|Julian Siegel. Photo credit: Maarit Kytoharju|
Nottingham-born Saxophonist JULIAN SIEGEL is about to embark on a six-date big band tour, starting in Leicester on March 14th and ending in Birmingham on March 19th. He talked about the background to “one of the major highlights of this year’s jazz calendar” to Dan Paton:
There is a moment during our conversation when it suddenly seems to dawn on Julian Siegel that his Jazz Orchestra project, a colossal undertaking, is actually a reality. ‘I’m really thrilled that it’s happening. I can’t wait. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.’ Indeed, the acclaimed saxophonist and composer has been quietly planning to arrange and compose for a larger ensemble for some time. Jazz Action, Jazz North East and the Voice of the North Orchestra commissioned Siegel for a performance at The Sage in Gateshead in 2012 (sharing the concert with John Warren). Some education projects, including an event with the Guildhall Jazz Band at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2014 also afforded him some initial opportunities to try out ideas. Now, some five years on from the Gateshead project, Siegel has not only assembled his own Jazz Orchestra but is taking it out on the road for six gigs across the country in March. These include a show at Ronnie Scott’s with Nick Smart’s Black Eyed Dog as part of Jazzwise magazine’s 20th birthday celebrations and a concert for the promoters Derby Jazz (who, along with EmJazz and Arts Council England, have provided invaluable support for the Orchestra).
In discussing what must be a significant and exciting new step in his career, Siegel is both admirably humble and passionately enthusiastic. Describing the project as a ‘great opportunity’ and a ‘challenge’, he also seems to consider it a natural progression from his experience playing in such ensembles: ‘I’m lucky enough to have been asked to play in some really exciting projects. The thing in those situations is to make sure you play the tenor part as well as you can! Don’t mess up! But then you start to get curious about how things are put together.’ For Siegel, writing for a larger ensemble is clearly inspiring in part because of the ‘colours and combinations of instruments you can write for’, but he also emphasises the importance of the specific group of people he has brought together.
So did he have particular musicians in mind at the outset of the process? ‘Yes definitely’, he says. ‘There’s a real history with everyone in the band.’ The band’s rhythm section features the three other members of Siegel’s quartet (pianist Liam Noble, bassist Oli Hayhurst and drummer Gene Calderazzo), but the other musical relationships are often longstanding too. ‘Jason Yarde, Harry Brown and I have been working in horn sections over the last few years with artists including Terri Walker, Keziah Jones and Tindersticks. I first met Gemma Moore working on Such Sweet Thunder, a project with Colin Towns and the Birmingham Royal Ballet – she’s a fantastic musician. I met Richard Henry working with NYJO and then continued working with him in Django Bates’ Delightful Precipice. I met Claus Stoetter again working with Colin Towns and the NDR Big Band and we were lucky to be able to invite Claus to come over. Especially in these times, it’s vital to keep these European connections going.’ Of the music he has written for the project, which includes re-imagining of music originally written for his quartet or for Partisans and a new commission from Derby Jazz, Siegel says ‘I’ve been writing all this with these musicians in mind – I can really hear Stan (Sulzmann), Jason (Yarde) and Henry (Lowther) on it already. I just hope the writing doesn’t get in the way too much!’
Whilst Siegel is partially joking here, it’s interesting that he should mention this. He claims never to have had formal training in composition and educators often highlight the importance of not over-writing when working with larger groups. ‘Look at the great big band writers like Ellington and Basie’, Siegel enthuses. ‘There’s so much space! It’s important to know when to stop writing.’ Without formal training as such, how did Siegel prepare himself for his own creative ventures in this field? Of course, his playing experience must have been a significant source of both information and inspiration, but Siegel is also naturally inquisitive. ‘I said I didn’t have any lessons, but I certainly asked questions.
There were some formative experiences being on the other side of the process. I worked on a project with Stan Sulzmann’s music with the Postgraduate Ensemble big band at Trinity Laban. I was doing the carving (conducting and rehearsing the band with Sulzmann as featured soloist). As well as playing Stan’s lovely charts, it was great just to see the clarity of the scores. Later, I had a two hour phone conversation with Stan and he was full of great advice on things like layout; how to physically set out the page. He also advised on techniques that might support the music – like sometimes doubling a high part down an octave on another instrument for example. He never said “those notes are wrong” or anything like that, and I’ve tried to do my own thing, but it was really helpful to have someone talk over the actual writing process. I want to give the band charts that are easy to work with.’ Siegel also remembers some more demystifying advice from the great Mike Gibbs. ‘I asked Mike how he writes and he said “well, I get up in the morning and have breakfast, and then I start to work” – like a job. You have to allow yourself time to write without too much pressure of the deadline. But a deadline certainly focuses the mind! ’
Indeed, Siegel must be delighted that this project has allowed him so much space and freedom. By involving Nick Smart, the head of the jazz course at the Royal Academy of Music and a highly experienced bandleader, Siegel has absolved himself of physical leadership duties on stage, and can instead be a featured performer and soloist on his own music. ‘I think it was a good move’, he says. ‘Now I can focus on the important things – like finding a reed – the eternal quest!’ Again, this is a half joke, but the opportunity to organise and write for a large ensemble whilst also being permitted the space to be ‘in the zone’ as a performing musician is exceedingly rare.
There have been commissions of individual big band pieces. Siegel is grateful for the spur from NYJO to write a piece Mama Badgers which appeared on their anniversary album ‘NYJO 50’ (Whirlwind ) in 2015 (SOUND LINK).
That was a step on the way, but it seems that the Derby Jazz commission provided the real spark that transformed the Julian Siegel Jazz Orchestra from being a noble creative aspiration to being a practical reality. ‘I’m massively grateful for the help Geoff Wright and Derby Jazz have given me’, Siegel says. ‘Geoff suggested the idea of going for this funding and when it happened, it was – wow, this could actually work!’ The piece that has emerged from the commission, Tales From The Jacquard, transpires to be both a fascinating investigation in to the industrial traditions of the Midlands and exceedingly personal. Siegel grew up in Nottingham, where his father, originally from Poland, settled after WW2. He found work in the thriving Nottingham lace trade lace, eventually starting his own business in the 1950’s. Julian’s parents and family ran a lace manufacturing business in Nottingham’s lace market for 50 years. As part of researching this project, Siegel returned to a nearby factory. ‘There’s a friend of my sister’s, Charles Mason’, he explains. ‘He is the director of a company called Cluny Lace and I was fortunate to get a couple of day passes to the factory. This brought back a load of memories, just being around those machines – they are amazing things!’
Siegel has written a two-part blog post (PART ONE / PART TWO) exploring how the sound of the factories inspired his music. Did he actually record and transcribe the rhythms of the machines? It seems that he did. ‘The combination of them working together, and then the different patterns from the different parts of the machines. Then there’s the actual Jacquard machine itself, which is separate and has its own rhythm and groove.’ This seemed to parallel Siegel’s thoughts about the music that filled his home growing up. ‘My parents were Ellington and Basie nuts! And my mum still is to this day. Just thinking about the great tenor players in those bands – people like ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, who was my Dad’s favourite, he still sounds really hip! It’s like he had his own way around the changes. My Dad had also been a singer back in Poland. He would always say he wanted to conduct the machines in the factory, so he had heard a lot of music in the sound of them too.’ The Jacquard itself is apparently like a punch card, with the original freehand design first being converted to a figure sheet before being transferred to the card. ‘Without getting too technical’, Siegel says, ‘the card generated some unexpected ideas to me.’ These came not only in the form of rhythms, but also through melody. ‘Each line of the card has a value’, he explains, ‘and I started to think of them as the twelfth, or the fifteenth above the root. Then they would create chords. I tried not to get too bogged down in the maths – I wanted to use my ear too, and get a feeling of ‘swing’ in the music too.’ Combining social, family and musical history in this way would appear to make this an adroit, fascinating and uniquely personal endeavour. Siegel’s music, so often rhythmically intricate but also joyful, would seem like an ideal vehicle for exploring these ideas and inspirations.
So, beyond the Jazz Orchestra tour, what is next for Siegel? It seems that 2017 will be an eventful and hectic year. His quartet will be recording a new album imminently, planned for release on Whirlwind Recordings in the Autumn. They are also travelling to the jazzahead! conference in Bremen as a showcase act. ‘I’m really pleased about that’, Siegel says. ‘Of course the UK scene is thriving but we really have to keep our connection with the European scene’. Does he have any plans for the Jazz Orchestra to make a recording? ‘Radio 3 are going to record one of the gigs on the tour, so keep an ear out for that’, he says first. ‘In terms of going in to the studio, I’d love to do it but it wasn’t going to happen this time. I’d like it to be the next thing.’ In fact, he sounds increasingly assured and determined. ‘It will happen at some point. It’s just a question of when.’ In the meantime, this debut tour from a laudably ambitious and bold project looks set to be one of the major highlights of this year’s jazz calendar. (pp)
Tues March 14th Leicester, Leics The Venue
Time: 8:00pm. Admission: £12 NUS/Under 18/DMU students/staff £5. Box office: 0116 255 1551. Address: De Montfort University, Western Boulevard. Venue phone: 0116 255 1551.
Weds March 15th Nottingham, Nottinghamshire Lakeside Arts Centre, Djanogly Theatre
Time: 7:30pm. Admission: £16.50/£14.50 Conc/£11 res view/£8 students. Box office: 0115 846 7777. Address: University Park. Venue phone: 0115 846 7777.
Thurs March 16th London Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club
Time: 8:45pm. Admission: £25-42.50. Box office: 020 7439 0747. Address: 47 Frith Street. Venue phone: 020 7439 0747. This is a double bill with Nick Smart’s Black Eyed Dog – Remembering Nick Drake as part of the Jazzwise 20th Anniversary Special week of gigs at Ronnie Scott’s.
Fri March 17th Lincoln Terry O’Toole Theatre
Time: 8:45pm. Box office: 01522 883311. Address: North Kesteven Centre, Moor Lane, North Hykenham. Venue phone: 01522 883311.
Sat March 18th Derby Guildhall Theatre
Time: 8:00pm. Admission: £16/£11 concessions. Box office: 01332 255800. Address: 8A Market Place. Venue phone: 01332 255800.
03/19/17 Birmingham Birmingham Town Hall
Time: 7:30pm. Admission: £18. Box office: 0121 780 3333. Address: Victoria Square. Venue phone: 0121 780 3333
THE JULIAN SIEGEL BIG BAND – LINE-UP
Saxes / Clarinets / Compositions / Arrangements: Julian Siegel
Conductor: Nick Smart
Trumpets Tom Walsh, Percy Pursglove, Henry Lowther, Claus Stoetter
Saxophones: Mike Chillingworth, Jason Yarde, Stan Sulzmann, Tori Freestone, Gemma Moore
Trombones: Mark Nightingale, Trevor Mires, Harry Brown, Richard Henry
Guitar: Mike Outram
Piano : Liam Noble
Double and Electric Bass: Oli Hayhurst
Drums: Gene Calderazzo