Trombonist and composer/arranger Tom Green’s first album with his septet, Skyline, was released in early 2015. Now five years later, comes the follow-up, Tipping Point. Feature by John Fordham :
If making a small jazz band sound like a big one were just down to inviting the members to blow harder, getting commended for it wouldn’t be much of a compliment. Pulling off that seductive illusion leans on something much more subtle, a mastery of a sophisticated set of skills that only the best composers and arrangers possess. One such is Tom Green, the young trombonist and bandleader from Cambridge, who has been finding himself applauded for the power, agility and energy of his talented septet ever since its formation during his postgrad days at the Royal Academy of Music.
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Even in a highly-schooled jazz era that takes technical expertise for granted, Tom Green has stood out for the coupling of an original imagination to consummate craftsmanship – yet he does the most difficult things without ostentation, since he and his musicians consistently sound as if they’re just trying to have the most fun they can.
The young group’s live shows began turning heads when they had barely graduated, with the Telegraph’s Ivan Hewett calling their 2013 concert at the Dankworth family’s Wavendon venue ‘mighty impressive’, and Dame Cleo Laine observing of the same show that the band performed ‘a knockout set to an enthusiastic audience with a maturity and experience that belied their age. I’ve been involved in jazz for more than 60 years and this is some of the most exciting original new music I have heard for a long time.’ Green had won the prestigious Dankworth Award for composition that year, and his 2015 album debut, ‘Skyline’ – which included his Dankworth Award submission, ‘Equilibrium’ – spread the word wider. Two years later, he won another coveted prize, the Eddie Harvey Jazz Arranger’s Award, for his big band piece ‘Badger Cam’ for the Loose Tubesian Patchwork Jazz Orchestra collective’s album ‘The Adventures of Mr Pottercakes.’
By now, the rising bandleader was revealing just how much composing and arranging wisdom he had already absorbed in his young life. It was audible in the assured handling of counterpoint and polyphony that set the septet’s four horns vivaciously ducking and diving together, the dynamic sense that jolted the ensemble sound from roars to whispers and back, and a tonal palette rich enough to make repeating motifs seem constantly to be reinvented in changing colours. Green’s writing seemed to touch on the airborne, ambiguous harmonies of Maria Schneider, Gil Evans and Kenny Wheeler, his melodies could reflect the songlike folksiness of bassist and composer Avishai Cohen, and even Miles Davis’s 1940s Birth Of The Cool nonet seemed to hover in the shadows of the newcomer’s elegantly intertwined counterpoint, and ability to make a small band swell.
With this month’s ‘Tipping Point’, the septet’s follow-up to ‘Skyline’, Green now confirms that all that early promise seems to have been just the beginning. So how had this first-degree physics student who only entered full-time jazz studies as a postgraduate come by so much jazz knowledge so early in his life?
‘I played the violin originally, and then the piano,’ Tom Green says, recalling an open musical education initiated by his classical-playing parents that began with the ear-training, anti-notational Suzuki method on the fiddle when he was four, and moved on to piano at ten. ‘I was learning classical music of course, but my piano teacher, Robin Steward, introduced me to jazz, started giving me jazzy pieces to play, and encouraged me to experiment and improvise. I found myself being drawn toward jazz after that, just the sound of it. I distinctly remember sitting down at the piano thinking jazz harmony was so fascinating, I wanted to try to figure it out. I started moving chord shapes around, like trying out bits of a puzzle. And gradually it started to make sense.’
By the time he was 15, Tom Green was regularly playing in school and local youth orchestras as a classical violinist, but also as a budding trombonist, following his parents’ encouragement to learn a brass instrument to gain a wider perspective on how orchestras worked. But at the same time, he was sneaking into local pubs in Cambridge to play piano with the resident jazz musicians, who appreciated his enthusiasm, and appetite to learn. ‘I’d try anything, whether I knew it or not,’ Green recalls, with some amusement. ‘I remember one night somebody called for “Body and Soul”, which I’d never heard of – and of course it was a complete car crash. But you learn from experiences like that.’
In parallel with this double-life as an adolescent jazz-jamming pianist, Green was steadily developing as an orchestral trombonist, and the voicelike sound of the instrument was opening up its own special soundworld.
‘Learning the trombone was very important for me,’ he says, ‘because its sound is very vocal, and though it’s sometimes been stereotyped as a comical instrument, I think it’s great for young students that because of the flexibility of pitch you get from manipulating the slide, you can get a very expressive and personal sound right from the word go. It’s more difficult to express yourself as an individual when you’re learning from violin or piano music. I developed as a trombonist with an interest in improvisation, which was unusual in the classical school and youth orchestras I played in. But it certainly engendered in me a feeling I still have, now that I do workshops quite a lot. I often meet people who feel afraid without sheet music – that visual cue that tells you what buttons to press. But if instead you’re thinking “I hear this sound, how can I make it?”, I think it opens up a different kind of awareness, uses a different part of the brain.’
Tom Green studied physics at Cambridge as an undergraduate, and is convinced that the distance between the logical movements of jazz harmony and the thought processes of scientists is narrower than some might think. Inevitably, however, the busy university jazz scene beckoned. Green was a rarity as a good improvising trombonist, and soon found himself playing two or three big band sessions a week (‘an amazing learning experience’) and then showing the initiative that would characterise his professional progress by organising tours for the uni bands to clubs in Italy and Hungary. But by the time he took his Physics degree, Tom Green was sure where he was headed next. He wrote his first composition for his audition at the Royal Academy of Music, joined the two-year postgraduate jazz course, and as he puts it ‘was given so much information about composition, ensemble playing, melody, so many deep topics to learn and practise, that I think it’ll still take me another ten years to process it all.’
By that reckoning, ‘Tipping Point’ is part of a long Tom Green work in progress, but its diversity and confidence show how wide the composer’s idiomatic horizons are, and how intuitively he and his long-standing partners trade ideas and seamlessly merge written parts with improv. Their empathy reflects relationships that go way back – from Green’s Royal Academy friends Sam Miles and Scott Chapman (tenor sax and drums) and Cambridge connections James Davison (trumpet) and Misha Mullov-Abbado (double bass), to Trinity Laban pianist Sam James and altoist Tommy Andrews, who the bandleader found common ground with in a variety of groups and private rehearsals, and on their generation’s regular drop-ins to weekly late night jams at Ronnie Scott’s.
Andrews’ eloquence is apparent from the start of ‘Tipping Point’, whose title track abruptly follows an opening burst of driving swing with a languidly yearning passage like a clip from an old film-noir score from the altoist, before the main motif compellingly circles around the band, constantly changing in pitch and texture. ‘Kaleidoscope’, unveiled as a ballad by Green’s purring trombone, accelerates in Kenny Wheeler-like embellishments of a simple melody, ‘Jack O’Lantern’ reflects the folk-music inspirations that lead Green to unpack his violin in ceilidh bands to this day, and ‘Seatoller’ – inspired by a night-time drive and a sunrise in the Lake District – reflects the love of nature and open space that have prompted the bandleader to donate 20% of the album’s sales to the Scottish rewilding charity Trees for Life, and the anti-deforestation campaign group Cool Earth. Ploughing back the proceeds of his musical life into communal projects also led Green to found his own nonprofit record label, Spark!, in 2014 – to release not only his own music but that of rising jazz newcomers, and to share advice and guidance on all aspects of surviving as a working musician.
‘I called the album “Tipping Point” because I was thinking a lot about the impact of climate change, austerity and political upheaval while I was writing this music, and it felt like we were entering a period of so much uncertainty, I wanted to write music that reflected not only these difficulties and challenges, but also that there is still hope for the future if we take positive action,’ Tom Green says. ‘We can’t do whatever we want with the planet, but maybe the world that emerges after this disaster with coronavirus will be a different one, and we will have heard it as a wake-up call. It’s been amazing to watch how music has brought people together in this difficult time, from singing from their balconies to collaborating with people on the other side of the world from their living rooms. I’m thankful I managed to get all my band in the same room to make the album last year, and I hope the fun we had recording it comes through in the music, and that it brings some enjoyment to those who listen to it. We’re all really looking forward to when we can get out there to play live to audiences again!’