by Ian Mann
February 24, 2017
A thoroughly convincing synthesis of words and music, with poet, composer and musicians all integrating superbly to deliver a hugely satisfying and richly evocative piece of work.
Roger Garfitt / Nikki Iles / John Williams Octet
“In All My Holy Mountain”
(Re-stringing the Lyre Recordings RTL201601)
“In All My Holy Mountain” is a jazz and poetry suite featuring the words of poet Roger Garfitt and the music of pianist and composer Nikki Iles played by an ensemble led and directed by multi- reed player John Williams.
The work, inspired by the writings of the Shropshire novelist and poet Mary Webb (1881-1927), was originally commissioned in 1998 by the Arts Council of Great Britain with funding from Shropshire County Council Arts Service and was first performed in 1999 as part of the annual Music at Leasowes Bank Festival, an event that was curated for over thirty years by John and Frances Williams. Nine other performances of the suite followed including two in London at the Soho Jazz Festival.
The music was eventually recorded for CD release in 2015 and the album is dedicated to the late, great Jeff Clyne (1937-2009) who played the bass parts at the original performances. Thanks are also directed towards guitarist Phil Lee who also performed the material back in the day.
Recorded at Red Gables Studio by engineers Dick Hammett and Ken Blair the 2015 version of the ensemble was;
Roger Garfitt – Poet
Nikki Iles – Composer, piano, accordion
John Williams – Director, baritone sax, bass clarinet, recorder
Dick Pearce – Trumpet & flugelhorn
Pete Hurt – Alto & soprano saxes, bass clarinet
Bob Sydor – Flute, tenor sax
Karen Sharp – Tenor sax, clarinet
Dave Warren- Guitar, violin
Tom Mark – Bass
Trevor Tomkins – Drums, percussion
The suite is described as a “Celebration in Poetry and Jazz of the life and work of Mary Webb” and takes its title from a biblical quote; “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 11.9).
“In All My Holy Mountain” is part of a British ‘jazz and poetry’ tradition dating back to the 1960s when poets such as Christopher Logue, Laurie Lee, Ted Hughes, Dannie Abse and Adrian Mitchell collaborated with jazz musicians such as drummer Tony Kinsey, vocalist Annie Ross and particularly pianist Michael Garrick. The suite also follows in the lineage of previous Music at Leasowes Bank commissions which included new works from composers Neil Ardley and Eddie Harvey.
The six original pieces tell the story of Mary Webb with Garfitt’s liner notes shedding light on the inspiration behind each tune. The words recited by the poet combine his own writing with the judicious use of phrases from Webb’s original texts.
The album commences with “Westerly” as Garfitt’s words evoke the quiet beauty of the Clun Valley in rural South Shropshire and describe the changes in light and colour as a westerly air system moves in. Iles’ music is appropriately bucolic with warmly textured brass and woodwind including the sound of Sydor’s flute. Sharp on tenor sax and Pearce on flugelhorn are the featured soloists and both impress with their smoothness and fluency. Interestingly Iles’ melody also features in the repertoire of her band The Printmakers and was the title track of their 2015 début album, albeit with a different lyric written and sung by Norma Winstone and inspired by the book “Postcards” by the American author E. Annie Proulx.
“Listening for the Sedge Warbler” is another piece that expresses the love of the natural world, a love clearly shared by both Webb and Garfitt. The lengthy text cross references Webb’s own writing and uses many of her own phrases. Again the words evoke the sights and smells of the Shropshire countryside and the instrumental arrangement includes the distinctive sound of Williams’ recorder.
The text also alludes to Webb’s later sufferings from Graves’ Disease, a hyperthyroid condition that effected her eyesight and altered her appearance, engendering that the sounds of birds subsequently became more familiar to Webb than their appearance. It’s a sad, but in many ways uplifting, tale that is treated with both respect and humility by Garfitt’s words and Iles’ music.
“Fatherless” addresses the death of Webb’s much loved father, with the anger of physical decline and ultimate loss finding expression in Garfitt’s recitation, the final phrase of which is drawn directly from Webb’s own writings. The sound of bass clarinet adds a sombre musical voice but there’s an element of wistfulness and of the quiet celebration of a life that finds expression in the pithy instrumental solos from Iles on piano, Hurt on soprano, Warren on guitar and Mark on double bass. Interestingly this is the first piece where the words are recited ‘up front’ rather than being part of the fabric of the music, possibly a device designed to demonstrate how life carries on, even in the presence of death.
By way of contrast “The Wedding Breakfast” celebrates not only Webb’s own wedding but also her generosity to the poor of her Shropshire neighbourhood. Iles music expresses a gentle joyousness with Sharp, Warren and Hurt featuring as soloists. Again Iles’ tune was to gain a fresh lease of life and a new identity as “High Lands”, a song forming part of the Printmakers repertoire.
“The Haunting” addresses the horrors of the First World War with Garfitt quoting both Wilfrid Owen and Aneirin’s “The Gododdin”, a sixth century Welsh lament for men lost in battle. Garfitt’s words also allude to Webb’s novel “Gone to Earth”, which was first published in 1917. Descriptions of war are evoked, transposed against deeply resonant images of the traces the men left behind them in their never to be seen again homes in the countryside - “the ghost-cuts of their spades in the potato patch” etc. The music evokes something of the sadness and turbulence of the times via sombre textures, those bass clarinets again, and, fleetingly, freely structured, almost discordant playing. Iles features on accordion before moving back to piano for the final extended instrumental episode which includes a lithe, incisive soprano solo from Hurt, a plangent guitar solo from Warren and a drum feature from the excellent Tomkins who plays with great intelligence, precision and empathy throughout the album.
The final piece is “The Part Song”, inspired by Webb’s 1924 novel “Precious Bane” and the “part song” created by Webb for her character, Jancis. As Garfitt explains “I wanted to create a part song for Mary Webb herself, who was an apostle of love but died heartbroken”. Garfitt’s recitation is accompanied only by the sympathetic resonance of Mark’s double bass before the final instrumental episode, a kind of valedictory featuring a broad range of instrumental colours and textures from flugel to flute to guitar.
Living as I do in neighbouring Herefordshire this Shropshire themed album holds a particular resonance for me and I recognise many of the places described in Webb and Garfitt’s writings. Nevertheless I approached the recording with a degree of trepidation, music accompanied by a spoken narrative has never worked particularly well for me. I still recall with horror prog rock excesses like Rick Wakeman’s “Journey To The Centre Of The Earth” and Procol Harum’s “Something Magic” (it wasn’t!), an all advised then swansong for an otherwise excellent and still criminally underrated band.
That said I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this album, although the local connection obviously helped. Garfitt’s words are genuinely poetic, - rich and colourful, pithily descriptive and often highly emotive, but subtly so. His spoken delivery serves his text well and is skilfully blended with the music, a tribute to Iles composing and arranging skills. Under the directorship of Williams the musicians deliver some beautifully textured ensemble playing and it’s the overall sound that impresses most, despite the brilliance of some of the individual contributions.
“In All My Holy Mountain” represents a thoroughly convincing synthesis of words and music, with poet, composer and musicians all integrating superbly to deliver a hugely satisfying and richly evocative piece of work. I regret now missing those inaugural performances all those years ago, but it’s great to hear the suite captured on album at last. I appreciate that the mix of jazz and poetry won’t be to everybody’s taste but to these ears this work is among the best of its kind.
“In All My Holy Mountain” can be ordered online from;
http://www.restringingthelyre.wordpress.com for £7.50 post free