by Ian Mann
July 06, 2015
Ian Mann on this collaboration led by saxophonist Trish Clowes. An exploration of the interface where jazz meets contemporary classical music. Part of the 2015 Cheltenham Music Festival.
Emulsion Sinfonietta featuring Food, Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham, 04/07/2015 (part of Cheltenham Music Festival).
Saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes has been a fairly regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages since the release of her début album “Tangent” back in 2011. Originally from Shrewsbury but now based in London Clowes has always aspired to be more than JUST a jazz musician. Her three albums to date (all for Basho Records) “Tangent”, “and in the night time she is there” (2012) and “Pocket Compass” (2014) all contain elements of both jazz and contemporary classical composition with classical performers augmenting the jazz musicians who constitute Clowes’ regular working quartet (sometimes expanded to a quintet with the addition of pianist Gwilym Simcock).
Clowes’ mission to bring together the worlds of jazz and classical music helped to earn her the title of BBC Radio Three New Generation Artist for the period 2012-14, following in the footsteps of the similarly inclined Simcock. In 2012 she announced the first Emulsion Festival, a pioneering initiative that brought jazz and classical musicians together for a series of performances at the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston, London. The success of that first festival saw Emulsion II moving to Kings Place in 2013 and on again to the ultra hip Village Underground for Emulsion III in 2014. Support for these ventures has come from the PRS for Music Foundation, the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Arts Council England.
However Emulsion is more than just a series of annual festivals, it’s an ongoing project headed by Clowes and the contemporary classical composer Luke Styles and featuring a core of musicians drawn from both the jazz and classical spheres. Many of these musicians came together at tonight’s performance by the Emulsion Sinfonietta and they were joined by saxophonist Iain Ballamy and the Norwegian drummer/percussionist Thomas Stronen, the duo collectively known as Food.
Food played as themselves at Emulsion III and also guested with the Sinfonietta leading to an ongoing collaboration. Tonight’s performance put the focus on new music and included premiers of new works by Stronen and by the contemporary classical composer Joe Cutler alongside pieces by Clowes, Styles, Ballamy, composer Chris Mayo and Emulsion bassist Calum Gourlay.
The concert presented the pieces in a different order to that set out in the festival brochure, the publication having merely listed the night’s composers in alphabetical order. The evening began with Gourlay’s piece “12 Goats and Tigers” performed by a group consisting of himself on double bass, Clowes on tenor and soprano saxes, Alex Munk on guitar, Louise McMonagle on cello, Lauren Weavers on oboe and the mysterious Max on bass clarinet, seemingly a replacement for regular Emulsion member Tom Lessels. I didn’t catch his surname at the gig and thought he’d be easy to find subsequently on line but thus far he has proved to be very elusive! So Max he will remain for the rest of this review!
The Emulsion musicians were augmented by Stronen on drum kit. There were two sets of percussion on the stage, a regular drum kit plus a set of percussion that was very obviously Stronen’s with his trademark array of gongs, small cymbals, wood blocks and a huge bass drum. I’d been expecting Stronen to play in tandem with Clowes’ regular drummer James Maddren but instead Stronen moved between the two percussive set ups as the music dictated.
Gourlay’s piece set the tone for the evening, complex, constantly evolving music incorporating a wide variety of sounds and instrumental textures with the focus rarely on one particular instrument. The composer switched between arco and pizzicato bass, Clowes moved from tenor to soprano sax and delivered an incisive solo on the latter during the latter stages of the piece. That said jazz soloing in the conventional sense was virtually non existent, integrated ensemble playing was much more the raison d’etre here.
The next piece was written by Luke Styles, not present this evening but a key part of the Emulsion project. Styles spent three years as the Glyndebourne Young Composer in Residence and his work has embraced a broad swathe of the classical spectrum. At Cheltenham his piece “Chasing The Nose” contrasted the deep, woody, throaty sound of Max’s bass clarinet with the keening sound of Weavers’ oboe and also included something of a feature for Gourlay on double bass. Stronen’s distinctive, colourful drumming was more similar here to his work with Food or Meadow. Even without the aid of the electronics he brings to the Food duo the Norwegian has developed an idiosyncratic drumming style that is very much his own.
Clowes and Styles met when both were studying at London’s Royal Academy of Music. Clowes was on the Jazz Course but was always willing to collaborate with the classical students. She describes the Emulsion project as being about “like minded and open people who are resistant to pigeon holing”. The project actively encourages new works and the next piece was “Birchfield Close”, commissioned by Emulsion from the Canadian composer Chris(topher) Mayo. This was Mayo’s second version of the piece and the atmospheric performance combined McMonagle’s haunting cello meditations with the other worldly shimmers and resonances of Stronen’s gongs, the gentle chime of Munk’s guitar and Clowes’ breathy tenor sax. Ballamy had been added to the group by now and as Stronen returned to the kit drums things moved in a more conventional jazz direction with a solo from Ballamy on tenor sax.
The ensemble expanded even further with the introduction of Donald Grant on violin and Freddie Gavita on trumpet, on the face of it one classicist and one jazzer, but a glance at Grant’s cv suggests that the Inverness born musician is equally at home in the world of Scottish traditional music - resistance to pigeon holing indeed.
The enlarged group performed Stronen’s new work “Lemur”, an episodic piece that combined moments of dense rhythmic interplay (percussion, pizzicato strings, guitar, “pecked” horns) with more atmospheric passages featuring Munk’s ambient guitar washes. Ballamy moved between flute and tenor sax, delivering a typically eloquent solo upon the latter. Weavers’ oboe was given prominence in the tune’s closing stages, she’s also a featured soloist on Clowes’ “Pocket Compass” album.
Clowes’ own “Apple Boy” was written for Ballamy’s young son Charlie and was appropriately playful with features for Clowes on soprano sax, Gavita on trumpet and Ballamy on tenor sax. With Stronen at the conventional drum kit this was the closest we got to conventional jazz swing.
Cheltenham Music Festival and the Norwegian Embassy combined to commission a new work from the composer Joe Cutler who was present in the house and was seated next to Emulsion’s regular sound engineer Alex at the mixing desk. Both men acknowledged (separately) the audience applause encouraged by Clowes from the stage.
Cutler is a composer with the kind of broad outlook that is right in tune with the Emulsion aesthetic and he has written music across a variety of genres. He is currently Head of Composition at Birmingham Conservatoire where Clowes also has a part time teaching post. Cutler is also part of Nozferatu, a contemporary music collective that includes jazz saxophonist Finn Peters and percussionist Dave Price.
Cutler’s piece drew on an unusual source of inspiration - football. “Karembeau’s Guide To The Complete Defensive Midfielder” references the former Real Madrid and France midfielder Christian Karembeau and his feature of the same name on the URFA coaching website. Cutler, also a table tennis fanatic, likens the roles of players in a football team with musicians in an orchestra. It was perhaps appropriate that this was very much a “piece of two halves”, the first playful and rhythmic but with a hint of dissonance hinting at the “ugly side” of the “beautiful game”. Clowes soprano sax weaved a way through the opposition to set up a more atmospheric second section full of dark sonorities which paved the way for a Food set piece featuring Ballamy’s evocative tenor sax and Stronen’s distinctive and colourful percussion.
A change in the programme saw the Ballamy piece “The Man Who Knew Just Enough” replaced with the same composer’s “Chantries”. Before it was played Ballamy took the vocal mic to praise Clowes, his former pupil, for the energy, commitment and vision that she brings to the Emulsion project. The piece itself was the most melodic of the evening, refreshing both in its directness and in its simple beauty.
To be honest “Chantries” came as something of a relief after the complexity of some of the earlier material. I’m no stranger to challenging music but overall I did find that much of what we heard tonight was music to be admired rather than actually enjoyed. Memorable melodies were in short supply and although this was not a jazz gig as such there were few conventional solos and precious little swing. This was knotty, complex material that tested both players and listeners and it certainly took me out my personal musical comfort zone, perhaps no bad thing you might say. It’s arguable that with ten musicians on stage at some points, all of them playing different lines, there were just too many individual instrumental sounds jostling for the listener’s attention.
Overall this seemed more like a classical concert than a jazz gig, which probably explains why it was part of the Cheltenham Music Festival rather than its sister Jazz Festival which was held earlier in the year. I’ve enjoyed Clowes’ more orthodox jazz performances but found this music more difficult to engage with. Reviewing “Pocket Compass” for his Jazz Breakfast blog Peter Bacon expressed similar sentiments regarding Clowes’ music stating that he found it accomplished and clever but ultimately cold, which is exactly how I felt about much of tonight’s unmelodious, “butterfly” music that fluttered from flower to flower, genre to genre, but never seemed to settle anywhere long enough for me to get a handle on it. My problem, or that of the music?
In any event I’d certainly endorse Ballamy’s comments regarding Clowes - she’s clearly a musician who will continue to push at boundaries and attempt to break down barriers.
From Trish Clowes via Twitter;
Fascinating to read people’s reactions to our explorations?
We continue to evolve, question, and emulsify 😊 Never be afraid to take chances w what you put on a stage…
PS Bass Clarinetist was Max Welford, not sure why that wasn’t in the programme… http://www.maxwelford.com
although me & @chriskelly_bass think ‘mysterious max’ is a much better name 😉