But Is It Jazz? (Three recent releases…)

In December 2021 I was moved to write expressing my enthusiasm for a new album by Graham Collier (pictured above) – new only in terms of the disc’s release, since the British bassist-composer had died a decade previously; the music – a jazz suite in five parts – had actually been recorded (for the first and only time, apparently) in Stockholm back in 1975. So imagine my delight some weeks ago when I learned that another live performance of Collier’s early work had been unearthed and was about to be released.

Indeed, Down Another Road @ Stockholm Jazz Days ’69 struck me as especially worth checking out, because most of the music on it, performed live by Collier’s sextet of the time, had been released on a 1969 studio album for Fontana. The original Down Another Road was something of a turning point for me. Though my schoolboy self had certainly heard and liked some jazz, as well as being a fan of quite a few of the then fashionable ‘jazz-rock’ bands –  you can read a little more about that here –  it was only in my first term at university that things really kicked in. A friend who knew far more about jazz than I played me the Collier album, and I was entranced, most memorably by a track called The Barley Mow, a slow, surprisingly pastoral piece which, while undoubtedly jazz, also reminded me of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and English folk music. (I’d been interested in music that combined genres ever since hearing the later Beatles albums and Procol Harum, but more about ‘crossover’ music later…) My response to hearing my friend’s LP – which I immediately copied with my reel-to-reel tape machine – was to begin seeking out jazz albums myself in the second-hand shops and market stalls of Cambridge: the faltering start of a lifelong interest in jazz.

Anyway, the new live album is a gem – hardly surprising given the musicians involved: as on the studio release, the line-up consists of Harry Beckett on trumpet and flugelhorn, Stan Sulzmann on tenor and alto sax, Nick Evans on trombone, Karl Jenkins on oboe and piano, John Marshall on drums, and Collier on bass. The compositions are also identical (albeit ordered differently), with the exception of the opening number, Burblings for Bob, which replaces Danish Blue from the studio selection. Intriguingly, like Danish…, Burblings… is a fairly extended piece which passes through a range of tempi and moods, complete with slow lyrical solo cadenzas and blazing, bluesy tutti; this assemblage of distinct musical blocks into a lengthy, varied but coherent whole looks forward to the more ambitious suites that were a Collier trademark from the mid-70s onwards.

The other tracks compare very well with their studio counterparts; as one might expect, the live Stockholm set tends to be a little freer, a little more fiery, perhaps a little funkier, but the ensemble playing is as tightly coordinated as one could wish. The Barley Mow is as silkily seductive as when I first heard it, with Beckett’s fulsome flugelhorn and Jenkins’ reedy oboe both working wonders. Throughout (with the exception of the lovely Lullaby for a Lonely Child, written by Jenkins) Collier’s excellence as a composer and orchestrator is marvellously evident, producing memorable riffs and melodies, exquisite instrumental colours and textures, and plenty of room for his superb soloists to stretch themselves. Down Another Road @ Stockholm Jazz Days ’69 is a most welcome addition to the Collier catalogue, demonstrating again what an important and influential figure he was in the development of British jazz. Here is the live performance of the title track.

So… back to that ‘crossover’ mentioned earlier. Collier’s music, while essentially jazz, drew on rock, blues, folk, classical and the avant-garde (he was latterly a fan of Luciano Berio, Thomas Adès and Arve Henriksen, among others). I’ve long been fascinated by composers and performers who are happy to ignore or cross musical ‘borders’, and besides the live Down Another Road, I’d like to draw attention, briefly, to two further recent releases, both on ECM. One is Sphere, by the Bobo Stenson Trio; Stenson has always enjoyed exploring the compositions of others, using as a resource not only jazz and folk standards but the likes of Nielsen, Berg, Satie and Mompou. On his latest disc with bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Jon Fält, the leader focuses for the most part on material by Scandinavian composers – Sibelius, Per Nørgård and the rather less well-known Sven-Erik Bäck and Alfred Janson. Admittedly, it’s sometimes a little difficult to discern the original melody – indeed, the Sibelius tune only makes itself felt fleetingly at the end of Valsette op. 40/1, following some mercurial improvisation – but no matter; this is another characteristically imaginative, free-wheeling and delicate release from the Swedish piano trio. You can listen to the first of two versions of Nørgård’s You Can Plant a Tree here.

Then there is the veteran Italian clarinettist, saxophonist and composer Gianluigi Trovesi, who since some startlingly inventive releases on Soul Note and ECM in the 1990s has been working – in formats ranging from duos to big bands and orchestras – in a highly distinctive hybrid style that takes in jazz of various kinds, traditional Italian folk, dance and opera, and composers from Josquin and Monteverdi to Offenbach and Weill. His own playing, meanwhile, for all its warmth, wit and echoes of Italian popular music, can often stray – with no discernible strain or disconnect – into an angular modernism more reminiscent of Eric Dolphy (an acknowledged influence) or Ornette Coleman. His latest album – Stravaganze consonanti, newly released on ECM though recorded back in January 2014 – is another foray into the riches of the past; working with an orchestra (strings, winds, archlute, harpsichord, percussion and occasional electronics) and various long-term collaborators, he takes us through – and responds with his own music to – pieces by Purcell, Dufay, Josquin, and early Italian composers like Trabaci, Buonamente and Falconieri. (No, I wasn’t familiar with them either.) This sort of mix-up can often backfire, provoking unfavourable comparisons with the originals, but for some reason that seldom happens with Trovesi; you can listen to his own De vous abandonner here, and to his version of Dido’s Lament by Purcell here. Intelligence, energy and invention all have something to do with his creative success in this field, but another factor, surely, is his conspicuous, unashamed and deep love of the music with which he’s interacting. For him, evidently, however many centuries old it may be, it is still gloriously alive… and occasionally kicking.

Finally, by way of rewarding you for your patience if you’ve made it this far, here is some footage of the Graham Collier Sextet performing live in 1969, with Stanley Cowell replacing Karl Jenkins on piano. The number – again from Down Another Road – is Aberdeen Angus. Enjoy!

Down Another Road @ Stockholm Jazz Days ’69 is released by My Only Desire; Sphere and Stravaganze consonanti are released by ECM. The photo of the Bobo Stenson Trio is by Daniel Bass, courtesy of ECM. The photo of Gianluigi Trovesi is by the late Roberto Massotti, courtesy of ECM.

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