|Noel Langley at the Edentide recording sessions
Photo credit: Deena Ahmed
The phrase ‘first-call trumpeter’ could have been invented for Noel Langley. He is a ubiquitous presence and sound in top-flight bands and ensembles (the list is simply vast). Until now, he has never led a group in a live concert in his own name. The first public performance of his composition “Edentide” at the Cockpit is therefore a big occasion. He explained the background to Sebastian Scotney:
LondonJazz News: The big band trumpet section has become your home, your workplace, a familiar context to you. What kind of buzz is it, can you explain for people who haven’t experienced it first hand? Do you still love it?
Noel Langley: Playing in a big band is always an exhilarating experience, especially the sense of anticipation just before the downbeat. There is nowhere to hide and there is only one approach I know, 100% commitment, no room for self doubt, being totally in the moment, inhale fully and then attack. It is in these moments that I actually feel most confident and relaxed – which is far from my normal experience of life as I am by nature almost painfully shy and retiring.
It’s an incredible rush to be part of a team, to be a small cog in a giant machine which, when everything comes together, becomes so much more than the sum of its parts.
It’s all about timing really. My favourite situation is when I know the music inside out, so there are no issues regarding pitch or phrasing and I can close my eyes and try to use a kind of radar to hone in on the precise impact of the drummer’s stick on ride cymbal or snare drum. The drummer drives a big band and the trumpet section’s job is to colour the sound of the drums on those hits and accents.
It’s also lovely when you get to play a melody, soaring high over the great rich ensemble but again – without that support, without that musical context, this is a kind of playing that doesn’t come naturally to me – I just can’t do it on my own. It’s all about teamwork and respect – and yes, it’s something I still love.
I’ve been playing as part of a big band section, often leading, for over 30 years now starting with NYJO and the Guildhall School of Music Big Band, and then holding a chair with John Dankworth, Mike Westbrook, and Duncan Lamont. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have played with bands such as Loose Tubes, Julian Joseph, Hermeto Pascoal, Andrew Hill and more recently Troyk-estra and the Human Revolution Orchestra, as well as forming and co-directing the London Jazz Orchestra. I guess, as I reflect on this list, one thing these bands have in common is that they have all played new, contemporary music. These are not swing bands or dance bands but modern jazz orchestras, and that’s the great attraction for me – playing music generated and informed by the place and time I have lived in.
LJN: There’s a rumour that 28th September is your first ever gig as a band leader/solo artist. Is that true? What took you so long?
NL: Well – if we discount the LJO, which, although I founded the band, has become pretty much an organic entity in its own right, then yes – remarkably this is the case. I’ve not even done a gig at a local pub or wine bar under my own name before. I suppose it’s just that I never felt the urge until recently – that and a certain naivety about how things work. I may have felt, like all the other work that I’ve done, somebody would eventually invite me to put a band together. It’s the difference between being a creative musician and a craftsman, I suppose. For most of my career I’ve been using my skills and musicianship to bring other people’s visions to life; with the release of my album, I finally made a personal statement – revealed something of my essential nature to the world. It’s been a very steep learning curve and the next logical step is to take the music out to be performed live.
LJN: Stepping up/out as leader, it’s a big step – mostly joy/pride or mostly worry/fear?
NL: Huge excitement, and anticipation, with a sense of crossing a threshold into the unknown, accompanied by occasional bouts of fear and self-loathing, questioning my sanity and doubting my motives. It has taken a huge amount of absorbing and stimulating work to re-imagine this music for the new ensemble and I really don’t know how it will come across. Rehearsals have been very encouraging and that’s begun to settle some of my nerves.
Playing the music live will be taking me out of my comfort zone and remove me from the environment where I had a degree of control, the recording studio. I really want to make the live gig an immersive experience for the audience, perhaps challenging the usual expectations of a jazz gig.
I’m not trying to recreate the album precisely but there will be similarities in that the pieces will flow from one to another. Also, whilst I really stretched myself in terms of orchestration and arranging in producing Edentide, much of the material on the album was freely improvised. That will be the same on this gig so, whilst there is an overall structure, a plan, there is certainly a lot of scope for freedom and there is no knowing where the muse might take us on the night.
LJN: Where did the name Edentide come from, is there a “story-line” or programme?
NL: The short answer is that it came from an afternoon lying in my hammock, doing a spot of free word association, hoping to find a suitable title for the album.
It actually stems from a gag in the film, This is Spinal Tap, much beloved of session musicians the world over. One of the unfortunate drummers in the band reportedly died in a bizarre gardening accident – which later became code in the rock world for a massive drug overdose. One of my Facebook professions is listed as Bizarre Gardener and I was thinking about this when I formed the idea that the Bizarre Garden might be a neat simile for the Earth –the natural world distorted and twisted by human activities. I guess I have a love for nature and the majesty of creation and have a yearning for a return to a more natural time, Edentide – time to get back to the garden.
In terms of a programme or a theme, the album is in a way autobiographical in that the compositions span across several years, including some fairly turbulent times, broken marriages and recovery from addiction, finally coming to rest at a place of peace and resolution.
LJN: Our reviewer Andy Boeckstaens (he died earlier this year and we really miss him) wrote: “Michael Gibbs, Neil Ardley and Gil Evans are all in there…as is trumpeter Uan Rasey.” So the question is: Who was Uan Rasey and was Andy right about the others – are they the sound-worlds/influences you like to work with?
NL: I’m so sad to hear this news. I never met Andy, but he was very kind and supportive to me – I know he was hoping that I’d manage to take Edentide on the road and I’m really sorry he won’t get to hear the concert.
He was spot on with his observations, although comparisons with these giants do not sit comfortably with me – I am really very much the novice, never having studied composition or arranging. Anything I’ve learned has been by osmosis, through years of playing their music and listening hard to their craft, trying to understand the techniques they use to express and convey such deep emotions.
Uan Rasey was a trumpet player who basically invented the Hollywood sound, a master beyond compare, who was principal trumpet with the MGM Studio Orchestra throughout the golden years of the Hollywood musical. He became a household name in the USA after being credited as the trumpet soloist on the score for Chinatown but also played lead trumpet on hundreds of recordings, including Billy May’s Big Fat Brass, the first big band album I ever heard.
I was lucky enough to have a very precious trumpet lesson with him at his home in LA in 1994 and the simple and spiritual message he passed on to me at that time has been a huge influence on my playing, my teaching and my life ever since.
LJN: Who are your composing heroes?
NL: In terms of my composing heroes, I have to start with Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter – Weather Report was my portal into the world of jazz and thus began the continually unfolding odyssey of discovery as I made connection after connection, from one great musician to the next. Two other names I cannot leave out are Vince Mendoza – some orchestration lessons with him would be my ‘luxury item’ on Desert Island Discs – and of course the dear departed genius that it was my privilege to have known, Kenny Wheeler.
LJN: Who is in the band with you and what do they bring?
Alcyona Mick – astoundingly creative pianist and a wonderful composer in her own right. She seems to have a feeling for and an innate understanding of my music and an ability to make what I’m playing sound better.
Ralph Wyld – award winning vibraphone player just graduated from the RAM. I met him playing with Troyk-estra. He is a joy to work with and is incredibly versatile.
Charlie Pyne – she is a beautiful spirit and a super bass player. She also has a wonderful voice and will be singing some lines and maybe even a song… as well as nailing down some of my stupidly demanding bass parts. All the while wearing the most infectious smile, if rehearsals are anything to go by.
Asaf Sirkis – when I was writing the album, Asaf’s playing was the sound I had in my head – I’m so happy that he is free to join me for the JITR gig – he’ll be playing his unique hybrid percussion/drum kit – he is a true master.
Finally, Ruth Wall – not a name known to the jazz fraternity, Ruth is one of the foremost contemporary classical harpists in the world. She played several different instruments on Edentide – the medieval bray harp, the wire harp and the concert harp she will be using at JITR. In many ways Edentide was initially conceived as trumpet and harp album.
I’ve been working with Ruth for the last seven years as a member of contemporary classical composer Graham Fitkin’s nonet. There were enough times where we found ourselves playing together at sound checks and the like for me to fall in love with the sound of trumpet and harp – two angelic instruments perhaps – and I knew that I wanted to write for that sound.
LJN: And other important collaborators? Graham Fitkin?
NL: I found Graham’s music very inspiring, ever since I first worked with him on a joint project with Tim Garland around ten years ago. I was delighted when he gave his blessing for my reworking of his ethereal composition Glass to be included on Edentide. I’m hoping to be able to commission Graham to write for a collaborative project with the London Jazz Orchestra in the future.
LJN: What is the next step? More touring of Edentide or more composing?
NL: Certainly the aim is to take the Edentide Ensemble on the road next year and my dream is that the next series of gigs will culminate in a couple of full scale concerts, featuring a 21-piece jazz orchestra, presenting the music in its widescreen version.
I am constantly writing, but my next album will not be started until after I’ve completed my job as producer for Yazz Ahmed’s next release – work she very graciously put on the back burner whilst supporting me on my journey over the last couple of years. We’re very close to completion though and are planning a release in Spring 2016 – it’s going to be a great record.