Jazz composer ROLAND PERRIN explains how composition fundamentally is all about story-telling. His vivid Lansky: The Mob’s Money Man with the Crouch End Festival Chorus returns and new Brazilian-inspired choral work Rio Amazonas is unveiled. Interview: Stephen Graham
Hardly your typical musical multi-tasker, Roland Perrin’s hugely eclectic career now largely revolves around composing as well as teaching a degree course three days a week. Picking up the phone to talk to LondonJazzNews as he takes a late-lunchtime break from doing an assessment, munching on a sandwich, he expands on how his routine used to be distinctly different. “I was a jobbing pianist for a very long time and I was playing a lot of Latin music, African music and a certain amount of jazz,” he says.
Change involved a decision to do fewer gigs and steer his career more towards writing and teaching and that led him eventually to his current “choral concert jazz drama” direction, as he describes Lansky: The Mob’s Money Man commissioned by Crouch End Festival Chorus. First premiered two years ago, the piece is now set for a further performance next month, performed again by CEFC under Musical Director David Temple at Cadogan Hall.
Perrin indicates that he has ushered in a few changes in the intervening time. “I have ramped up the dramatic side as much as possible,” he said. He emphasises that jazz for him is about “an attitude and about not a style kind of freedom but a certain free approach to things in lots of ways and not just improvisation.”
As for mobster Meyer Lansky, Perrin chose the notorious racketeer because it’s a way, he says, of talking about his own father. “I loved my father but he was a complete mystery to me. The last time I saw him we met in a hotel in Sussex. I thought he was living in France.”
Writing Lansky, Perrin says, was cathartic. It found him decades on into his professional career and a long way as a composer from his early days as a university student.
Born in 1959, Perrin moved to England from the States when he was 10. He read music at the University of York but did not enjoy the experience at all, dismissing the quality of the composition course that he had enrolled on as he became frustrated at the lack of practical input from his tutors. He wanted instead to know how to work out a Beethoven string quartet or find his way properly around a fugue with composition in mind.
The upside at least was that he learnt a lot from his fellow students and he continued to play gigs. As a leader later with his Blue Planet Orchestra – the name Perrin has given his groups of different personnel over the decades and with whom he has recorded such albums as Introducing the Blue Planet Orchestra in the late-1990s – he incorporates styles such as South African marabi township jazz that harks back to his days with Dudu Pukwana into his own compositional framework. It can also take shape from many other styles including klezmer, the latter explored on his Jewish jazz project Echoes of the Shtetl, Cuban music and early jazz.
With the new Rio Amazonas Perrin is immersing himself primarily in Brazilian music. Working again with conductor David Temple, whose work with the Crouch End Festival Chorus includes appearances with Ray Davies and Damon Albarn, Temple’s second choir Hertfordshire Chorus will be performing this Brazilian-themed work inspired by the Amazon river in a world premiere. Perrin has by now already undertaken commissions from Temple that have celebrated Billie Holiday and Lester Young as well as beat writer Charles Bukowski.
Writing for voice presents its own specific challenges. Perrin adds a word of caution: “You have to learn how to let the harmony be,” he says, describing how colouration and voicings are absolutely crucial as well as the rhythmic ingredients that his earlier collaborations have taught him how to blend.
As a pianist Perrin is heavily influenced by McCoy Tyner whom he has opened for at Ronnie Scott’s. More broadly he speaks with evident awe of first hearing John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard album as a Pink Floyd-enraptured teenager in the 1970s. Ultimately composition, he says, is about “telling the story” and it’s one he knows how to tell so exhilaratingly and instinctively well. pp
Lansky: The Mob’s Money Man: Crouch End Festival Chorus, Roland Perrin, Rachel Sutton and the Blue Planet Orchestra conducted by David Temple, Allan Corduner (narrator). Cadogan Hall in London on 1 July. LondonJazz News readers can get 20% off all prices online and at the Cadogan Hall Box Office when quoting code LJN. Tickets here:
Rio Amazonas, conducted by David Temple, performed by Hertfordshire Chorus with additional school choirs and with Perrin leading the Blue Planet Orchestra, is at Saffron Hall in Saffron Walden on 9 July. Tickets here:
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