Dutch sextet Ikarai bring their Muhammad concert programme to EFG London Jazz Festival on Friday 15 November. It’s been described as “a show like no other” – with some justification, as not many jazz gigs actually take place with the band set up in a boxing ring. Rob Adams, a freelance journalist who has been working on the Going Dutch series, asked Camiel Jansen to elaborate on the Ikarai story.
Ikarai came together after three friends, pianist Julian Schneemann, drummer Jeroen Batterink and bassist Camiel Jansen, having studied music together, decided to form a band that could combine jazz with the European classical tradition. They didn’t know any string players and found violinist Tessel Hersbach, violist Yanna Pelser and cellist Bence Huzsar through social media.
Camiel Jansen, who composes most of the group’s music, is still amazed that they managed to find such great players who share the core trio’s musical philosophy in such a haphazard fashion. Their previous concert programme told the story of Icarus, hence Ikarai, and was critically acclaimed in the Netherlands. As well as playing at the Vortex in N16, they are taking Muhammad to The Stables in Milton Keynes and to Hull Jazz Festival as part of the Going Dutch project which is funded by Dutch Performing Arts and administrated by the Jazz Promotion Network.
LondonJazz News: Was improvisation a natural element of the group from the beginning?
Camiel Jansen: Absolutely. The group was formed with the idea of a balance between improvisation and composition in mind. I like to think of Ikarai as an ensemble that has the dynamic of classical music and the directness of jazz. So improvisation has always been there.
LJN: Does everyone in the group contribute to the compositions Ikarai plays and how do you decide on which direction to take artistically?
CJ: Well, the compositions are mostly written by me, but the direction they’re taken in is a joint effort, and not only in the way a solo colours a piece. Dynamics, form and notes, everything is up for debate when rehearsing.
LJN: What made you want to create a concert based on Muhammad Ali?
CJ: When I look at footage of Muhammad Ali, whether it’s him fighting in the ring, him speechifying or him reciting his poems on a talk show, I just hear music in his phrasing and movements. He has this spontaneous, improvising and instinctive way of going about everything, I think he was very musical. When I was watching the Rumble in the Jungle again, I suddenly had this idea: I’m going to put this to music. So, Muhammad became a musical ode to the greatest boxer of all time.
LJN: How much of Muhammad is scored and how much room do you have for spontaneity; does the music change significantly from performance to performance?
CJ: Solos do! Spontaneity is an important element, otherwise you have the risk of the music sounding lifeless or dull. The compositions tend to be more fixed in nature, though.
LJN: What effect does the stage being turned into a boxing ring have on you as musicians; are you always conscious of the ropes during the performance and does this help get you into the right frame of mind?
CJ: It definitely does. We’re wearing sports outfits, too. That helps. It makes every concert feel like it’s us fighting that fight. And I really do believe it has an impact on us sounding more like a group. All six of us, together in that ring, playing our asses off.
LJN: Your previous project, Fly, was based on the story of Icarus; did that involve any staging that related to the hero and his story as Muhammad does?
CJ: We did have one scenographic element: a large ‘sun’ above our stage. We aimed bright stage lights on a floating, sun-like balloon above our heads. As the concert progressed, the ‘sun’ became brighter and brighter, mimicking Icarus’ hubris in flying closer and closer to the sun. In the second to last piece, the light would switch off suddenly and we’d play the last piece in pitch darkness.
LJN: What can the audience expect from Muhammad?
CJ: A daring fight between jazz, classical music and audio samples of Ali’s famous Rumble in the Jungle and his charismatic speeches!
Wed 13 Nov: Stables, Milton Keynes
Thu 14 Nov: Hull Truck Theatre
Fri 15 Nov: Vortex, London N16 (part of 2019 EFG LJF)