Ijeoma Azubuike spoke to Gary Crosby for LondonJazz about Crosby’s new project, which blends the music of Bob Marley’s first album Catch a Fire with Crosby’s exciting and varied arrangements of it.
Gary Crosby OBE is Artistic Director of Tomorrow’s Warriors and Dune Music, producers of the new Lively Up! Festival – an ambitious nationally touring festival that kicked off in Nottingham on 28 September. Gary is also the founder and bandleader of the award-winning Jazz Jamaica All Stars. He talked to LondonJazz about the inspiration and motivation behind his reworking of Bob Marleys seminal first album Catch A Fire (featuring tracks like Concrete Jungle, Stir It Up, and No More Trouble and bringing reggae to international acclaim) for the Lively Up! Festival.
LondonJazz: What was the thinking behind your re-imagining of Bob Marley And The Wailers’ Catch A Fire album, and why now?
Gary Crosby: Well, it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for years. I love their music but have always felt the unique production of this album and the sound it created lent itself to a big band or orchestral treatment. It’s a classic album, one that has stood the test of time – and it’s important because it was the album that introduced Bob Marley and the Wailers to the world. It took reggae into colleges and university campuses around the UK, and popularised the music making Bob Marley and The Wailers Jamaica’s first global superstars.
Also, if you listen to the lyrics of this album, they are still very relevant today. They reflect the views of the disenfranchised, or those who feel they have no voice. It was groundbreaking in that it managed to be commercial and political at the same time. It was iconic in that it was the first reggae concept album.
As for the timing of this project, 2012 marks 50 years of Jamaican Independence and so, being of Jamaican heritage, we wanted to mark this landmark anniversary by celebrating some of Jamaica’s most important cultural icons. Bob Marley and the Wailers seemed like a good place to start as they have universal appeal. We’re also celebrating Joe Harriott, the great free form jazz pioneer who was also from Jamaica.
LJ: Who are you working with on the Catch A Fire project?
GC:The core band is Jazz Jamaica All Stars, essentially Jazz Jamaica enlarged to big band format. I always wanted to take the music of my heritage and place it in a big band context performing in prestigious venues. Jazz Jamaica All Stars has enabled me to do that.
For Catch a Fire I’d always imagined strings with my big band so I invited the wonderful Urban Soul Orchestra led by Stephen Hussey (formerly of Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra) to augment the All Stars. Most of the musicians in Catch A Fire are either jazz or classically trained musicians with an understanding of the popular, classical and jazz music genres, and therefore have a good understanding of what I’m trying to create.
On backing vocals we have jazz vocalist (and 2012 MOBO award nominee) Zara McFarlane, Valerie Etienne and Rasiyah Jabari recreating the sound and vibe of Marley’s backing singers, the I Threes.
Joining the Jazz Jamaica family for the first time is the wonderful reggae vocalist, Brinsley Forde from Aswad. Brinsley is a personal friend and I felt instinctively that he was the right person for this project. He has an amazing voice and energy, plus he has a personal connection with many of the people involved in the making of this album including Bob Marley and Tony Platt (Tony mixed Aswad’s first album). He’s also a great and hugely charismatic performer with an instinctive feel for the music, and has proved incredibly popular with the audiences we’ve had so far.
As for the music, there has only ever been one person in the running for this commission and that is the wonderful saxophonist and Tomorrow’s Warriors alumnus, Jason Yarde. We’ve applied jazz composition techniques similar to those you might find with Duke Ellington and Gil Evans and, where we can, have extended the harmonies and expanded the orchestration to create serious reggae music with a big band feel.
I’m pleased to have my friend, trumpeter Kevin Robinson back with us as Musical Director and conductor.
LJ: You wanted to involve the community in the Lively Up! Festival. How have you done this?
GC: I have always wanted to hear Bob Marley and The Wailers sung by a choir, and we are privileged to have some wonderful choirs performing part of the set with us in four of our tour cities – Gang Of Angels in Nottingham, Voicelab in London, Town Hall Gospel Choir in Birmingham and Amika Choir in Leicester. Each brings yet another dimension to the music, and each is of course different. For example we had eight awesome voices in Nottingham, but in London the Voicelab choir is 70+ strong so we’ll have at last 100 people on stage! But regardless of the size of the choir, having those additional voices with the enlarged ensemble helps us take the music to a whole new level altogether. It’s exciting. It’s wonderful in fact!
Two of our other events in the Lively Up! Festival offer opportunities for the community to participate. There’s Steppin’ Over with Tomorrow’s Warriors, JazzCotech Dancers and the newly crowned Calypso Monarch, Sheldon Skeete – this is a family-friendly event in tribute to the Windrush generation and the great calypsonian, Lord Kitchener who, although not a Jamaican, had a great impact during his time on the island. And Mango Spice is an interactive event with the Jazz Jamaica Family Fun Club featuring Jamaican folksongs and ring games for the whole family. We’re trying to reach as many communities as possible and introduce them to jazz in a new and different way.
LondonJazz: You performed Catch a Fire in Nottingham for the first time recently how did it go?
Gary Crosby: It was just fantastic! And such great fun. The first concert on a new tour is always difficult and nerve-racking in the lead up to the gig, but once it’s up and running, you get a huge release – physically and emotionally. It was a great audience in Nottingham, the atmosphere was electric, with everybody singing along, shouting requests and at the end, everybody was on their feet dancing and asking for more. Lots of people came to see us afterwards and said how much they enjoyed it, so that was really encouraging.
Fri 12-Oct Southampton Guildhall
Sat 13-Oct Birmingham Birmingham Town Hall
Wed 24-Oct London Queen Elizabeth Hall at Southbank Centre
Fri 26-Oct Leeds Leeds Town Hall
Wed 31-Oct Leicester De Montfort Hall
Fri 2-Nov Edinburgh Usher hall