Preview/ Interview with Scott Stroman – As You Like It, Union Chapel, June 13th/ 14th

Scott Stroman

Highbury Opera Theatre (HOT)’s production of As You Like It, with music by Scott Stroman, will involve about 100 performers. It is directed by Bernie Moran and stars Grace Andrews as Rosalind, Robin Bailey as Orlando, Donna Canale as Celia, Robert Gildon as Touchstone and Jacques Verzier as Jaques. It will include the large choruses of Eclectic Voices and Highbury Young Singers

There will be three performances at Union Chapel on June 13th/14th as part of the Shakespeare 450. Andrew Cartmel talked to Scott Stroman about Shakespeare in jazz, and about the background to the forthcoming production:

Scott Stroman is a composer, conductor and trombonist who’s performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Cobham and Randy Brecker. His CV also extends to singing and extensive work as an educator. He currently directs the London Jazz Orchestra, teaches jazz arranging at the Guildhall and is the artistic director of Highbury Opera Theatre — HOT for short. His latest project brings together the diverse strands of his career in an ambitious jazz interpretation by HOT of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the Union Chapel in Islington.

When I asked him about his choice of Shakespeare as a subject, Scott laughed and said, “I’ve done collaborative things with dead people before. I’ve worked with John Coltrane (The Africa Brass Suite) and Duke Ellington (The Second Sacred Concert). And it’s the same thing here. I’ve tried to imagine what Shakespeare would have asked me to do — “Use your music to carry my ideas to another level.” And while I was cutting lines from the play I was always thinking, ‘Is my boss going to sack me for this?’ Since I can’t ask him I consulted experts.”

The production features a six piece jazz band on stage, consisting of Tim Wells on bass, Paul Clarvis on drums and percussion, Pete Hurt on saxophones and woodwinds, Stuart Hall on guitar and Sonia Slany and Nick Cooper on violin and cello, respectively. “Violin and cello give you an idea of the sound world,” says Scott. “Modern jazz meets William Byrd. It all started with a commission from Lord and Lady Salisbury to write a piece to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Elizabeth I coming to the throne. Lord Salisbury lives in Hatfield House where Elizabeth resided when she got the call to be queen. He thought I could come up with a piece that was modern but also fun and would have legs – it could live after the event. So we arrived at the idea of setting some of Shakespeare’s songs, and also involving William Byrd, who was Elizabeth’s favourite composer. And we ended up with a suite of songs blending those influences, but also modern and jazzy. We recorded the songs at Abbey Road with the original incarnation of our current jazz sextet plus a teenage choir and the choir Eclectic Voices, which I direct.”

“The Byrd influence works well with modal jazz, since the sound at his time was leaning towards the modal. Lots of jazz musicians were influenced by the 16th Century sound. George Russell, whom I knew, in a way quantified the beginnings of modal music in jazz. His contention was that we’d turned the wrong way in about the 16th century — away from natural modality toward functional tonality. His basic argument was that our home chord, the tonic, should actually be a Lydian chord. For an improvising musician like Miles Davis you begin to see this coming into their music. When George Russell started working with Bill Evans, musicians began to play sharp 11ths on major scales, something you didn’t really hear before that. Russell thought it was more natural. That’s why it’s easy to find these connections between William Byrd and, say, Pat Metheny or Bill Evans. For the modern jazz musician there’s a natural connection with the modal music of the 15th and 16th century. Of course, there’s plenty of jazz Bach around, but it’s easier go pre-Bach. In Byrd you’re in one key and a lot of the interest is going from major to minor, this is what drives the music and it’s what you do in modal jazz. What Miles does in Kind of Blue is explore how these different notes feel within the scale.”

There’s a long and honourable tradition of Shakespeare songs in jazz settings and Scott is well aware of them. “I worked with John Dankworth at the Guildhall and I wrote some arrangements of his Shakespeare songs for Cleo Laine. When I began my song project, I thought gosh, have I pinched some of his ideas? So I went back and listened to Shakespeare and All That Jazz, but it was okay!”

Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder was another milestone of Shakespearean jazz, although it didn’t involve vocals. “And also with Duke you never knew how much music he actually wrote inspired by the text and how much was attributed after the fact — like Harlem Air Shaft which began life as something else entirely with a completely different programmatic context. On the other hand Sonnet to Hank Cinq is absolutely based on iambic pentameter. In contrast John Dankworth certainly did specifically set Shakespearean texts, but more from a point of view of English pastoral music meets jazz.”

Other composers who’ve taken on the Bard include Britten, Vaughan Williams and George Shearing. “But most of the time they try to fit Shakespeare’s words to their music,” says Scott. “The text is set on top of the composer’s style, rather than trying to find inspiration and meaning in the words. I like all of these examples. They’re lovely, but they’re less about drawing out the meaning of the text. When I composed my Shakespearean songs I was trying to do something more directly driven by the text. Which set me up beautifully for As You Like It, because the drama of the text was already being displayed by the songs. So when we put them into a dramatic context, they already reflect what’s going to be shown on stage.”

And it was these dramatic songs that gave birth to the new Shakespeare project. “I noticed that most of the songs I’d composed came from As You Like It — naturally enough, because that play had more songs than any of the others. So I thought, there must be a reason this play has all these songs in it and I began to study the play and became infatuated with it. In my mind I started to concoct it as a musical. Bit by bit it began to form itself. The songs are in a different places than they were in the original, because Shakespeare used them as a commentary rather than to drive the drama forward — which is what you need in a modern musical and what we’re doing here. In Shakespeare’s day it was more like a masque, a musical break, perhaps not even related to what happened on stage.”

“So I had these songs and a play which is much too long, full of subplots and minor characters – Shakespeare had an entire company that he needed to keep employed — whereas I wanted something much more lean, with a clean story and a musical narrative from beginning to end, not just songs thrown in arbitrarily. If you’re going to put about an hour of music into a play that originally ran three hours and fifteen minutes, something has to go. So I was absolutely ruthless cutting down most of Shakespeare’s words and then working with a writer to smooth it out.”

“We’ve ended up with a two and a half hour musical in which we’ve eliminated subplots and combined some characters to create a strong simple storyline. The essence is still there, the story is the same, but this is our musical of As You Like It.”


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  1. Really enjoyed this intelligent and informative article on the background to Scott Stroman's new work, As You Like It. This is why LJN satisfies the parts…

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