Jim Rattigan – When
(Three World Records TWR0005. CD review by Mark McKergow)
Jim Rattigan started his career playing French horn in the classical world, holding down a place in leading British orchestras including the Royal Philharmonic (podcast interview link below), as well as playing on many notable movie soundtracks and albums. He became engaged with jazz and has recorded several CDs of his own compositions with top-class UK talent as well as appearing with the likes of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra and Michael Brecker’s Quindectet.
French horn is not a quintessential jazz instrument. Gil Evans brought one into his band for Miles Davis’ Birth Of The Cool sessions in the late 1940s and continued to use it through his career, mostly in an ensemble role, but it has rarely appeared as a solo instrument. Notoriously difficult to play well, with harmonies hard to hit, up to 30 feet of tube to force air down from a small mouthpiece, nooks and crannies which trap moisture and, to cap it all, a bell facing away from the listener, the instrument’s gloriously pure sound has long been part of the orchestral palette. But as a solo jazz horn rivalling, for example, the valve trombone, it’s still something new for many of us.
This album, released by horn specialists Three Worlds Records, comprises 10 tunes composed by Rattigan some years ago for a combination of string quartet and jazz quartet (horn, piano, double bass and drums). This line-up gives different possibilities; the bass can be bowed to convert the strings into a quintet, the solo horn can play with either combo, and all eight musicians can of course perform together. The strings are orchestrated by Rattigan and performed sensitively by the Tear Quartet (Julian Tear and Alison Gordon on violins, Nicholas Barr viola and Nicholas Cooper cello). The quartet are conventionally scored as a unit with close textures predominating. This is not only beautiful, it also gives a wonderful contrast to the ‘jazz’ side of the equation. As Rattigan says, this is not a crossover but a juxtaposition of traditions.
The rhythm section (who are, of course, so much more than that) is led by pianist Nikki Iles, along with Michael Janisch on bass and James Maddren at the drums. Nikki Iles is an absolute standout here, with her light and melodious playing lifting and subsiding with immense skill. Many of the tracks feature a moment when the string quartet steps aside for the jazzers, and it’s usually Iles who picks up the change of feel with airiness and grace, lifting the music onto a new level each time. Each of these moments is the most superb illustration of how jazz is about tension and release, with Iles being the one to cut the cord and spring forward with energy and yet expansion. Most of these pieces are mid-tempo, and it takes a special kind of skill and control to achieve this dynamic.
Janisch and Maddren provide sympathetic accompaniment, Janisch stepping forward for well-judged bass solos on Suadade and Solace, perhaps the standout track with a listing blissful float using all the strings together. Now And Then opens the album with the strings leading Rattigan’s soft-yet-strong horn before Iles arrives to unlock the bounce. It’s comparable to the moment in Miles Davis’ So What recording from 1959, where the theme ends and Jimmy Cobb’s cymbal opens the soloing (a moment which the much-missed Keith Tippett once told me was the moment he started to love jazz). And it’s not just once – most of the tracks have this kind of expansive release which gives lift after lift.
I had no idea what to expect from this album. It’s a total delight, a perfect Sunday morning soundtrack to coffee and croissants, slippers and sofa. Not every CD I review stays within reach in our house, but this one certainly will.
When is released today, 4 December 2020