|Derek Nash at a Previous Watermill Appearance in 2013|
Watermill Jazz in Dorking is celebrating 20 years of weekly live jazz this month by commissioning a piece of music from Derek Nash, leader of Sax Appeal. Kathryn Shackleton, Promoter at the club, quizzed Derek to find out how he approached writing the Phoenix Suite.
Kathryn Shackleton: When faced with writing a commission, how do you start?
Derek Nash: Specific situations spark me. With my Flatiron Suite, inspired by the Flatiron Mountains of Colorado, I was at a Conference on World Affairs which invites musicians from around the world to put together a concert from scratch in several days. The Flatiron Suite came out of being there, staying with a local family and being in a beautiful house with a grand piano and an amazing view of the mountains.
When you’re writing a commission you just have to start with a single piece and there is a wonderful moment when you’re composing where it just happens and there’s no other way that it can be but that way. But like an oil painting – when is it finished? It gets under your skin. I find myself singing into my iPhone at strange times of the day and night. I can’t always guarantee the idea will be there the following morning, so I like to capture it as quickly as possible. I know, though, on the rehearsal for the première the pencils will come out and something will get cut, a line will get moved or some notes will get changed. That’s all part of the process.
KS: What tools do you use when you’re composing?
DN: I work in 2 ways – on the piano, and with saxophone in hand. I always think that my ear gives me freer rein than playing on the saxophone, which can divert me to rely on sax-friendly fingerings. If I write in my studio, I can have the whole thing linked up to a keyboard so that I can hear all the parts as I go along. There is always the practical aspect of how the music you have written translates to the fingerings and range of each instrument.
Writing is a delightful, interesting and thoroughly distressing process, as you always hit a brick wall at some stage, although that hasn’t happened yet with the Phoenix Suite.
KS: When you first hear your new piece played live, is that a positive moment?
DN: Usually… Yes, usually it’s absolutely amazing to hear it come to life, but sometimes you think ‘No! I just have to change that immediately!‘
KS: Do you usually share the music with other people and bounce ideas off them as you write?
DN: Phil Scragg is the only other person who has heard any of the Phoenix Suite. I wanted to find out if the bass part was completely unplayable, so I shared it with him and he made a couple of changes to make it fit more naturally under the fingers. The first time it will be played in full will be in the rehearsal on the day of the première, but we may go over small parts of it as Sax Appeal get together at sound checks for other gigs, when I might record bits to check that it’s sounding OK.
KS: How did you approach ‘personalising’ The Phoenix Suite for Watermill Jazz?
DN: I’ve tried to focus on what was the most important moment for the club and its longevity – that it survived a complete disaster. The club’s original venue, the Watermill pub, burned down in a fire but the organisers of the jazz club managed to find a new venue close by in a matter of days, without jeopardising a single gig. So the suite is divided into 3 parts: The disaster itself, the devastation caused by the disaster, and the rebirth.
The first section is called ‘Spark’. It harks back to the inspiration and hard work of Ann Odell who set up the club all those years ago. Bob McKay’s piccolo will evoke the sparks. Sparks ignite the piece, which ends up at what you’d call a burning tempo. A lot of my influences come from seeing the Buddy Rich Big Band with their classic big band swing mixed with contemporary funk and fusion.
In the second section ‘Ghosts’ I wanted recognisable fragments of music to appear in a slightly distorted way. A couple of albums ago, Stan Tracey recorded an amazing version of ‘I Want to Be Happy’ and this inspired me to rework Stan’s idea in a minor key. This section is going to be hardest to play. It feels like it constantly floats, but on paper the time signatures go all over the place and it scares the life out of me! Stan Tracey was much loved by the club and had been booked to play in November, sadly just a week before he died. This acts as a small tribute to him, along with musical references to other great musicians who have played at Watermill Jazz in the last 20 years.
I’ve also used contrafact (taking the chords of an existing tune and making them into a new tune). The 32 bar sequence is going to feature 8 bars from 4 different tunes cascaded together. This will be a challenge for the blowers and hopefully the audience will recognise the hidden ‘ghosts’ of these tunes. Another ghost that will appear is based on a tune by Ronald Binge called ‘Watermill’. Ronald Binge also wrote the shipping forecast music ‘Sailing By’ played on Radio 4 which is very familiar to musicians driving home late from gigs. The third section is called ‘Celebration’
KS: Knowing who’s going to be playing in the band, do you write for them?
DN: I hesitate to make this comparison, but Ellington knew he had Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney and would write to feature their sounds, and I do the same. Scott Garland will always be acerbic and sinewy, so I will write something with a bit of tension for him and Simon Allen will be right in the pocket with a swing thing, with all his background with Stan Tracey.
However I write, though, the individual musician will probably find a better way of playing it – it might work better in groove and feel if a note is dropped or changed here or there.
KS: You have played at Watermill Jazz many times in different lineups. How does it help to know the audience that you are writing for?
DN: – In this case it gives me a lot of freedom because I know I can be diverse. The programming at Watermill Jazz is not just mainstream jazz, it’s also a mix of contemporary, folky and funky jazz, so the Phoenix Suite takes inspiration from the big band era, moody ethnic sounds and has a celebratory calypso-Latin-funk feel at the end, so hopefully it shows the diversity of the club by reflecting the styles of music that are played within its walls.
Kathryn Shackleton: Do you have any advice for people starting out writing a commission?
Derek Nash: Yes. Envelop yourself in the subject. Write down some words that act as a framework to the composition. As soon as you have a theme locked in place, improvise over and over with the theme in mind. Joe Zawinul used to do this, improvising and cherry-picking all the best bits to form the basis of a new work.
Derek Nash’s Phoenix Suite will be premièred at Watermill Jazz, Friends Life Social Club, Dorking on Thursday March 20th at 8.30pm by Sax Appeal.
Tickets available online HERE