by Ian Mann
January 23, 2019
His most ambitious project yet and an obvious labour of love, “Days On Earth” is shaping up to be a triumph for Lockheart.
“Days On Earth”
(Edition Records EDN 1120)
Saxophonist and composer Mark Lockheart first came to prominence in the late 1980s as a member of the anarchic, but brilliant, Loose Tubes. Since those heady, far off days he has made the transition from ‘young Turk’ to comparative ‘elder statesman’, enjoying a distinguished musical career along the way.
Since the initial demise of Loose Tubes in the early 1990s (Lockheart rejoined the band for the 2014 reunion gigs) the saxophonist worked with Django Bates’ Delightful Precipice, played in a duo with former Tubes guitarist John Parricelli and formed the collaborative Perfect Houseplants quartet with pianist Huw Warren, bassist Dudley Phillips and drummer Martin France. A much loved institution in their own right the Houseplants merged jazz, folk and classical influences and released a series of acclaimed albums between 1993 – 2000. They, too, have played reunion shows in recent years.
In 2003 Lockheart became a member of drummer and composer Sebastian Rochford’s ground breaking Polar Bear group, appearing on all six of the band’s albums.
At the same time he was conducting a parallel solo career, initially with the twelve piece Scratch Band with whom he released the albums “Through Rose Coloured Glasses” (1998) and “Imaginary Dances” (2002). “Moving Air” (2005) and the excellent “In Deep” (2009) were small group recordings, both of which have been reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann.
Currently Lockheart is a member of the collaborative drummer-less trio Malija alongside bassist Jasper Hoiby and pianist Liam Noble, this group having released two albums to date, “The Day I Had Everything” (2015) and “Instinct” (2017).
Lockheart has also worked extensively as a sideman and session musician, across a variety of genres including jazz, folk, pop and rock. He and Warren worked closely with the folk singer June Tabor for many years and Lockheart’s pop and rock credits include work with Radiohead, Stereolab, Prefab Sprout, Jah Wobble, The High Llamas and more.
As his work with Scratch Band suggested Lockheart has always relished working with larger ensembles and the album “Days Like These” (2010) saw his compositions performed by Germany’s acclaimed NDR Big Band. Meanwhile “Ellington In Anticipation” featured radical new arrangements of the Duke’s work for a hand picked septet.
“Days On Earth” represents Lockheart’s most ambitious project to date and is a seven movement suite written for a core jazz sextet plus a thirty piece orchestra conducted by John Ashton Thomas.
The core group mainly features musicians with whom Lockheart has enjoyed long associations and includes John Parricelli on guitar, Liam Noble on piano and the Polar Bear rhythm section of Tom Herbert (bass) and Sebastian Rochford (drums). Lockheart specialises on tenor sax throughout while on alto is rising star Alice Leggett. Lockheart is an acclaimed jazz educator and Leggett, a graduate of the Trinity Laban College of Music in London, where Lockheart teaches, is one of his former students.
The orchestra is conducted by Lockheart’s old college friend John Ashton Thomas, a Hollywood film conductor and orchestrator. It includes a number of leading British jazz musicians alongside respected classical performers and lines up as follows;
Violins – Jackie Shave (leader), Warren Zielinski, Rita Manning, Tom Pigott-Smith, Magnus Johnston, Marije Johnston, Katherine Shave, Patrick Kiernan, Shlomy Dobrinsky, Tom Crehan, Ruth Ehrlich, William Hillman, Matthew Ward
Violas – Bruce White, Oli Langford, Clare Finnimore, Paul Cassidy, Ruth Gibson
Cellos – Caroline Dearnley, Jonathan Tunnell, Jacqueline Thomas, David Daniels
Harp – Helen Tunstall
Clarinet – Nick Rodwell
Clarinet / Bass Clarinet – James Allsopp
Flutes – Anna Noakes, Rowland Sutherland
French Horns – Jim Rattigan, Laurence Davies
Trumpets – Pat White, Toby Street, Laura Jurd
Trombone – Alistair White
Bass Trombone – Andy Wood
Classical players are frequently teamed with their jazz counterparts, e.g. Noakes and Sutherland on flutes and Rodwell and Allsopp on clarinets.
The album was recorded in December 2017 at Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler’s British Grove Studios in London. However the seeds of the project had been sown more than twelve months earlier when Lockheart, plus the members of the sextet and the orchestral players of the Trinity Laban ‘Shapeshifters’ ensemble premièred a new work then titled “Brave World” at the Clore Ballroom in the Southbank Centre as part of the 2016 EFG London Jazz Festival. Here are my observations of the occasion;
“I was impressed by Lockheart’s writing and playing and the way in which he merged the various jazz and classical elements. Given the setting in which it was performed I found the whole suite very enjoyable but surely a major work of this magnitude and gravitas should have been premièred in a concert hall and not a foyer. This was music that deserved better”.
The “Brave World” title lives on as the name of the second movement of Lockheart’s suite. Meanwhile the new title “Days On Earth” is a reflection of Lockheart’s time on the planet and he views the work as “a musical observation of the human condition”, one which combines personal experiences with social and political commentary. In the album’s liner notes Lockheart comments;
“Music is intrinsically connected to life, love, joy, frustration, acceptance and peace, and all these feelings are here in this music for me”.
As the mix of classical and jazz players within the orchestra suggests Lockheart’s range of influences is broad and includes composers and arrangers such as Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Nelson Riddle, Raymond Scott, Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Burt Bacharach, John Adams, Don Ellis, John Zorn and Clare Fischer. Lockheart has worked extensively with the contemporary classical composer Mark Anthony Turnage, who represents a significant inspiration, as does Lockheart’s work with Rochford and Polar Bear.
The title of each movement is followed by a sub title in parenthesis that references a specific human trait or tendency. The album commences with “A View From Above (openness)” which establishes the ensemble sound with lush orchestration combining with the subtle rhythms of the jazz sextet. The music is rich in terms of colour and texture with Allsopp’s bass clarinet a significant presence in the arrangement. The designated soloist here is Lockheart himself on fluent tenor, but as the ensuing pieces reveal the album is far more than a concerto for tenor saxophone with jazz sextet and orchestra.
“Brave World (our fragile world)” offers a musical comment on the state of the environment as lush strings combine with deep sonorities, with double bassist Tom Herbert emerging as the featured soloist.
The piece segues into “This Much I Know Is True (adoration)” which draws on the legacy and influence of Lockheart’s former group Polar Bear. The music is centred around Herbert’s recurring bass motif as Lockheart and Leggett combine in an echo of Polar Bear’s vaunted twin tenor front line (Lockheart and Pete Wareham). Lockheart takes the first solo here, stretching out expansively on tenor, his forthright sound on the instrument cushioned by underpinning strings and woodwind. Parricelli, an integral presence throughout the album, also impresses with a fluid and tasteful electric guitar solo.
“Party Animal (innate tendencies)” introduces a funkier, Latin-esque element to the proceedings. Lockheart has long been an admirer of the string and brass sounds on old Motown records and there’s something of that here, and again on the following track “Believers”. “Party Animal” also has something of a film soundtrack or cop show theme feel about it and the roll call of soloists is also expanded with cameos from Sutherland on flute, Jurd on trumpet, Leggett on alto, Lockheart and tenor and Noble at the piano. However it’s not all big band style hedonism, there are more intimate and reflective moments too.
“Believers (fundamentalism)” once bore the title “Brave World” and tackles the thorny subject of political and religious extremism and those who fail to question their beliefs. Parricelli’s guitar work takes on a harder edge here as he provides an extended solo. Indeed the arrangement itself is darker than that of “Party Animal” with Rochford’s implacable, militaristic drum grooves providing an unstoppable momentum. Leggett impresses on incisive alto as she takes the second main solo.
After the sound and fury of “Believers” the following piece, “Triana (acceptance)” pours oil on troubled waters, acting as a soothing balm. Nevertheless this is still music of substance, subtly and successfully synthesising jazz and classical components as the keening clarity of Jackie Shave’s violin combines with the warm sound of Lockheart’s tenor and the lyricism of Noble’s piano in a beautiful pastoral style arrangement.
The closing “Long Way Gone (reconciliation)” is “inspired by Ishmael Beah’s harrowing but inspiring book about a child soldier in Sierra Leone”. The music here references the lilting kora melodies of West African music with Rochford’s drums and percussion bringing an authentically African feel to the proceedings, together with Tunstall’s harp which approximates the sound of the kora. The orchestration is rich and stirring and there are cameos, and sometimes more substantial solos, from Herbert, Noble, Lockheart, Rodwell and Jackie Shave. Noble’s flowing piano solo is particularly expansive as is Lockheart’s uplifting excursion on tenor.
An obvious labour of love “Days On Earth” has been well received by the critical fraternity and is shaping up to be a triumph for Lockheart. The promise of that 2016 Clore Ballroom performance has been captured on disc and it is appropriate that the album should be released on Edition Records, a label that embraces both the jazz and classical traditions and with whom Lockheart has enjoyed a long and productive association.
The leader impresses with his composing and arranging, particularly as this is the first time he has written for strings. I’ll admit that there were occasions when I found the strings a little too cloying but in the main Lockheart is to be congratulated on the successful blending of the classical element with his many other musical influences. The well balanced, hand picked jazz sextet, mainly comprised of long term associates, is superb throughout and there is some sublime playing from all the individual musicians, not least Lockheart himself.
“Days On Earth” embraces a wide range of musical styles and Lockheart and the production team, headed by Steve Baker, are also to be congratulated on an excellent mix that convincingly brings the many components together to create a coherent and convincing whole.
“Days On Earth” was officially premièred at Milton Court Concert Hall, London on January 9th 2019 and the album released on January 18th. It is hoped that further concert performances of the work will take place around the UK later in 2019.
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