Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Some musical projects and compositions are slow burners, that create their own story with twists and turns, sometimes unresolved. My Concerto for Saxophone & Chamber Orchestra is one of those experiences for me, and now seems a good time to tell the story as the piece is released on CD (in piano reduction form) on 1st September 2020. The CD, entitled HOME, is a collaborative project with leading Portuguese Saxophonist João Pedro Silva.
Rewind to 2005. American saxophonist Branford Marsalis was guest soloist with the Halle Orchestra (Manchester, UK). My great friend Jim Muirhead (bass clarinet & saxophonist with the Halle) invited me to a rehearsal with Branford, and the three of us ended up chatting and hanging out. The Halle were playing the programme with Branford in Manchester and then Derby the following night.
Jim knew that I had a gig with a regular sextet at a pub in Winsford on the night of the Derby gig. DB5 was a group that I set up when I lived in Winsford, and was fortunate enough to count Damon Horrill (owner of DeBees) as a good friend. Damon is a huge supporter of live music and gave us a residency at DeBees for over a decade!
The residency was re-born a couple of years ago, again thanks to Damon (and Alice), which I transitioned over to my son, Stan, a good bass player, now at the Red Lion (across the road from DeBees).
Jim had it all worked out, Branford & he were playing in the first half only of the Halle gig in Derby, Jim gave him a lift & Branford had already agreed to come along to DeBees. I know, this all sounds ludicrous, a little pub gig in Cheshire, and sure enough Branford rocked up! He came straight to side stage, I asked him if he wanted to blow on the number that the band were in the middle of, he said ‘yeh’ and then played the rest of the gig. It was one of those once in a lifetime experiences, all thanks to Jim and the generosity of Branford.
Branford & I kept in touch via email every now and again, meanwhile we move onto the World Saxophone Congress in Thailand in 2009. I attended my first WSC in 2006 (aged 40), until then I was anti these type of saxophone gatherings, they didn’t pay, it’s geeky etc., basically an angry young(-ish) man attitude. Selmer Paris Saxophones helped arrange that my double saxophone concerto Dark Rain was programmed in Slovenia in 2006 (soloists John Harle & Rob Buckland), in one of the Gala Concerts, and that my saxophone ensemble SaxAssault played a televised concert (supporting the Yellowjackets & Slovenian Radio Big Band). So I had to go and experience one of these ‘hundreds of saxophonists in a bubble talking about reeds and articulation’ events, even though of course I was massively grateful to Selmer.
It was very cool! I realised that this was a meeting point for friends, colleagues, a learning ground, an opportunity to experience a different culture. I checked out lots of new music and musicians that I’d wanted to hear live, and proudly supported as many British musicians that had made the journey as possible.
Onto 2009 and the WSC in Thailand. The Royal Northern College of Music kindly subsidised travel and accommodation costs that allowed me to attend the Congress. Again, it was a great learning experience, thank you Shyen Lee and team. The British saxophonist Richard Ingham was directing the National Saxophone Choir at this event and subsequently led a successful bid to host the WSC in 2012 in St. Andrews, Scotland.
In 2010-2011 the various threads above started coming together, none of this pre-planned. Richard suggested the idea that I write a Concerto for Branford, to be premiered at the opening Gala Concert with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Old pal Clark Rundell would be conducting, this was good as I know that Clark has a real understanding of classical contemporary and jazz idioms, improvisation and is highly regarded worldwide as an orchestral conductor.
At this time I was in a fortunate position of being asked to write various commissioned works for soloists and ensembles, but had taken on too much, with 18 months of solid unrelenting work culminating in July 2012, the time of the WSC in Scotland. I’m not complaining for one moment, the music business is tough and competitive, I just hadn’t quite figured out how to pace things.
Richard and his team had organised part-funding from Creative Scotland, and a saxophone student of mine that runs a staging company, UniStage, also contributed to the commission fee. The stage was set, I just had to write something! At this stage not over-thinking was good; oh it’s Branford, will I write something that people like etc... Yes you think about all this but I find that once you do finally hit ‘the zone’ when composing music, nothing else then enters your mind. This is why 14 hours writing feels like 4, the challenge is reaching the zone.
I finished the Concerto about 6 weeks before the premiere. Branford could have refused to have played it, ideally I should have given him the solo part at least 6 months earlier. Yes, there was quite a lot of improvising in the solo part, so it wasn’t a totally notated challenge, however I was lucky that he was cool with this scenario.
The next 9 months were spent recovering from pneumonia. Something that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Some people said that I was suffering from alcohol poisoning, thanks…. well I like a drink and certainly did have more than a few in St. Andrews, I guess that it was the culmination of everything at that time; completing 18 months of deadlines, seeing friends from all over the world at the WSC, the general release of everything. Anyway the immune system was low and this tipped it over the edge! You live and learn. My doctor told me that I had pneumonia on my left lung, that I’d have scarring, to slow down, and if I was free a month later to play at a party at their house!
Pneumonia hits you badly. After the 9 months there was one day when I thought that I felt normal again. I’d taken on some commissions and gigs during this time because I wanted to do them, and you need money to live, but nowhere near as many. I could write for an hour and was exhausted, or practise my saxophone for half an hour, then had to sleep. One of the results during this time was that the revisions that I planned to make to the Saxophone Concerto had been pushed down the queue.
Fast forward to early 2017. I’m chatting with the great Claude Delangle. My colleague in the Apollo Sax Quartet, and Senior Tutor of Saxophone at the RNCM. Rob Buckland had invited Claude to lead a masterclass and lessons with the (lucky) saxophone students. I’d been teaching at the college that day and was chatting with Claude prior to his class. He asked me about my Concerto, saying that he hadn’t yet confirmed which Concerto to perform at EurSax in Lisbon, Portugal in July that year. In 2012 Claude found me immediately following the world premiere by Branford of the Concerto and told me that he would like to perform the piece! I was honoured, I also said at the time that the solo part contained a lot of improvisation, he said that that was fine, no problem. Respect.
Now there was a deadline to revise the piece, and in this case the following months were a wonderful experience for me in terms of taking a collaborative approach with Claude. From my compositional perspective, you experience isolation, self-doubt, creative bursts, you are privileged that your mind is allowed to be as imaginative as it can be, whilst retaining practicalities that are necessary for performance. I trust Claude and have huge respect for him musically and as a person, it was good receiving his feedback, time to keep any ego in check. His views on interaction between the soloist and orchestra led me to re-write large sections in the final movement of the Concerto, to expand the form, to introduce more light and shade. I made the decision to create a fully-notated solo saxophone part; the piece wasn’t jazz (although influenced in lots of ways by jazz) and this way I hoped that the classical saxophonist worldwide might consider playing it.
Claude in 2017, as Branford did in 2012, played brilliantly. It was interesting whilst rehearsing in the hall to hear Claude explaining how he adjusts his playing to find the ultimate projection of sound for him at that time and place. Both are hugely alert, alive musically and in the present. Thank you also to Henrique Portovedo and the team at EurSax.
Coming dangerously close to the present, and thank you if you’ve read this far, the Portuguese connection continued, as does the journey of the Concerto, when the wonderful saxophonist João Pedro Silva approached me about recording
a CD of my works for tenor saxophone. I arranged that my colleague in Manchester, Simon Parkin (a brilliant pianist, arranger, composer, teacher and mind) created a piano reduction of the Concerto.
Flying to Lisbon in January 2019 to produce the recording with João and friends was a privilege. This guy had bust a gut practising my music, often into the early hours I was told, it’s an overused word but I’ll say it, it was humbling. Anyone that has recorded and produced an album knows how much time and effort goes into it, and we do it because we have to, there’s no choice, music is our passion.
To the present as I write this; the CD HOME launches on 1st September 2020, available via Bandcamp as a CD or mp3s. Included on this special recording is the world premiere of Laissez les bons temps rouler! in piano reduction form. The next stage is to publish this version (Astute Music) which I will do in September, and then one day there may be a world premiere recording of Laissez with chamber orchestra, discussions are underway.
Sometimes things take time, that’s ok, the extra space may create valuable experiences. Keep on keeping on friends, especially during this Covid-19 time. Stay safe.
To be continued……
news items and blog posts by Andy Scott