starts with a dark and mysterious improvised bass solo with dramatic streaks of colour added by drums and cymbals. It then falls easily into a hypnotic groove over which Jim begins the soloing interspersed with decorative piano splashes. Jim uses handstopping technique to introduce echo elements in his lines. It’s a technical tour to force, using lip trills, pitch-bending and other impressive extended horn techniques. More structure is added until the whole piece becomes melodic and richly harmonic in its development. This track has a natural and satisfying shape to it and due to the rising energy of the brass and wind lines towards the end gives the impression of deeply layered musical form.
“Dulwich Park”, track two, opens in a wonderful chin-jutting strut. Jim says it is supposed to give the impression of a walk in the park, and that Dulwich Park is one of the nicest places on earth, being full of lovely, busy, happy folk running, cycling and walking their dogs. The whole track has a wonderful fresh and free feel to it. Each solo is divided by a short burst of ensemble writing to introduce the next soloist. After a truly amazing tenor solo from Andy Panayi there is an equally stunning flugle horn solo from Percy Pursglove.
Jim says that the band were very fired up for the third piece, “Strong Tea”, and urged that a “burning” track – meaning an up-tempo, high energy one – would work better at a much faster tempo than he had originally intended. It transformed the piece into something even more spontaneous and exciting. There is a lot of detail here in Jim’s arranging and there is much to reward the careful listener. The improvised sections are based on the so-called “Rhythm Changes”. The angular melody has an intriguing middle-eight based on falling triads over an E pedal. Brilliant solos by trumpet player Steve Fishwick, altoist Martin Speak, Jim and finally Hans Koller on piano, seamlessly lead us back into the head. The piece ends with three muted trumpets blending with the handstopped horn – a fantastic and highly original sound.
The horn part of “Won over the Eight” is completely improvised with no actual written notation. Its heavy limbed nine-bar phrases reek of smoke, alcohol and ruin. The gutsy, raw, sleazy sound brings to mind famous recordings of the Mingus Big Band of the late fifties and sixties.
The title of the final track is simply a date, “24/7”, which is Jim’s birthday. The significance here is that the creation of this album was Jim’s 50th birthday present to himself. Instead of a party he decided to get together a lot of the great players he’d worked with over the years and do something both creative and serious. The parts are all tailored to his friends’ own particular styles and idiosyncrasies. It’s a very busy track, full of surging brass chords and the sounds of energetically clicking sticks in a twelve-eight feel.
For both these amazing albums Jim has surrounded himself with the very finest musicians. His writing is absolutely first rate and the recorded sound is as satisfying as any I’ve ever heard. It’s dynamic and colourful, and if it wasn’t for the absence of any audience sounds it would have the feel of a live recording. Jim’s playing throughout both CDs treads a fascinating path between refinement and spontaneity, successfully revealing and integrating two very different sides of the French Horn. Jim Rattigan is teaching us something new and brilliant here. Listen and celebrate.
Jim’s CDs can be purchased online at www.jimrattigan.com
Oct 5, 2011 | Categories: hornplaying, jazzlearning, publications | Tags: CD review, french horn, hornplayer, jazz, Jazz CD, jazz horn, jazz review, Jim Rattigan, photo, photography, portriat, record review, Shuzzed, Strong Tea, The Imaginal Eye, www.theimaginaleye.com | 1 Comment »