Shabaka Hutchings & Britten Sinfonia
(Live Stream from The Barbican. 18 November 2020. Review by Tony Dudley-Evans)
Shabaka Hutchings has become a leading figure in the so-called new young wave of British jazz, winning polls across Europe and in the USA; it is perhaps less well known that he has always kept up his classical playing and love for that music. Clarinet was his first instrument and he studied a combined jazz and classical course at London’s Guildhall School.
On this occasion Shabaka was the featured soloist on clarinet with the Britten Sinfonia playing pieces by Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky and a solo improvisation, and the main concept for the concert was clearly the relationship between jazz and classical music. The concert began, however, with Copland’s Appalachian Spring. A far from obvious choice, given that the music is very far from jazz and portrays scenes from rural life in the USA rather than the urban contexts in which jazz thrives. But it is a beautiful piece that was played with great feeling by the Britten Sinfonia.
Shabaka then appeared splendidly attired in a golden and red cloak to perform Stravinksy’s 3 Pieces for Solo Clarinet. These short pieces were published in 1919 and it seems that Stravinsky had been working on them for at least three years during the time when his L’Histoire du Soldat with its influences from ragtime was being premiered. The same influences from ragtime were apparent in these three short pieces and I enjoyed the way the music built up to a raucous climax.
The solo improvisation followed. At the beginning Shabaka captured something of the energy of the Stravinsky pieces, but then developed the improvisation through a series of motifs building up to an emotional coda.
An informative conversation between Shabaka and the conductor, Geoffrey Paterson, preceded the performance of Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, originally commissioned and performed by Benny Goodman. They agreed that the concerto is more of a ‘reflection’ on jazz than an actual jazz piece, and that there is a certain parallel with the current jazz scene in UK which often uses other genres of music as a springboard to extend jazz expression. Shabaka also commented that his favourite recorded performance of the concerto is that by David Shrifin from 1989.
The concerto is in two parts, the first gentle and lyrical, marked “Slowly and Expressively”, with an extended cadenza leading to the second part, marked “Rather Fast”, much more upbeat and lively, in a sense ‘jazzy’. Shabaka created an improvisatory spirit in his performance of the piece and thereby brought its various moods to life. He clearly knows the concerto well and, as with the Stravinsky pieces, played with great confidence – and all from memory.