Pianist DAVID SWAN is a musician who always caught the ear as a student during his time at Guildhall School. Just after graduation in 2018, Ronnie Scott’s booked his trio as support for Rick Wakeman in their trio festival. He currently has plans for several projects to be released in 2021, including original music for small ensemble, a reworking of the music of Ravel, and initiatives exploring music and climate change. Sebastian interviewed him, and found out more about a new large ensemble project, Dandelion Orchestra. So far only about a minute and a half of music is available (YouTube is below the interview), but the promise and the hope in that brief extract certainly promise something special!
You trained in London but you’re originally Scottish?
Yes, I’m originally from Cumbernauld, a new town near Glasgow, where I’ve also been living since the start of the pandemic. I also had a lot of my training in Scotland through the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland (NYJOS) and my years at St. Mary’s Music School, Edinburgh. Scottish traditional music also forms the basis of a lot of my practice, both compositionally and through the group Causeway Trio.
What were the decisive steps in you becoming a musician?
I’ve aspired to be a musician from a young age, around 8; my grandpa, a pianist and only other musical person in my immediate family growing up, and my dad, a huge music enthusiast, pointed me in that direction! I was asked many times at primary school school, as you are at that age, what I wanted to be when I was older, and musician was always my answer. I was then lucky in my teenage years to have many great teachers who were supportive of me.
What have been some high points since graduating from Guildhall?
Soon after graduating, I had several great experiences: playing trio (with Marcus Pritchard and Boz Maritn-Jones) as part of the Ronnie Scott’s International Piano Festival, performing with Causeway Trio at the Festival Interceltique de Lorient, and working as an Ambassador for NYJOS. I had a brilliant time recording for Dom Ingham‘s debut album; the record is absolutely beautiful, the tour sadly cancelled due to COVID-19; and for Johanna Burnheart‘s project Burnheart, a unique mix of jazz and electronic music which has just come out on Ropeadope Records and is picking up well-deserved praise. I also directed and arranged (with Martin and others from DJO) a performance of Scott Stromann’s Fantasia in Elgin, Scotland with community chorus in 2018, which was very special.
Where does the idea of Dandelion Orchestra come from?
The orchestra is based on a shared belief by myself and Martin Thomson (more in next answer, Ed.) in the potential of new music to create change and be a force for good in communities. Martin and I met at St. Mary’s as teenagers, but before that Martin came up through Moray Concert Brass, a brilliant community brass organisation in the North-East of Scotland which we both have the great fortune to be working with now as professionals, and I through North Lanarkshire council’s wind band/orchestral program as a trumpeter.
For several years, we were involved with the running of community and big band projects in Moray, where we saw first-hand what an impact the format can have on community both through participation and as an audience: there’s something about the unifying sound of a jazz orchestra that can bring people together in a special way. This is something I also was inspired by through watching performances such as Never Failed Me Yet (Tate Modern 2019), where Gavin Bryars’ piece of the same name was performed by people who were/had been homeless alongside Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and through my years seeing the impact of jazz and new music on young people at NYJOS. Martin and I also have a shared love of big band music, from the contemporary to the swing era, which gave us the ideal vehicle for exploring these ideas.
And there are some amazing young players. Tell me about Martin Thomson and his accomplishments and his role in the group
This might be an often-repeated phrase, but Martin is a musician like no other. He is led by his love of music, and plays across jazz, classical and traditional music contexts with grace – and as a euphonium player, is the only person I know of in the world to be exploring these things through that instrument. As well as being a celebrated classical trombonist in award-winning quartet Aeris Brass, he is a brilliant technician on his instrument, leading to him being involved at a world-class level in brass band music, and has an approach to brass playing which allows him to be fluent on all instruments (tuba, trumpet, horns). He is also a talented singer, as well as accordionist, whistle-player, snare drummer… the list goes on! His current focus is on his duo with Danielle Price, Dopey Monkey, and he was part of Laura Jurd‘s last record, Standing Back, Jumping In. He’s Artistic Director for DJO; we envisage the projects together then he’s responsible for the overall artistic direction while I focus more on the music side of things.
And there are singers too?
Yes! We’re delighted to have Luca Manning as the vocalist for the orchestra, providing beautiful wordless vocals (and possibly some with lyrics in the future!) It’s always a joy to work with Luca on any project (we’ve had some great times together recently in jazz vocal group Threebop) and he brings great energy and humanity through his voice to music.
Is it a Scottish band?
We think of ourselves as being based in both Scotland and London. Myself, Martin and many of the band are Scottish, our current and future plans are mostly based around Scotland and we have many ties to Moray and the North-East of the country, but we have also have a base in London, with many of having lived there/studied there. Currently though many of us are displaced because of COVID-19 – Martin’s studying in Oslo, I’m living in Scotland, and others are in Belgium, North of England, and elsewhere spread across Europe; such are the times we live in!
Dandelion is a big band but with some other sonic possibilities…
That was definitely our intention. We take inspiration from the Ellington Orchestra, where often members were written for personally, rather than as part of a section, as well as contemporary orchestras which explore unusual instrumentation, such as in the work of John Hollenbeck and Maria Schneider. Our lineup has a few differences from the traditional big band: our lower brass section is a mix of cylindrical and conical brass (trombone/bass trombone/French horn/euphonium/tuba), our woodwind section is very much that, with an emphasis on soprano sax/flute/clarinet and no baritone sax, our rhythm section features myself on synthesisers/electronics as well as piano, Pete our guitarist on all shapes and sizes of guitars, and we also have Luca on vocals. We think of the sound as more orchestral and warmer than the traditional big band line-up.
Where can we see or hear Dandelion and what are your plans for it?
Unfortunately our plans for getting the band started this year were largely dashed by the pandemic! However, we hope some of these scuppered plans will materialise next year, and we have ideas for some outdoors-based large-scale projects for 2021. Currently, you can see and hear us through our project Christmas Cards, created in response to the isolation faced by many due to COVID-19 this Christmas. We’re Crowdfunding to raise money for production costs and all our profits are going to charities helping those facing difficult and uncertain times.
Tell us about your crowdfunder
Christmas Cards is a non-for-profit project which aims to tackle COVID-19 isolation through new music and the arts. The project is based around beautiful Christmas card designs from illustrator Sarah Wilson and includes an online concert of original music, with animations based on Sarah’s designs; physical Christmas Cards to send to loved ones which include a link to our concert; and an activity book with arts activities for all ages that accompanies our concert. Our aim is to bring the joy and togetherness of jazz music in formats that are easily accessible to those who are isolated, and to bring some of the light relief and festive spirit that may be in shorter supply this Christmas. We are also hoping it will demonstrate the resilience of the arts and the impact they can have on people in a time when the arts sector in the UK is in an unprecedented crisis.
Our Crowdfunder (link below) closes on November 16th – you can pre-order any part of the project on the page, as well as make donations and support in other ways!
And there are a charities you are raising money for?
All profits of the project are being split between two charities which are doing crucial work at this time, the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) and Age UK. Those with existing mental health difficulties have faced extraordinarily tough times as a result of lockdown, and sadly lockdown has led to an accelerated increase of these difficulties which were already prevalent across the UK. With various forms of lockdown again in place across the UK, it is a crucial time to support those like SAMH who are reaching out to those who will once again have to deal with these challenges. It is also an extremely difficult time for older people, who are at a much higher risk of becoming isolated and facing the prospect of loneliness, something exacerbated greatly by the pandemic. With COVID-19 creating many difficulties for older people, as well as restricting their access to family and loved ones, Age UK is doing vital work in order to provide essential services and reduce risks for some of the most vulnerable in our society at this time. We hope that through this project we will be able to provide support to these charities and create awareness for these important issues that they are working tirelessly to resolve.
DANDELION ORCHESTRA (November 2020)
Trumpets: Christos Stylianides, Ewan Gilchrist, Magnus Pickering, Clara Hyder
Lower Brass: Ian Sankey (trombone), Adam Crighton (bass trombone), Robyn Blair (French horn), Martin Lee Thomson (euphonium/artistic director), Danielle Price (tuba)
Saxes/Woodwinds: Manon Davis, Sophie Watson, Adam McGoughlin, James Akers
Vocals/Rhythm: Luca Manning (vocals), David Swan (keyboards/musical director), Peter Thornton (guitars), Ollie Copeland (bass), Boz Martin-Jones (drums)