(Guildhall School, Tuesday January 25th by John L. Walters)
Neil Ardley (1937-2004) brought an idiosyncratic compositional sensibility to the jazz orchestra, leaving a glittering legacy. He came to prominence as part of the fertile British jazz scene of the 1960s and early 70s, directing the New Jazz Orchestra (NJO) from 1964-69 and striking up strong working friendships with many of its best performers: Ian Carr, Jon Hiseman, Barbara Thompson, Norma Winstone, Dave Gelly and more.
Inspired by the examples of Duke Ellington and Gil Evans, Ardley sought to make music that combined the spontaneity of jazz improvisation with robust composition. He studied orchestration privately, which gave him some essential techniques, but as a composer he was largely self-taught – through long hours of study in the evenings and at weekends (while holding down a demanding day job as an editor for World Book Encyclopedia and Hamlyn), and on the NJO bandstand.
Jazz composition is frequently misunderstood and undervalued, even by those who love it. There are those who regard the solos as token blasts of virtuosity that decorate the gaps in the arrangements. And those who think of written charts as sliced bread for a ‘jazz sandwich’, whose value lies solely in its meaty improvised contents. But Ardley’s jazz scores were the real thing.
His NJO work was infused with a British, almost rural sensibility, spacious, tuneful and with a light touch, yet his ensemble writing could move from delicately textured voicings to a screaming wall of sound within a few beats. He rarely wrote conventional big band music or stayed within jazz conventions, yet he knew from Ellington that you had to know how a musician played poker (metaphorically, anyway) before you could write music for them: he always composed with friends in mind. He loved the way that strong personalities – Don Rendell, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Tony Coe – plunged deep into his charts, and many musicians have relished the way that Ardley’s long melodies and elegant backing figures wrap themselves around their contributions.
There are many good recordings of Ardley’s music worth tracking down (including Kaleidoscope of Rainbows, the Greek Variations and ‘Shades of Blue’ on the Rendell-Carr album of that name), but this is music that demands to be heard live. The music deserves new friends (and Ardley had a talent for friendship).
On Tuesday (25 Jan) in the Concert Hall at the Guildhall, a young, 20-piece band under Scott Stroman ’s direction will play five NJO scores composed or arranged by Neil, including an interpretation of Miles Davis’s Nardis, his celebrated ‘Le Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe’ (included in Gilles Peterson’s Impressed 2 compilation) and ‘Shades of Blue’.
The programme also includes music by Pete Hurt, Rufus Reid, Tony Haynes and Stroman, plus Ardley’s arrangements of Django (John Lewis) and Mike Taylor’s Half Blue / Pendulum.
Ardley’s scores, along with those of the NJO, are now in the safe keeping of the Guildhall School; Stroman aims to perform more of the NJO’s repertoire in the future, and eventually raise money to preserve this valuable legacy by entering the music into computer notation software.
Photos: (1) Neil Ardley at UK Electronica 1991. (photo credit: Peter Walker). (2) Neil Ardley and Ian Carr in 1997. (photo credit: Derek Drescher). (3) Neil Ardley at a recording session circa 1976.
Guardian obituary of Neil Ardley by Walters,
On The Edge column about Ardley’s final (2002) tour.
Mike Chadwick on the New Jazz Orchestra’s live Camden ’70 CD.