Saxophonist/composer Tim Whitehead, who appears above on video with an improvisation inspired by Turner’s painting of the burning-down of the Houses of Parliament in 1834, explains the background to a special celebration of ten years of Way Out West, at Cafe Posk on November 14th. Tim writes:
TURNER, WAY OUT WEST AND THE LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL
“…..that music sang the voice of truth, yet yearned for painting’s homely proof.”
wrote the great English painter JMW Turner. Music and poetry informed his work and filled the spaces in his sketch books not taken up with the 6H spidery pencil and stunning colour sketches.
I had felt a huge attraction to his work, particularly the late paintings and the watercolour sketches , known now as Colour Beginnings, which became the name of my project and the subsequent album when I was (musician) artist-in-residence at Tate Britain in 2009.
Turner grew up in Covent Garden with music and musicians all around him, and he loved it. I grew up with painting and music around me (mostly from my brother and his mates). Once he had mastered his craft, Turner’s chosen approach to his painting , was to “try things out” (his own words),to experiment, explore both techniques , as well as the inspiration driving his work. He studied landscape all over Britain and Europe till his final years , in pursuit of the expression of the sublime which he believed lay behind all art as well as the natural environment . His expressions in paint were not a representation of nature, they were a part of its evolution, in the same way that the best of jazz /improvisation is inseparable from the environment it’s played in. He was constantly exploring tonality in paint, which he equated in his Royal Academy lectures with tonality in music. So do I.
So, spontaneous improvisations in response to both the landscapes and his paintings had to be the route I took to respond to his work, then transcribe and embed them in the final pieces which became Turner And The Thames.
When I was invited to celebrate the 21st birthday of The London Jazz Festival in 2013 I sought out eight paintings by Turner of his beloved Thames. Over two glorious September days, I visited the sites he painted from, with film maker Mike Dibb (who has many brilliant films about music, including biopics of Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett) musician , producer and gifted editor Jon Hiseman, and recorded eight improvisations from which I wrote Turner And The Thames (there are more videos of those improvs on Youtube: Tim Whitehead/Turner and The Thames).
When I came to the end of an energized performance on a site opposite the Houses of Parliament, from where Turner colour-sketched it burning down in 1834, the fire alarm in St Thomas’s hospital behind us went off.
I got to the end of a soprano improv on the beach by Billingsgate Market just before the incoming tide engulfed the breakwater Mike Dibb was precariously balanced on to film me.The Gods have been with us.
Then we visited Tate Britain, and Mike and Jon recorded me playing further improvisations in front of the paintings, which will be woven into the existing work.
I’ve given “Turner And The Thames” to the membership of WOW to come up with their own arrangements for my quartet and The Way Out West Allstars to perform at Jazz Cafe Posk at The Polish Centre in Kings St Hammersmith, where we present a gig on the second Friday of every month.
In the enlarged ensemble we’ll be featuring some guests, including members of my quartet, Jonathan Gee on piano, Winston Clifford on drums and Oli Hayhurst on double bass, and Henry Lowther on trumpet.
As a footnote, its worth saying that other aspects of JMW Turner’s life impressed me as well as his work, and undoubtedly contributed to it. From a young age , and after an upbringing nurtured by his barber father in the rough end of Covent Garden, Turner made a very good living practicing his art. He never lost his cockney accent, nor his sense of the value of his work, both spiritually and monetarily,despite mixing with all strata of society, and despite sometimes ruthless campaigns denigrating it. And as he got older, his artistic vision became more acute.I think we would all aspire to that.