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Graham Collier - directing 14 Jackson Pollocks Rating: 3-5 out of 5 Challenging large ensemble music that strikes a fine balance between structure and freedom. This is music full of interesting ideas and some great playing

This self released double CD by the veteran British jazz composer Graham Collier (b.1937) is a fascinating glimpse at a distinguished jazz career. One time bassist Collier is now best known as a composer and educator (the legendary Loose Tubes developed out of one of his student bands) with a penchant for writing for large ensembles. Most of this album deploys a 14 piece band hence Gill Fisher’s remark “it was a bit like someone directing 14 Jackson Pollocks” that gave the album it’s title.
The first CD is entitled “Forty Years On” and features “alternative versions” of key pieces from Collier’s career in a live recording made in London in 2004. The Jackson Pollock thing is more than just a convenient title, it is Collier’s intention to give his musicians room to express themselves whilst at the same time respecting what has been written. His music is by no means an easy listen, his voicings are unusual and often challenging but there is much to reward the attentive listener. Collier’s music is fiercely individualistic inviting comparisons with the likes of Charles Mingus and Carla Bley. He has been a key figure in the development of the British modern and avant garde scenes.

The band which Collier assembled for the 2004 performance included long term Collier associates such as Harry Beckett (trumpet/flugel), Roger Dean (piano),Chris Biscoe and Art Themen (reeds)  plus Ed Speight (guitar) alongside younger talents such as James Allsopp (reeds) and Alex Bonney (trumpet). The line up was completed by Geoff Warren (reeds), Steve Waterman (trumpet), Mark Bassey and Fayaz Virji (trombones), Gideon Juckes (tuba), Jeff Clyne (bass) and Trevor Tomkins (drums). 

Collier’s pieces often have perplexing titles. The album begins with “Between a Donkey and a Rolls Royce” which serves to introduce several of the voices of the band. Beckett is heard first followed by Allsopp’s dirty sounding tenor both punctuated by Dean’s Cecil Taylor-ish piano and Tomkins’ powerful drumming. Things build to a climax during Biscoe’s alto solo but the mood shifts abruptly for a lyrical passage from Waterman. Juckes’ and Bassey’s duet is more free and acts as a segue into the rousing “An Alternate Aberdeen Angus” which effects an authentic modern big band sound. This is stirring stuff with solos from Bassey, Beckett, Tomkins and Virji. These two pieces are typical Collier with their unusual instrumental colourings and combinations, sudden changes of mood and pace plus of course the carefully struck balance between structure and freedom. 
“An Alternative Ryoanji” opens with a feature for Roger Dean at the piano, alternately volcanic and lyrical, shades again of Taylor or perhaps the UK’s own Keith Tippett. He then combines with Geoff Warren’s wispy flute on a piece that appears to be predominately improvised. 

The following “An Interlude”  is a brief and tantalisingly spirited passage featuring the massed horns of the Collier ensemble which morphs swiftly into “An Alternate New Conditions, and some Out Blues”. This begins in quietly lyrical fashion with Ed Speight’s gently ruminative guitar discoursing gently with various horns. Biscoe’s alto solo is delightfully skewed and woozy contrasting nicely with the lush sonorities of the backdrop. Tomkins also features prominently in an engaging drum feature that is given added drama by the backing of the horns. This is another good example of Collier striking exactly the right balance between the written and the improvised.
“An Alternate Eggshell Summer” features sparkling dialogue between two of the ensemble’s younger members James Allsopp, here on bass clarinet, and trumpeter Alex Bonney but the contribution of the ensemble as a whole on this effervescent , celebratory piece is excellent. 

“Mackerel Sky, an alternate blues” opens with woozy, bluesy trombone from Mark Bassey, his huge sound sometimes reminiscent of Carla Bley’s trombonist the great Gary Valente. Guitarist Ed Speight also features prominently, he is a versatile musician who appeared in the bands of Ian Dury before becoming more involved with jazz.

Jeff Clyne is the featured soloist on the low register broodings of “An Alternate Low Circus Ballad” showing his inventiveness and dexterity on the double bass. The whole piece is sombre in nature with bass clarinet also featuring in the arrangement. The closing “An Alternate Third Simple Piece” emerges from this with Art Themen’s powerful yet idiosyncratic tenor taking the first solo as the band brews up a storm behind him. Steve Waterman’s trumpet eventually takes over for an equally virtuoso solo. By Collier’s complex standards this is indeed an essentially simple “blowing” piece with plenty of space left for these two brilliant soloists to do their stuff.

The same personnel remain in place for the first three tracks of the second CD. The first two pieces are part of “The Vonetta Factor” a new composition commissioned for Birmingham Jazz in 2004 and also given an airing at this London concert. “The Vonetta Factor” itself is a twenty minute plus epic that exhibits all of Collier’s virtues, tightly scored ensemble passages interspersed with spaces for the soloists to stretch out, often with minimal accompaniment. Collier’s love of low frequencies is borne out as Clyne and Juckes solo first. They are followed by a series of extraordinary barrages of almost “white noise” from Dean’s electric keyboards punctuated by rasping low register horns. Calm is eventually restored by Speight’s solo guitar and he is joined by flutes in an unexpectedly tender and lyrical passage from which Bonney’s eloquently mournful, Milesian trumpet subsequently emerges. After a brief linking ensemble passage Chris Biscoe takes over the solo duties on baritone, pushing deep into almost free jazz territory as the band drops out. Later trumpeter Harry Beckett features in exactly the same kind of exposed situation. “The Vonetta Factor” is a fascinating musical journey combining richly textured orchestral jazz with free improv minimalism, it’s not for the faint hearted but it is an absorbing and frequently thrilling experience for those that choose to take the trip.
“The Vonetta Conclusion”, scheduled here as a separate track is more of the same with trombonist Fayaz Virji and trumpeter Steve Waterman the featured soloists as the piece builds to a climax. Virji acquits himself in the now familiar exposed situation and Waterman contributes some stunning high register work as the band swirls around him. It’s heady stuff.
This particular line up sound off with “An Alternate Mackerel Sky” opening up with bass and keyboards before the horn soloists take over. We hear briefly from Virji then from Allsopp on bass clarinet, Beckett, Warren on alto and finally Themen on tenor. These solos are brief and pithy, in some cases almost cameos but this is an invigorating and relatively accessible way to sign off this part of the album.

For the remainder of this second disc we hear a different line up playing “The Alternate Third Colour”, a piece written to celebrate Collier’s sixtieth birthday in 1997. These tracks were recorded live in London in November 1997-this is not an album that runs in strict chronological order! A number of the players featured elsewhere on this CD were also around for this performance-Warren, Dean, Themen, Waterman and Speight. This particular line up also comprises of Simon Finch (trumpet and flugel), Karlheinz Miklin and Steve Main(reeds), Hugh Fraser (trombone),Oren Marshall (tuba), Ed Sarath (flugel horn), Andrew Cleyndert ( bass) and John Marshall (drums).
It’s a very similar instrumental configuration to that heard on the later recording and Collier’s deployment of their talents is broadly similar. These two recordings sit well together and make for a suitably homogenised collection.

“The Alternate Third Colour” is split into four movements. The opening “First Grooves” specifically features the “Low Horns” alongside solos from Dean on piano and Main on alto. A love of “low horns” can be heard throughout Collier’s music, working with a Collier band must be an interesting and enjoyable experience for trombonists and tuba players.

A recurring motif or groove runs throughout much of “The Alternative Third Colour” and is used in the intro to “Second Grooves”. This piece is more lyrical and brooding than it’s predecessor with Miklin the principal soloist, his tone choked and sombre.

“Third Grooves” picks up the motif again this time more stridently. The Low Horns including the extraordinary tuba player Oren Marshall are the first to feature followed by pianist Dean who makes an excellent and distinctive contribution throughout this double CD. As the piece builds in intensity there is a blazing solo from trumpeter Simon Finch and a surprisingly fiery contribution from Sarath on flugel.

The ensemble bow out with “Out Blues” introduced by Cleyndert’s bass and featuring solos from Hugh Fraser on trombone, Warren on soprano and the remarkable Marshall on tuba. Saxophonists Main and Themen also feature on this undulating blues whose apparently simple construction provides the framework for some characteristically inventive soloing.

Now in his seventies Collier lives in the Greek Islands but he has anything but retired from music. Always a deep thinker about the form he has recently published a book “The Jazz Composer-Moving Music Off The Paper” a philosophical look at the subject of jazz and jazz composition. The book, “directing 14 Jackson Pollocks” and much of Collier’s wide ranging back catalogue can be purchased from his highly informative website http://www.grahamcolliermusic.com
Graham Collier was awarded the OBE for his services to jazz in 1987.

“directing 14 Jackson Pollocks” is obviously a great souvenir for those who were at the performances documented. For the general jazz listener it’s something of a challenge but is full of interesting ideas and great playing. However sitting through both discs back to back may be a bit much. Nonetheless this is music that deserves to be heard, Collier has had a profound influence on British jazz and it’s good that so much of his work is still readily available.

directing 14 Jackson Pollocks

Graham Collier

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

3-5 out of 5

directing 14 Jackson Pollocks

Challenging large ensemble music that strikes a fine balance between structure and freedom. This is music full of interesting ideas and some great playing

This self released double CD by the veteran British jazz composer Graham Collier (b.1937) is a fascinating glimpse at a distinguished jazz career. One time bassist Collier is now best known as a composer and educator (the legendary Loose Tubes developed out of one of his student bands) with a penchant for writing for large ensembles. Most of this album deploys a 14 piece band hence Gill Fisher’s remark “it was a bit like someone directing 14 Jackson Pollocks” that gave the album it’s title.
The first CD is entitled “Forty Years On” and features “alternative versions” of key pieces from Collier’s career in a live recording made in London in 2004. The Jackson Pollock thing is more than just a convenient title, it is Collier’s intention to give his musicians room to express themselves whilst at the same time respecting what has been written. His music is by no means an easy listen, his voicings are unusual and often challenging but there is much to reward the attentive listener. Collier’s music is fiercely individualistic inviting comparisons with the likes of Charles Mingus and Carla Bley. He has been a key figure in the development of the British modern and avant garde scenes.

The band which Collier assembled for the 2004 performance included long term Collier associates such as Harry Beckett (trumpet/flugel), Roger Dean (piano),Chris Biscoe and Art Themen (reeds)  plus Ed Speight (guitar) alongside younger talents such as James Allsopp (reeds) and Alex Bonney (trumpet). The line up was completed by Geoff Warren (reeds), Steve Waterman (trumpet), Mark Bassey and Fayaz Virji (trombones), Gideon Juckes (tuba), Jeff Clyne (bass) and Trevor Tomkins (drums). 

Collier’s pieces often have perplexing titles. The album begins with “Between a Donkey and a Rolls Royce” which serves to introduce several of the voices of the band. Beckett is heard first followed by Allsopp’s dirty sounding tenor both punctuated by Dean’s Cecil Taylor-ish piano and Tomkins’ powerful drumming. Things build to a climax during Biscoe’s alto solo but the mood shifts abruptly for a lyrical passage from Waterman. Juckes’ and Bassey’s duet is more free and acts as a segue into the rousing “An Alternate Aberdeen Angus” which effects an authentic modern big band sound. This is stirring stuff with solos from Bassey, Beckett, Tomkins and Virji. These two pieces are typical Collier with their unusual instrumental colourings and combinations, sudden changes of mood and pace plus of course the carefully struck balance between structure and freedom. 
“An Alternative Ryoanji” opens with a feature for Roger Dean at the piano, alternately volcanic and lyrical, shades again of Taylor or perhaps the UK’s own Keith Tippett. He then combines with Geoff Warren’s wispy flute on a piece that appears to be predominately improvised. 

The following “An Interlude”  is a brief and tantalisingly spirited passage featuring the massed horns of the Collier ensemble which morphs swiftly into “An Alternate New Conditions, and some Out Blues”. This begins in quietly lyrical fashion with Ed Speight’s gently ruminative guitar discoursing gently with various horns. Biscoe’s alto solo is delightfully skewed and woozy contrasting nicely with the lush sonorities of the backdrop. Tomkins also features prominently in an engaging drum feature that is given added drama by the backing of the horns. This is another good example of Collier striking exactly the right balance between the written and the improvised.
“An Alternate Eggshell Summer” features sparkling dialogue between two of the ensemble’s younger members James Allsopp, here on bass clarinet, and trumpeter Alex Bonney but the contribution of the ensemble as a whole on this effervescent , celebratory piece is excellent. 

“Mackerel Sky, an alternate blues” opens with woozy, bluesy trombone from Mark Bassey, his huge sound sometimes reminiscent of Carla Bley’s trombonist the great Gary Valente. Guitarist Ed Speight also features prominently, he is a versatile musician who appeared in the bands of Ian Dury before becoming more involved with jazz.

Jeff Clyne is the featured soloist on the low register broodings of “An Alternate Low Circus Ballad” showing his inventiveness and dexterity on the double bass. The whole piece is sombre in nature with bass clarinet also featuring in the arrangement. The closing “An Alternate Third Simple Piece” emerges from this with Art Themen’s powerful yet idiosyncratic tenor taking the first solo as the band brews up a storm behind him. Steve Waterman’s trumpet eventually takes over for an equally virtuoso solo. By Collier’s complex standards this is indeed an essentially simple “blowing” piece with plenty of space left for these two brilliant soloists to do their stuff.

The same personnel remain in place for the first three tracks of the second CD. The first two pieces are part of “The Vonetta Factor” a new composition commissioned for Birmingham Jazz in 2004 and also given an airing at this London concert. “The Vonetta Factor” itself is a twenty minute plus epic that exhibits all of Collier’s virtues, tightly scored ensemble passages interspersed with spaces for the soloists to stretch out, often with minimal accompaniment. Collier’s love of low frequencies is borne out as Clyne and Juckes solo first. They are followed by a series of extraordinary barrages of almost “white noise” from Dean’s electric keyboards punctuated by rasping low register horns. Calm is eventually restored by Speight’s solo guitar and he is joined by flutes in an unexpectedly tender and lyrical passage from which Bonney’s eloquently mournful, Milesian trumpet subsequently emerges. After a brief linking ensemble passage Chris Biscoe takes over the solo duties on baritone, pushing deep into almost free jazz territory as the band drops out. Later trumpeter Harry Beckett features in exactly the same kind of exposed situation. “The Vonetta Factor” is a fascinating musical journey combining richly textured orchestral jazz with free improv minimalism, it’s not for the faint hearted but it is an absorbing and frequently thrilling experience for those that choose to take the trip.
“The Vonetta Conclusion”, scheduled here as a separate track is more of the same with trombonist Fayaz Virji and trumpeter Steve Waterman the featured soloists as the piece builds to a climax. Virji acquits himself in the now familiar exposed situation and Waterman contributes some stunning high register work as the band swirls around him. It’s heady stuff.
This particular line up sound off with “An Alternate Mackerel Sky” opening up with bass and keyboards before the horn soloists take over. We hear briefly from Virji then from Allsopp on bass clarinet, Beckett, Warren on alto and finally Themen on tenor. These solos are brief and pithy, in some cases almost cameos but this is an invigorating and relatively accessible way to sign off this part of the album.

For the remainder of this second disc we hear a different line up playing “The Alternate Third Colour”, a piece written to celebrate Collier’s sixtieth birthday in 1997. These tracks were recorded live in London in November 1997-this is not an album that runs in strict chronological order! A number of the players featured elsewhere on this CD were also around for this performance-Warren, Dean, Themen, Waterman and Speight. This particular line up also comprises of Simon Finch (trumpet and flugel), Karlheinz Miklin and Steve Main(reeds), Hugh Fraser (trombone),Oren Marshall (tuba), Ed Sarath (flugel horn), Andrew Cleyndert ( bass) and John Marshall (drums).
It’s a very similar instrumental configuration to that heard on the later recording and Collier’s deployment of their talents is broadly similar. These two recordings sit well together and make for a suitably homogenised collection.

“The Alternate Third Colour” is split into four movements. The opening “First Grooves” specifically features the “Low Horns” alongside solos from Dean on piano and Main on alto. A love of “low horns” can be heard throughout Collier’s music, working with a Collier band must be an interesting and enjoyable experience for trombonists and tuba players.

A recurring motif or groove runs throughout much of “The Alternative Third Colour” and is used in the intro to “Second Grooves”. This piece is more lyrical and brooding than it’s predecessor with Miklin the principal soloist, his tone choked and sombre.

“Third Grooves” picks up the motif again this time more stridently. The Low Horns including the extraordinary tuba player Oren Marshall are the first to feature followed by pianist Dean who makes an excellent and distinctive contribution throughout this double CD. As the piece builds in intensity there is a blazing solo from trumpeter Simon Finch and a surprisingly fiery contribution from Sarath on flugel.

The ensemble bow out with “Out Blues” introduced by Cleyndert’s bass and featuring solos from Hugh Fraser on trombone, Warren on soprano and the remarkable Marshall on tuba. Saxophonists Main and Themen also feature on this undulating blues whose apparently simple construction provides the framework for some characteristically inventive soloing.

Now in his seventies Collier lives in the Greek Islands but he has anything but retired from music. Always a deep thinker about the form he has recently published a book “The Jazz Composer-Moving Music Off The Paper” a philosophical look at the subject of jazz and jazz composition. The book, “directing 14 Jackson Pollocks” and much of Collier’s wide ranging back catalogue can be purchased from his highly informative website http://www.grahamcolliermusic.com
Graham Collier was awarded the OBE for his services to jazz in 1987.

“directing 14 Jackson Pollocks” is obviously a great souvenir for those who were at the performances documented. For the general jazz listener it’s something of a challenge but is full of interesting ideas and great playing. However sitting through both discs back to back may be a bit much. Nonetheless this is music that deserves to be heard, Collier has had a profound influence on British jazz and it’s good that so much of his work is still readily available.


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