by Ian Mann
March 22, 2017
One of THE jazz events of the year.
Julian Siegel Jazz Orchestra, Town Hall, Birmingham, 19/03/2017.
I have long been an admirer of the playing and composing of multi-reed player and composer Julian Siegel, whether fronting his own trios and quartets or co-leading the long running jazz rock titans Partisans in partnership with guitarist and composer Phil Robson. In addition Siegel is also an in demand sideman, whether as a guest soloist with small groups or as a skilled and versatile section player in larger ensembles, these ranging over the years from the BBC Big Band to Django Bates’ Delightful Precipice.
Siegel has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages appearing in a variety of contexts but the prospect of seeing this modest but hugely talented musician leading his own big band promised to be one of THE jazz events of the year.
The Julian Siegel Jazz Orchestra project began in 2016 when Derby Jazz approached the Nottingham born Siegel to write a commission to celebrate the organisation’s 35th anniversary. The initial idea had been for Siegel to compose a piece for his quartet but Siegel himself wished to write on a larger scale and with the support of Derby Jazz, the Arts Council of England and Anne Rigg of the Right Tempo organisation the Julian Siegel Jazz Orchestra became a reality.
Tonight’s performance was the last of a six date tour co-ordinated by Derby Jazz and featured a hand picked eighteen piece band featuring many of Siegel’s long term associates including Partisans drummer Gene Calderazzo plus pianist Liam Noble and bassist Oli Hayhurst from Siegel’s regular quartet.
The full line up was as follows;
Julian Siegel – tenor & soprano saxophones, bass clarinet
Stan Sulzmann – tenor saxophone
Tori Freestone – tenor saxophone, flute
Jason Yarde – alto & soprano saxophones
Mike Chillingworth – alto saxophone
Gemma Moore – baritone saxophone, bass clarinet
Tom Walsh, Percy Pursglove, Henry Lowther, Claus Stoetter – trumpets & flugelhorns
Trevor Mires, Mark Nightingale, Harry Brown – trombones
Richard Henry – bass trombone & tuba
Mike Outram – electric guitar
Liam Noble – piano
Oli Hayhurst – acoustic & electric bass
Gene Calderazzo – drums
The ensemble was conducted by Nick Smart, head of the Jazz Course at the Royal Academy of Music and an experienced band leader ( and accomplished trumpeter) in his own right. With the burden of the conducting duties lifted from his shoulders Siegel was able to focus on his role as a musician and was to feature prominently as a soloist during the course of the performance.
Self taught as a composer and arranger Siegel has had some previous experience of writing for large ensembles before including a joint commission with John Warren at Gateshead Jazz Festival in 2012 plus providing arrangements for the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) and the student band at the Guildhall School of Music. Nevertheless this tour was the first time that he had written and arranged so extensively for a large ensemble. The programme included scaled up arrangements of existing quartet and Partisans numbers plus the major new work “Tales From The Jacquard”, the piece commissioned by Derby Jazz, of which more later.
Initially I was a little disappointed to see that tonight’s event was being staged at the cavernous Town Hall rather then the smaller CBSO Centre. I’ve been disappointed by the sound quality at the Town Hall in the past, particularly at performances given by saxophonists Courtney Pine and Kenny Garrett. However both Pine and Garrett were going for a heavily amplified “rock” sound which just ended up sounding distorted and muddy. That said Marcus Miller later proved that a successful sound balance for an electric jazz band could be achieved at the same venue.
Mercifully, despite the sheer size of the ensemble, there were no such problems tonight with Siegel’s essentially acoustic Jazz Orchestra and the balance between the instruments and the different sections was admirably clear. Discrete miking was used but only Outram was actually plugged in and, in any case, he blended in well with the rest of the band. The overall sound was pleasingly good with Siegel acknowledging the role played by Paul Sparrow at the mixing desk.
Despite the fact that tonight’s event was a hugely significant one in jazz terms it’s a sad fact that ours is still a minority music and the circle and balcony of the Town Hall remained closed. However the stalls were almost full and the warm support of what was still a pretty substantial crowd was very much appreciated by Siegel and his colleagues.
The first set began with a big band arrangement of “Wise Child”, Siegel’s tribute to the great Wayne Shorter and a tune recorded on the 2005 Partisans album “Max”. It was both exciting and fascinating to witness pieces such as this re-invented for a large ensemble. Siegel himself led off the solos on tenor (he doubled on soprano during the ensemble sections) and he was followed by Chillingworth on alto and Outram with a stratospheric guitar solo. One wonders if Phil Robson would have been chosen for this band had he not taken up residence in New York City but it has to be said that Outram was terrific on the night, dovetailing neatly with the massed horn players and more than justifying his selection. There was also something of a drum feature for the excellent Calderazzo who was a prominent figure in the arrangements throughout the course of the evening.
A new tune, simply titled “Blues”, was ushered in by the contrasting sounds of Siegel’s soprano and Henry’s tuba and was subsequently driven by the rasp of Moore’s baritone allied to Calderazzo’s brutal drumming as Yarde on incisive, slippery alto and Mires on bold and brassy trombone acted as the featured soloists.
As Siegel began to introduce some of the band members it was clear just how much he was enjoying himself and his enthusiasm was infectious. Local hero Percy Pursglove got one of the biggest cheers of the night and I loved Siegel’s line about his fellow East Midlander Henry Lowther - “he leapt out of Leicester”, a jazz “in joke” that left the audience either amused or bemused in roughly equal measure.
After just two numbers it seemed to be a little bit early for Siegel to be announcing the final tune of the first set. However this was to be “Tales From The Jacquard”, the magnum opus commissioned by Derby Jazz. It was specified that the commission should have an East Midlands theme and Siegel chose that of lace making, a traditional industry in his native Nottingham and one in which his family were involved for over fifty years after escaping from Poland to the UK at the time of the Nazi atrocities. Already familiar with the lace making process they chose Nottingham as their destination and later ran a lace manufacturing business in the city’s lace market.
Siegel’s piece, essentially a suite, was inspired by the patterns on the hole punched Jacquard Cards that controlled the lace knitting machines. I remembered learning about the Jacquard Loom in O Level History many moons ago so I already had a vague understanding of the reasoning behind Siegel’s concept. Introducing the work Siegel explained that the patterns on the Jacquard Cards reminded him of musical melodies and rhythms. As if to emphasise the point an image of a Jacquard Card, looking remarkably similar to an early computer programme, was projected onto a screen behind the musicians and kept changing colour throughout the performance. A light show! At a jazz gig! Whatever next?
Although played straight through the work was divided into five clearly demarcated movements, the first of which began with the sampled sounds of lace making machines generated by Siegel’s on-stage lap top. As the factory noises subsided Noble’s solo piano intro introduced a contrasting sense of serenity. Noble was succeeded by a chorale featuring brass, reeds and arco bass with the focus on lower register sounds including the use of flugel horns and two bass clarinets. Eventually Hayhurst and Calderazzo instigated a groove that seemed to refer back to those sampled industrial rhythms and this provided the platform for a stunning flugelhorn solo from Claus Stoetter, the guest musician borrowed from Germany’s NDR Big Band, with whom Siegel has also played. Stoetter’s virtuoso excursions into the instrument’s upper registers were both hugely exciting and inherently graceful.
The second movement opened with Noble’s insistent piano arpeggios again approximating the sounds of manufacturing, these punctuated by staccato trumpet phrases and the brief dialogue between Siegel’s soprano and Freestone’s flute with the latter subsequently embarking on a full length flute solo.
Noble again provided the introduction to the third section which featured Brown’s imperious soloing on trombone and Sulzmann’s power and fluency on tenor sax before the entire ensemble coalesced for a rousing big band climax.
However this was not the end as movement four began with an absorbing passage of solo pizzicato bass from Hayhurst followed by the return of the sampled factory sounds, these heralding the all encompassing power of the full Orchestra. Individual solos came from Lowther on trumpet and Siegel on tenor with Calderazzo again featuring strongly at the kit as the music built towards a crescendo.
The shorter fifth and final section acted as a type of coda and was a richly textured chorale for horns, brass and bowed bass that mirrored a similar passage in the opening movement.
I was very impressed with “Tales From The Jacquard”, a piece written specifically for this line up and one which worked remarkably well. The arrangements were more spacious than those for the scaled up small group pieces, which sometimes felt overly busy and complex in this context.
Set two commenced with “MamaBadgers”, the big band arrangement of the tune “MBadgers” from the 2009 Partisans album “By Proxy”. “MamaBadgers” was subsequently recorded by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra for their album “NYJO 50” celebrating NYJO’s golden jubilee. With Hayhurst switching to electric bass tonight’s performance was distinguished by its rapid fire riffs and grooves and fiery solos, these kicked off by the tenor/alto duel between Siegel and Yarde and followed by more conventional features for Nightingale on trombone and Outram on guitar.
This was followed by a new tune called “The Goose”, the title presumably a reference to Nottinngham’s historic Goose Fair. This agreeably quirky piece featured solos from Sulzmann on tenor, Noble on flowingly expansive piano and the excellent Chillingworth on McLean like alto. Finally we heard from Hayhurst again on double bass.
The ballad “Song” saw Calderazzo switching to brushes for the first time and featured warm toned solos from Nightingale on trombone and Pursglove on flugel plus a cameo from Siegel himself on tenor.
“The Missing Link” is a Partisans tune dating all the way back to 2000 and the seminal “Sourpuss” album. Tonight’s arrangement began with an unexpectedly sumptuous chorale featuring the trumpet and trombone sections before changing course and taking flight with a blazing Stoetter trumpet solo, a marathon excursion on tenor from Siegel and a volcanic closing drum feature from Calderazzo.
“Interlude” began with what Siegel described as a “bass off”, a delightful and subtle exchange of low end sounds between the leader on bass clarinet, Moore on baritone sax and Henry on tuba, their lines intertwining in beguiling fashion. Later Yarde’s alto solo injected an element of humour and he was followed by Freestone on muscular tenor and Noble at the piano.
The deserved encore was an arrangement of the late Cedar Walton’s “Fantasy in D”, a tune recorded by Siegel on his excellent quartet album “Urban Theme Park”. Lead trumpet Tom Walsh was finally given his head as he traded solos with Lowther and the pair were followed by Mires on trombone. Siegel and Sulzmann then exchanged pleasantries on twin tenors prior to a final drum salvo from the irrepressible Calderazzo. Great stuff.
Siegel hopes to record the Orchestra at some point in the future, let’s hope he’s successful in fulfilling that wish. In the meantime BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now programme will broadcast a recording of the Orchestra’s Nottingham concert at 11.00 pm on the evening of Monday 3rd April 2017. Don’t miss this, on the evidence of tonight’s performance it should be essential listening.
Perhaps Auntie Beeb could be persuaded to release the tapes to Siegel to make a live album if he can’t get the band into a studio. There is a precedent with the Troykestra “Live At Cheltenham Jazz Festival” album after all.