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‘Jazz on a Winter’s Day’ -  Scott Willcox Big Band recording session, 18/02/2017.

Monday, March 20, 2017

‘Jazz on a Winter’s Day’ -  Scott Willcox Big Band recording session, 18/02/2017.

Guest contributor Trevor Bannister on a "a fascinating day spent at a church near Shepperton, where producer Andy Cleyndert was recording Scott Willcox's ten-piece big band for his Trio label".



Photograph of Scott Willcox Big Band courtesy of Lee Alexander Brown Photography

St Andrew’s Baptist Church, a late-Victorian red brick building, is set back from the road through the village of Upper Halliford, amid a beautifully tended garden, where a spread of snowdrops suggested that winter was finally in retreat. However idyllic this setting might seem, it was hard to picture how the ten-musicians of Scott Willcox’s jazz ensemble, their music stands and instrument cases plus microphones and control desk, might fit into the tiny structure for the day’s recording session. The answer was to be found by following a neat pathway to a recently constructed octagonal structure appended to the original church. Modern, sun-lit, and spacious and with an excellent acoustic, this would serve as a recording studio under the guiding hand of Andy Cleyndert, well known as a world class bass player but, on this occasion, the producer for his Trio record label.

This would be quite unlike my only other experience of a recording session. There I had viewed proceedings through a glass panel, as if watching marine life at an aquarium – the musicians tightly squeezed into a bare cell-like room, with the bass player and drummer tucked away in their own separate booths. The music played through speakers. It could have been coming directly from a CD; there was no sense of a live band playing at full-flight.

No such detachment here. Clearly producer Andy Cleyndert intends to capture the sound as if on a live gig. The centrally placed control desk lies only feet away from the musicians. Cables snaked away from the desk to the microphones, set up and ready for the musicians to shortly take their places once fortified by the hospitality of Scott and his wife Anne. ‘Scott takes care of the music,’ Anne remarked. ‘I look after other, more important details, like a steady supply of tea, coffee and chocolate biscuits.’

While Cleyndert attends to the final details of his recording equipment, the musicians amble into the space. Attired in a variety of outfits, ranging from shirtsleeves to padded coats and woollen hats designed to ward off Arctic cold, they take their seats.

Sited to the far left as I view the ensemble from the back of the church, Dave Frankel nods approvingly at the piano; it’s a fine instrument. Bass guitarist Ben Hazelton, stands next to him, barely visible behind the vast grey sheet that shrouds the piano. Gary Willcox cuts an authoritative figure behind his drum kit - he checks his charts and runs through various rhythms on his kit as everyone settles. Martin Gladdish, a one-man trombone section, is sited centre-stage; quiet and thoughtful. Gabriel Garrick and Andy Gibson are seated to his left; a powerhouse trumpet section, which literally heralds the arrival of Julian Costello with a timely fanfare. 

The saxophone section is set up at a right-angle to the brass instruments. Duncan Eagles on tenor, glowing with good health after recent work in Dubai, Julian Costello joins him, also on tenor; Bob McKay and Chris Biscoe are surrounded by an array of instruments: flute, soprano and alto saxophones. Together this formidable line-up comprises the Scott Willcox Big Band.

Scott’s quiet and self-effacing direction leads the band into a run-through of  ‘Rondosonu’. It’s a demanding chart, that maintains a complex West African drum pattern throughout; the sort of thing, as a band member once observed, that might emerge from “a meeting between Stravinsky and George Russell”. It takes time to nail the groove, but once achieved, the explosive force of the band in full flight fills the church with energy and musical colour. “We’ve got the feeling in the room. Let’s go for it. Let’s record it!” Gabriel Garrick declares with excited determination.

As Andy Cleyndert moves quietly about his job, adjusting microphones and setting things up in readiness for the first take, Scott issues instructions; directing Dave Frankel to hold a particular chord for a little longer and asking McKay and Biscoe to run through their parts again so that the sound of the alto and soprano saxes is separated more clearly. Meanwhile, Andy Gibson discovers that he’s got one more bar to everyone else. “That’s because you’re special,” remarks Martin Gladdish jokingly.

To my amazed observer’s senses, the musicians take the glitches of a recording session completely in their stride and after a couple of false starts, come close to producing the “joyous, generous, singing sound” that Scott is seeking. But ‘Rondosonu’ is not quite in the bag.

By now the temperature in the church has dropped noticeably, in line with the energy levels of the musicians; the charts are tricky and demand the utmost concentration. Another take might be a step too far. “How about doing a drop-in?” suggests Gary Willcox. It’s a welcome idea, eagerly taken up. A four bar introduction leads the band into the offending section and this time it’s played to perfection. There’s a moment of silence and audible relief before Scott and his musicians dare to smile.  Yes, ‘Rondosonu’ is in the can. It’s time to move on.

In contrast to the helter-skelter pace of ‘Rondosonu’ with its startling sounds and switches in time and rhythm, ‘Slane’, an interpretation of a traditional Irish melody, is a vision of Celtic beauty. Muted brass, blending with the reeds, and the gentle Latin breeze of Gary Willcox’s brushes provide the background to Bob McKay’s impassioned solo on alto sax, which grows in emotional depth with each take.

The ferocious ‘Bouncing Back’ is another piece full of challenges and potential pitfalls. Numerous takes and the sustaining effects of a splendid buffet lunch are needed before they are all successfully overcome. “It won’t get any better.” declared Gabriel Garrick with absolute finality. “This,” he continued, rubbing his forehead, “is knackered. It’s the counting.”

Scott expressed his delight at the close of ‘Where Next?’ which ran through seamlessly in one take. “That was great!” he said. “We captured the voicings perfectly.” A haunting lamentation, the number opened with the questioning piano of Dave Frankel and provided a platform for an achingly beautiful solo played by Martin Gladdish on trombone.

With Gary Willcox stoking the boiler, the band immediately responded to Scott’s call for ‘heat’ and set ‘All Change’ in motion at blistering pace. Exultant solos from Gibson, Biscoe and Costello, and firm bass lines from Ben Hazelton, added further fuel to the fire. With everyone thinking that the piece was ‘in the sack’, Gary Willcox suddenly confessed that “my part fell on the floor at bar 100 and from then on I was flying blind”. It was one of those moments; another would crop up before the end of the day’s recording at the end of ‘Listen Up’: should you go with what sounded ‘right’, and my ears told me that this did, or should you go with what WAS right i.e. the written score. Scott decided to go with the latter; a four bar intro led into a successful re-take and a thumbs up from Andy Cleyndert.

‘Mixed Feelings’ returned to the enigmatic territory explored earlier in ‘Where Next?’ Tempo was all important; at first it was too slow. “Run it again,” insisted Scott, and sure enough, the almost imperceptible difference in speed, brought the number together, only to fall apart, perhaps understandably, following the second of two totally free passages. Another ‘dovetail’ solved the problem perfectly.

It was a timely moment to take a break for tea. As I studied the clock and wondered how the session could possibly be completed by the deadline of 4 o’clock, Duncan Eagles confidently reassured me that, “It’s usually like this at recording sessions. Actually, we’re doing quite well.”

When recording resumed, two takes safely secured ‘Can’t Complain’, a fascinating piece featuring the trombones of Martin Gladdish, Gabriel Garrick (making his recording début on his second instrument) and guest Dave Horden, with the rhythm section.

‘Listen Up’, a gentle, slightly melancholic ballad, drawing on muted brass and Bob McKay’s expressive flute was also wrapped up in two takes.

I checked my watch again, four-fifteen. As the band launched into the first run-through of ‘African Dance’, I reluctantly took my leave. Over the course of six hours, a dynamic combination of energy, hard earned experience and technical brilliance, seasoned by the remarkable gift of jazz improvisation, had brought the compositions of Scott Willcox vividly to life in wonderful musical colours.

My thanks to Scott and Anne Willcox, the members of his Big Band and Andy Cleyndert.  I can’t wait to hear the finished result ‘on disc’, especially with the addition of Georgia Mancio’s gorgeous voice on ‘Listen Up’ and ‘Don’t Read My Lips’.


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