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The glittering plain

New works and arrangements for saxophone & ensemble
Lara James (saxophone), Pavão String Quartet, Will Todd Trio
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: July 2011
Fieldgate Studios, Penarth, United Kingdom
Produced by Ian Lawson & Lara James
Engineered by Andrew Lawson
Release date: March 2012
Total duration: 61 minutes 51 seconds

An exciting new disc from one of the UK’s leading exponents of contemporary saxophone.

Welsh performer Lara James commissioned a group of well-known and emerging UK composers to build this programme of contemporary works for saxophone, string quartet and jazz trio, starting with the simple brief of combining jazz concepts, sounds and harmonies with classical forms and structures. The result is a beguiling album of premiere performances that showcases the talents of the performers and composers alike.

Featured composers include: Will Todd, Graham Lynch, Tim Garland, Ian Lawson, Mike Hall, Tim Barnes, Dave Stapleton & Huw Warren.


'The Sparkling Heavens makes an immediate impact. Scored for soprano sax, strings, piano and percussion, there are some minimalist elements to the piano part that serve as an anchor for a long, beautiful sax line and some lovely chordal fabric underneath. This is a really nice work!  … Lara James is a really fine young player and all performers and composers represented here are also truly gifted. I recommend this heartily to anyone but especially to jazz sax players—or classical folks interested in something a bit different and very attention getting!’ (Audiophile Audition, USA)» More
This album is quite different from my previous disc for Signum Classics, in that I have commissioned British composers active in the field of jazz but also working with classical music (or vice versa) so the project is a classical crossover of sorts. I wondered what would happen if I asked composers to write (or arrange) something that was essentially drawing on classical form or style but borrowing jazz harmonies, inflections and improvisatory influences. This album is the exciting result of that concept and features some stylistically varied, beautifully melodious and rhythmically vital new works. It has been a pleasure to work with the Pavão String Quartet and the Will Todd Trio in recording these pieces.

'Commissioned specially for this album, The Sparkling Heavens is a long winding melody for soprano saxophone with constantly shifting textures in the strings and percussion. The piano has a minimalist figure which repeats throughout the track, with pedal notes adding to the texture as the piece ebbs and flows. It is an evocation of the imagined timelessness of heaven, the beauty and the strength of eternity.'

Will Todd’s music includes works for choir, stage and orchestra, and has been performed worldwide. Will’s flagship work is his electrifying jazz work Mass in Blue, which has been performed almost 100 times since its 2003 premiere.

'Milonga Azure captures the ambience of a beach café at St Ives on a lazy summer’s lunchtime—the title suggestive of the intense blue of the sea and sky. But the music also evokes other moods including a sense of melancholy and sadness, because the enjoyable moments in life are only ephemeral.'

Graham created a new arrangement of Milonga Azure for this project, scored for alto saxophone, string quartet, piano and double bass. His music has been recorded and broadcast by leading orchestras and ensembles in over 30 countries, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Orchestra of Opera North, and the BBC Singers. His works have been played in venues as diverse as the South Bank, Wigmore Hall, Merkin Hall, New York, Paris Conservatoire, Palace of Monaco, and from the Freiberg Jazz Club to a cake shop in Japan and everything in between.

I have long admired the playing and writing of Tim Garland, and the way in which his works interweave different sound worlds, genres and influences. I first heard Winding Wind on an album he recorded with his fantastic group Lammas, and was caught by its energy and folk-inspired rhythmic vitality. In asking Tim to create a new arrangement for saxophone, string quartet, piano, bass and drums/percussion, I wondered in which ways it might differ from the original. The result was no percussion in this arrangement, plenty for the strings to do, and the inclusion of a written solo for the saxophonist with the option of following changes (or a combination of both).

The second piece is quite different in character. As Tim provided both alto and tenor parts, I play alto saxophone instead of tenor, for which it was originally conceived. This piece too, uses no drums or percussion.

The composer writes; 'I wrote The Moon For Her when my daughter was very young and regularly watched a classic cartoon about a father who catches the moon for his daughter. For the most part it is an embellished two-part invention.'

Tim Garland, composer, Grammy-winning arranger, virtuoso saxophone and bass clarinet player is one of the Uks most prolific creative musicians. First forging an international reputation working with Chick Corea, Bill Bruford and Storms/ Nocturnes, his diverse musical skills are now evident in a growing repertoire of orchestral compositions which fuse the approaches of jazz and contemporary composition. He is based in London and is a Fellow of the Royal Northern College of Music.

'The Glittering Plain (for alto saxophone, string quartet, and jazz piano trio) is the fourth piece in a series of works that are, in all but name, multi-movement sonatas. So far, each piece has been written for a different, often unusual, combination of instruments. If this reminds anyone of the series of works Debussy was working on at the end of life I wouldn’t be entirely surprised, particularly as the first piece in the series is scored for flute, viola and harp! This latest work, commissioned by Lara James, is different from the others in that it is also an attempt to write a genuine jazz/classical crossover work.

The title is derived from the novel ‘The Story of the Glittering Plain’ published by William Morris in 1891. The novel itself has elements of ‘crossover’ combining fantasy and the supernatural with the progressive social ideas that interested Morris.

I’m aware that the term ‘crossover’ is problematic: When associated with classical music its meaning is usually synonymous with ‘dumbing down’—Mozart with a disco beat or operatic singers recording ‘lowbrow’ pop and show tunes. This, of course, is a limited view. I wonder, for example, how many works in the core classical repertoire don’t combine elements from different musical spheres—the essential process in any form of crossover?

When combing elements of Classical and Jazz, however, there are specific problems. Jazz is essentially a groove-based music; the rhythmic syncopation typically found in jazz is heard against the backdrop of a clear pulse. It is this groove that makes the syncopation workable and meaningful, and also leads to a performance practice in which rhythmic precision is a central requirement. Harmonic rhythm (i.e. the rate at which the harmonies change) on the other hand tends to be relatively straight forward in jazz. In ‘classical’ music harmonic rhythms tend to be more varied, and there is also a greater tradition of development during which rhythmic patterns are often subverted in a way that would not ‘groove’ in a jazz sense.

It would be pointless of me to try and explain in detail how I came to cope with these issues because the results can be more meaningfully heard in the music. But as a starting point perhaps it’s worth pointing out that the structure and development are essentially ‘classical’. There is no improvisation. Although there are moments when the music might sound as if it has reached the start of a jazz solo, these moments are then developed in a more classical way by re-routing the harmony in different directions rather than presenting improvised melodic variations over a fixed harmonic form.'

The Glittering Plain was composed between November 2010 and February 2011 and is dedicated to Lara James.

Ian Lawson was born in Liverpool in 1955 and brought up in Wrexham, North Wales. He is, however, of mixed Scottish and Welsh descent and, on his Welsh side, is related to the Welsh composer Grace Williams.

After studying music and composition with Alun Hoddinott at Cardiff University, Ian has had a varied career writing much music for film and television as well as concert music and pop music.

Evensong started as an exercise in moving a particular chord shape around and writing a really simple melody over the top. The resultant, almost hymnal, effect lent itself perfectly to a string quartet, a format which I have been working with for a number of years now.

Mike Hall is a jazz saxophonist and educator. He plays with the Echoes of Ellington Orchestra, Sax Assault and with his own jazz quartet as well as freelancing with the North West’s professional orchestras. Mike is Head of Jazz Studies at the Royal Northern College of Music and directs various jazz courses around the UK and in France. He is a consultant to the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

No More Sorrow is a short piece for tenorsaxophone and piano. Tim Barnes was born in York on September 26th 1990, the fourth and last child in his family. Only five months old, Tim was rushed into hospital after suffering from numerous fits. He was diagnosed with encephalitis, meningitis & pneumonia. Tim recovered, but shortly afterward was registered as partially sighted and diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome & dyspraxia. Even at a young age it was clear Tim would more than compensate for his conditions with his incredible ear for sounds and music in particular. By secondary school Tim had either developed or discovered his perfect pitch. He points out that: 'Every sound has a pitch. Fridges, car engines, footsteps and voices are made up of several frequencies that I like to pick out. People don’t realise how much of the world can sound like music.'

Almost unsurprisingly, given his aural development, Tim has synaesthesia, linking colours to musical pitches. 'It’s like this,' he explains, 'I hear a B flat and I think of pink. I hear an E flat and I think of purple, etc. In a piece of music, I’ll know what key it is in and then I’ll hear individual notes that I decide to focus on and depending on how it’s used, then the colour of that note would be a deeper or lighter shade. The way my mind works has had a massive impact on my composing.'

Dave composed this piece at my request especially for this album, scored for soprano saxophone and string quartet, piano, bass and drum kit. It has a spacious, atmospheric quality to it, and includes an improvised section for the saxophonist. The composer explains; 'In writing this piece, I wanted the silence and space to be as important as the music itself. From the beginning there’s a recurring theme that appears in conversation between the string quartet and the saxophone, piano, bass and drums that has a sense of mystery about it, an improvisatory quality in search of something. Finally, an ostinato enters giving a sense of release and arrival like a view suddenly becoming visible through clearing fog.'

Since graduating in classical piano from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2002, Dave Stapleton has become an important figure on the UK jazz scene as a jazz pianist of unusual abilities, as a composer of beautiful, lyrical tunes and film scores, as a record producer, and as co-founder of Edition records.

As a composer, Stapleton draws on his deep exploration of jazz, classical and world styles, transforming these raw materials into something richly personal. He performs throughout the UK as jazz pianist with the Dave Stapleton Quartet.

'Is It August Yet? is a new arrangement of an old piece. The title comes from something my eldest son said when he was very young. His birthday is in August so every month he would ask, Is it August yet?'.This seemed quite a Zen-like statement in the deep of winter! In the original I tried to combine the lyricism of a lush summer with a childlike happy groove influenced by South African music. In this new arrangement the piece has grown up, but hopefully without losing any of these qualities.'

Welsh pianist and composer Huw Warren is known as one of the UK’s most individual and versatile creative forces with work crossing the divides between Jazz, Contemporary music and World music. He never ceases to amaze as an intriguing and thrilling performer and composer. Winner of the highly coveted BBC Jazz Award for Innovation in 2005, Huw is known to many as co-founder of cult British jazz group Perfect Houseplants, and is a regular arranger/musical director for contemporary folk singer June Tabor (including their most recent project Quercus with saxophonist Iain Ballamy). He has recently established an international presence with his ongoing work with Austrian bassist Peter Herbert and American improvising violinist Mark Feldman.

Huw is well known in the field of jazz education and as an active composer and jazz musician on the international stage, with recent projects including his collaboration with Maria Pia de Vito, which has included recording with guitarist Ralph Towner and Carnatic singer R.A. Ramamani.

Lara James © 2012

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