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REVIEW: Eddie Parker’s Debussy Mirrored premiere at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival

L-R: Eddie Parker. Alcyona Mick
James Gilchrist, Brigitte Beraha
Photo credit: andy squiff

Eddie Parker’s Debussy Mirrored 
(Parabola Arts Centre. Cheltenham Music Festival, July 13 2018. Review by Jon Turney)

One hundred years after his death, jazz’s debt to Debussy, via Gershwin, Gibbs or Gil Evans, is widely recognised. There are a few efforts to acknowledge it directly – from a sweet arrangement of the waltz La plus que lente for a Gerry Mulligan sextet to a recent stab at Clair de Lune (less appealing, to my ear) from Kamasi Washington. This presentation at Cheltenham, premiering a project years in the making, was a more ambitious re-examination of the great man.

Eddie Parker, a lifelong student of Debussy has arranged ten of his pieces, mostly lesser known items, for a superbly skilled ensemble – mainly crack jazz players aside from the singer James Gilchrist and the sparkling young harpist Imogen Ridge.

The harp, four flutes (Parker, Rowland Sutherland, Gareth Lockrane and the remarkable Jan Hendrickse) and James Allsopp on bass clarinet gives the group a gorgeous texture, with the voices blending seamlessly. Texts from Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Baudelaire were enlivened by the singers – Brigitte Beraha in her element, and Gilchrist’s resonant tenor tiptoeing toward improvisation once or twice. They are used sparingly, though, and even less often together, which leaves a small regret as the two voices interweaving afforded some of the most delicious moments of the set.

Eddie Parker (bass flute) directing the Debussy Mirrored Ensemble
Photo credit: andy squiff

There were plenty of others to savour. The longest piece, a re-working of the children’s ballet La Boîte à joujoux which closed the first half, was a delightful succession of them, packing in enough contrasting episodes for something several times its quarter hour length. Here, as elsewhere, the detail of the arrangements was too much to take in at first hearing, but did composer and concert master Parker proud. Four flutes turned Syrinx si doucement perdue into a conference of the birds. Al Sarape was a convincingly arabesque feature for Hendrickse on wood flutes. Parker’s version of Clair de Lune began with vibes and piano from Simon Limbrick and Alcyona Mick, giving way to a fine-tuned percussion solo from Limbrick. The jazz rhythm team of Steve Watts on bass and Martin France on drums, were their excellent selves.

In short, everyone acquitted themselves brilliantly, tracking arrangements whose complexity was indexed by the shuffling needed to order unfurling scores required for even quite brief pieces. But, resplendent in his white suit, furnishing good-humoured introductions, conducting, and soloing compellingly on several flutes, it was Parker’s evening – an achievement to rival Debussy’s own, and a handsome repayment on a century old debt.

The ensemble has Autumn performances booked in Bristol and York, and a date at the London Jazz festival (details here ). Then, surely, there must be a recording?

Curtain Call for the entire Debussy Mirrored Ensemble
Photo credit: andy squiff

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