“A brilliant and versatile jazz soloist on french horn and an interesting and questing composer / arranger,” wrote Ian Carr about Jim Rattigan, whose new album When (Three Worlds Records) will be released this Friday 4 December. Feature by John Fordham.
The French horn, that tightly-wound enigma of brass plumbing usually heard radiating its dark-toned, majestically melancholy sounds through the harmonies of classical orchestras and wind ensembles, made a late arrival in jazz in the ‘Birth of the Cool’ sessions and crossover experiments of the 1950s, and is still a rarity despite all the genre-bending variations of the music today. One of Europe’s most inventive explorers of a largely uncharted territory is Jim Rattigan, the Luton-raised horn player and composer, who began to make his journey public when he ended a six year stint with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1995, and finally committed himself to the precarious jazz life he had been privately fascinated by since he was a teenager.
An amiable and animated enthusiast for music from all generic angles, Jim Rattigan has been marking milestones in his jazz life with occasional album releases down the years – from 2004’s funkily swinging standards set ‘Jazz French Horn’ and 2012’s Parker-to-Coltrane quartet session ‘Shuzzed’, to 2014’s ‘Triplicity’, with its horn, violin and piano lineup. Later releases have also included the vibrant ‘Strong Tea’ and ‘The Freedom of Movement’ by his 12-piece Pavillon band, featuring such A-list players on the UK postbop scene as saxophonists Martin Speake and Andy Panayi, and trumpeters Percy Pursglove and Steve Fishwick. But now comes a quite different kind of Rattigan merger, between a classical string quartet and jazz trio, with the eloquently inventive bandleader and the jazz group’s double bassist Michael Janisch acting as the bridges between the traditions and soundworlds of the two. In 2020, with this project’s September launch gig cancelled along with so many live-playing opportunities for skilled musicians who can ill afford the loss, the succinct title of the ensemble’s album – just simply ‘When’ – might seem to have the plaintive ring of wistful dreams for a time when the clouds lift. But Rattigan left out the question mark implying that, and so put the title in a more assertive mood – this is what happens, it seems to say, when players of this class, idiomatic diversity and intuitive flexibility get together to make music.
‘I write music every day, and I have ever since I was a kid,’ Rattigan says. ‘Noodling on the piano for hours, scribbling with a pencil and manuscript. I’d write stuff for different lineups – maybe accordion, violin and flute just because I could play the accordion, and I’d happened to meet a violinist and a flautist – but I’d basically write for whoever was around. This album came into my head about five years ago, on a day I’d woken up in a very wistful mood. I just started writing, and all those tunes came out. The mood lifted after four or five days, and I put them away in a drawer. Then in 2018 I started playing them again on the piano, and heard them in a different way. I’d worked with the violinist Julian Tear for many years in the St Martin’s In The Fields chamber orchestra, and I loved Richard Strauss’s strings arrangements – like pockets of quartets all playing different stuff – so I thought those tunes could be reworked that way. For the jazz pianist, I just thought “it’s got to be Nikki Iles”, and I’d played with the bassist Michael Janisch in Mike Gibbs’ band and knew how good he was with the bow. As for James Maddren on drums, he just gets everything so quickly, you don’t have to say a word.’
The outcome was ‘When’, a haunting, romantic, often softly swinging collection of ten songlike pieces – coolly segueing the vaporous strings swirls of the Tear Quartet with Nikki Iles’ patiently-spun, delicately-struck solos, Michael Janisch’s rugged walking lines and graceful bowed sound, and James Maddren‘s fastmoving ingenuity. The ebbs and flows of the instrumentalists buoy up Jim Rattigan’s horn figures from the ballad-like opening ‘Now and Then’ to the dreamy finale ‘Wistful Thinking’, with its tender horn theme emerging from the strings intro and Maddren’s pattering brushwork as if from a mist. In between come the light-stepping ‘Patrick’s Song’ (for Rattigan’s son), the lyrically waltzing ‘Fool’, glimpses of the classic Bill Evans trios’ ballad sound on ‘Solace’, and the strings-riffing, percussively punchy ‘The Commute’. The album’s title track, however, is fittingly its highlight – showcasing not only Jim Rattigan’s songwriting muse and slow-burn storytelling as an improviser, but the band’s intuitively conversational understanding.
‘I wanted that loose rubato feeling in the opening,’ Rattigan observes, of the swoop and sway of the title track’s early passages, ‘but I suppose I wanted to control it, so I started conducting as Julian and the Tear Quartet began to play. He said “will you stop doing that?”, which was a very funny moment I should have seen coming. They’re a string quartet, they follow each other, they don’t need a conductor the way an orchestra does. It’s always a fine balance, because broadly speaking classical musicians expect instruction, and jazz musicians don’t, but not always. In the end I think we got it about right. The album was made from scratch on one day between ten in the morning and six in the evening, including time for Julian to write out the bowing marks on the score – they’re like breathing points for string players – and for Nikki and I to play an additional duet version of ‘River of Dreams’ because I hadn’t really liked the ensemble version, and Julian persuaded me to record the piece as a duo rather than dump it. I’m glad that happened now.’
This fine album is another landmark on the road Jim Rattigan embarked on over half a century ago – first as an Irish-dancing seven year-old, and then a teenage accordionist, one of five siblings raised in Luton’s big Irish community. He switched from dancing to accordion-playing at 12 (once embarrassment about wearing the obligatory dancers’ kilts set in) and toured the country’s accordion competitions – mostly playing classical music – to become All Britain Champion with his sister Ann at 16. But at that age, with his accordion skills running alongside some tentative familiarity with the cornet, trumpet and French horn (‘though I didn’t know what it was, except that it was in a funny-shaped box’), Rattigan left home to enrol at the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology because his secondary school offered no Music A-level. It was a move that produced two transformative discoveries. The teenager met a pro horn player from the Scottish National Orchestra, who restarted his haphazard knowledge of the instrument from scratch with weekly French horn lessons, and a college friend played him piano star Oscar Peterson’s ‘Night Train’, which uncorked what the intoxicating magic of jazz was about.
Jim Rattigan’s fast progress on the horn soon took him to Trinity College of Music and then the Royal Academy of Music, and the route from there to work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Academy of St Martin’s in the Fields, and then a six-year stint with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra followed through the 1980s and into the next decade. Alongside engaging with the monumental classics of European symphonic music, Rattigan also enjoyed himself performing on many big-time movie-score recordings, including those of several James Bond films, and ‘Lord of the Rings’. Freelance session-playing continued to be his lifeline after his orchestral career ended, but it was a late-‘90s meeting with the young London-based German composer/pianist Hans Koller that Rattigan describes as ‘a life change’. Koller not only wanted Rattigan’s horn sound in ensembles that would bridge jazz, folk, and European classical music, but – during many hours of jamming and chatting about music – encouraged him to open out, both as an improviser and a composer. Koller’s piano role in visionary jazz composer Mike Gibbs’ bands also led to Rattigan’s key involvement in Gibbs’ imaginative tributes to the latter’s principal inspiration, Gil Evans.
‘For years, jazz was my own personal space,’ Jim Rattigan reflects. ‘When you play at the highest levels in classical music, the pressure’s enormous because you always have to be perfect – if you split a note on a concert, the next player’s waiting to take your place. I loved coming home from gigs and playing jazz on the piano. It was such a personal thing, that for years I didn’t want it to be public, I thought that might damage how important it was to me. That’s changed now, but it’s taken me a long time to understand the kind of jazz player I want to be. Over years of working in classical orchestras you have to cultivate an orchestral sound, and that’s different from brilliant jazz French horn players like John Clark and Julius Watkins, who didn’t come up through classical ensembles. I’ve worked with amazing bebop players like Steve Fishwick who are just burning it on something like “Donna Lee”, and I’m going to play the next solo and thinking “please shoot me now”. But in the end I’ve concluded “I’m not a saxophonist, I’m not a trumpet player, I’m a French horn player”. I realised on this album that I didn’t want to compromise that sound I’d taken years to acquire for the sake of speed. And I also realised that I love composing – but I also love it when great musicians you write for take it, and own it.’
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Jim Rattigan’s ‘When’ is out now on Three Worlds Records. A live launch gig is scheduled for May 9, 2021, at the Omnibus Theatre, 1 Clapham Common North Side, Clapham Town, London SW4.
Categories: Feature/Interview (PP)