Commissioned by Hamburg’s NDR Big Band to mark what would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday in 2010, composer Colin Towns has produced two hours of richly varied and imaginative music, going back as far as Rubber Soul (‘Nowhere Man’), but taking much of its material from Lennon’s post-Beatles output. This disc also marks a very welcome bounceback by the Provocateur label.
As with one of Towns’s previous NDR projects, Frank Zappa’s Hot Licks and Funny Smells, the arrangements use the original music as a springboard rather than as a strict blueprint, so that the thudding, slightly galumphing power of ‘Come Together’ becomes slinkily funky in Towns’s version, and both ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘A Day in the Life’ provide readily identifiable butsubtly customised platforms for a series of cogent solos from both NDR stalwarts (trumpeter Ingolf Burkhardt, saxophonist/flautist Lutz Büchner) and UK ‘guests’ (tenorman Alan Skidmore, drummer Gary Husband).
Lennon’s tunes, as Ian MacDonald points out throughout his (justly) celebrated study of Beatles recordings, Revolution in the Head, are generally less contoured, less overtly melodically various, than Paul McCartney’s, so lend themselves well to jazz treatments in which, their harmonies skilfully altered, or their rhythms slightly tweaked, they provide solid ground from which Towns’s striking, consistently original and intriguingly individual arrangements can take flight.
In a band so unfussily virtuosic and professional as the NDR, it seems almost perverse to pick out a particular player for special praise, but bassist Laurence Cottle‘s contribution throughout is simply exemplary; whether he’s providing lithe but solid propulsion in the material’s funkier moments or simply anchoring the ballads, he demonstrates all the power, sensitivity and experience upon which he has drawn over the years, both in his own big band and in others’ outfits.
Highlights of these two CDs include the suitably circusy swirling opener, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’, affecting visits to ‘Across the Universe’ and – something of a jazz standard these days – ‘Jealous Guy’ (both beautifully ornamented by Ingolf Burkhardt solos), and a touching finale, ‘Imagine’ (Lutz Büchner the soloist), but whichever Lennon tune they’re addressing, from ‘Cold Turkey’ or ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ to ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, Towns and the NDR bring commitment and class to it; Lennon (whose voice is heard at the beginning of Towns’s own ‘Time Waits for No One’, making a typically pithy statement about political engagement) would surely have approved.