Acoustic Triangle (the trio of bassist Malcolm Creese, saxophonist/bass clarinettist Tim Garland and pianist Gwilym Simcock) is about to embark on a 20th Anniversary tour. Feature by John Fordham.
In June 2001, at Soho’s Pizza Express Jazz Club, a quietly captivating UK trio – without drums, without amplification, and without a conventionally jazz-centric repertoire either – took to the tiny basement stage and made more of an impact on the fortunate witnesses that night than plenty of groups who had played the room at twice the volume, and much more dutiful attention to what a West End jazz crowd might be expecting to hear.
The show was an early performance by Acoustic Triangle, a partnership that had come together in 2000 devoted to making Maurice Ravel, Olivier Messiaen, Kenny Wheeler, Ralph Towner and Bill Evans sound like natural fits with each other on the same bill – in the process opening a new chapter in the century-long story of jazz/classical crossovers with the fresh musicality of its mergers of composition and improv, classical precision and supple spontaneity.
This month, the group tours for the first time in five years to mark its 20th birthday (a year late, due to 2020’s unforeseen disruptions) with seven dates around England, and new original material. That 2001 Pizza Express gig had been played by the original founding members – former John Dankworth and Stan Tracey double-bass maestro Malcolm Creese, woodwinds virtuoso Tim Garland, and Dankworth’s and Cleo Laine’s versatile long-time pianist John Horler. When Horler left in 2003, the then 22 year-old Welsh prodigy Gwilym Simcock joined to complete the lineup that still flourishes today. As time has passed, all three have walked very different paths as individual artists (Garland’s cross-genre composing life has blossomed alongside prestigious gigs like his long playing association with the late-lamented Chick Corea, Simcock has been prolific as a composer/player, and toured the globe with American guitar star Pat Metheny, Creese has combined being a sought-after freelance bassist with life as a record producer, label proprietor, lecturer, and Artistic Director of Yorkshire’s Swaledale Festival), but Acoustic Triangle has always felt like family, however far apart their talents have taken them.
When we talked, Malcolm Creese was looking forward to the tour’s first rehearsal, a twice-delayed reunion postponed by the pandemic’s arrival in 2020, and the birth of Simcock’s son Rowan last May.
But he doesn’t expect, for all their diversity of playing experiences since they last met, that they’ll have any trouble settling back into the shared enthusiasms that brought them together in the first place.
‘Despite everything that’s happened to us separately over the years, I don’t think any of us feel any different when we get together,’ Malcolm Creese reflects. ‘It feels so familiar, every time. We know each other so well, as players and as friends. Gwil or Tim and I might glance at each other in a performance and somehow know we’re both going to introduce a beat’s rest or play the same substitute chord at the same moment. I think you do get a little bit psychic when musical relationships go back that far. And it’s always a privilege for me to play with both of them, there’s no-one in the world I’d rather go on a stage with.’
Creese had long loved modern jazz and classical music equally – the offspring of professional classical-playing parents, he was a conservatoire-trained cellist originally – and he dreamed of playing in a group that blurred those generic distinctions, and which would play with a natural, unamplified sound, long before the opportunity came to form one. That moment arrived in the mid ’90s, after Creese had turned into an accomplished jazz bassist, playing and touring with Stan Tracey, and also with John Dankworth and Cleo Laine – alongside that famous jazz couple’s regular pianist John Horler, who shared Creese’s classical conservatoire education and love of its traditions, as well as the appreciation of its value in expanding an improviser’s resources. In 1995, Creese convened a chamber-jazz trio with Horler and the internationally admired clarinettist/saxophonist Tony Coe, both of whom shared his faith in genuine jazz/classical fusions that didn’t shortchange the values of either tradition, and who were masters of the techniques they required. The mix worked. The trio performed throughout the UK and continental Europe over the next five years, and made a critically acclaimed album – In Concert, live from Bristol’s acoustically harmonious St George’s concert hall, and featuring Horler originals alongside standard songs and Duke Ellington and Bill Evans jazz classics. When Coe left the trio in 2000, Creese invited the technically accomplished and musically broadminded reeds player and composer Tim Garland to take his place, and in acknowledgement of a new phase in the evolution of his dream band, gave it the name it retains to this day.
‘The trio with Tony and John Horler morphed into Acoustic Triangle when Tony left,’ Creese says, ‘but the philosophy didn’t change. And now, two decades later, we’ve still never had a microphone or an amp on a stage in all that time, and we’re still all as fascinated by the pure beauty of musical sound when it resonates with the qualities of a beautiful space or a live audience in a special room, on a repertoire from both jazz and classical music that suits that space. Tim once said that the building is the fourth member of this band. When we set up in a new location, we only finally decide that night’s programme when we’ve listened to the way the place sounds. Some pieces work with a certain echo, some don’t. Musicians sometimes complain that the acoustics of a particular venue are no good, but we prefer to to adapt our repertoire, and the way we play it, to suit the space we’re performing in.’
As fast-developing composers, both Garland and Simcock contributed to expanding the presence of European classical forms in Acoustic Triangle’s repertoire – also perhaps reflecting a globally broader view of what jazz could be in the hands of celebrated contemporary stars like Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau and Jan Garbarek, the influence of such outside-the-box enterprises as Germany’s ECM record label, and a growing willingness of younger classical listeners to relax old diktats that said their music had to be played as written or it was being disrespected.
Following 2001’s Interactions (Acoustic Triangle’s jazz-oriented debut release, with jazzily lyrical tracks from Kenny Wheeler, Ralph Towner, Horler and Garland, but with the latter’s graceful and ingenious arrangement of Ravel’s ‘Trois Poemes de Stephane Mallarmé’ hinting at new ways forward), 2003’s Catalyst marked Simcock’s dynamic arrival in the mix, helping to focus an enthralling signature sound for the group that marked it out from its crossover contemporaries with the luminously reflective and sometimes rhythmically headlong ‘Sea Suite’, with Garland’s soprano soaring over it, and the latter’s similarly ingenious explorations of extended compositional forms in his nine-minute ‘Beyond The City’. In 2005, Resonance (recorded live at the abbeys of Romsey and Dorchester) further expanded the band’s home-grown repertoire and showcased how eloquently Garland’s bass clarinet sound and Simcock’s warm presence on the French horn broadened its sonic horizons. The set, which accompanied a 28-date tour of ecclesiastical venues for Acoustic Triangle that year, also highlighted the crucial musical role of Malcolm Creese’s lifelong love of churches and their unique acoustics.
‘I’m non-religious, but I adore churches,’ Creese says. ‘I was a chorister at St John’s College, Cambridge, when I was a child. I lecture nowadays on music and art in churches, and most of my venues at Swaledale Festival are churches. That’s a big reason why we did that Resonance tour, because I felt strongly that churches used to be at the centre of secular society as well as religion, and I thought that using them as arts venues again could be an important part of saving them, as congregations dwindle to almost nothing in some places. For musicians and audiences, there’s an enormous amount of added value to playing a church – the quality of the sound, the atmosphere, the smell, the light. We were also well suited to churches because we play unamplified and don’t use percussion – drums and amps tend not to work well with church echo.’
Malcolm Creese says that two new Tim Garland pieces will be premiered on this autumn’s tour, with one in the pipeline from the now Berlin-resident Gwilym Simcock. He’s palpably thrilled at the prospect of coming to grips with new manifestations of his partners’ ever-stimulating ideas, and fondly remembers past occasions when Acoustic Triangle was able to expand to do them even greater justice – as happened over the years in collaborations with ensembles including the BBC Concert Orchestra, The King’s Singers, the Choir of Westminster Abbey, and the Royal Holloway Choir, for whom Richard Rodney Bennett wrote his last work for a collaboration between the choir and the Trio. In 2008, Acoustic Triangle grew into a nonet, with four violins, viola and cello, for the album 3 Dimensions. It was an ambitious and surprise-packed venture that included Simcock’s buoyant tango ‘Fundero’ and his intertwining of flute lines and his own french horn on the three-part ‘Red Sky’, and Garland’s subtle juggling of romanticism, contemporary-classical edginess, brooding sax lines and Creese’s sonorous arco bass on ‘Sanctuary for Living Memory’ and ‘Singing Stones”.
‘That was the most exciting musical project I’ve ever done,’ Creese enthuses. ‘Not only were the compositions so amazing to play, but we did some of the gigs in the most beautiful cathedrals in the country. There were huge health and safety issues about playing in those buildings and taking care of them and ourselves, and a lot of form-filling beforehand, but it was a wonderful experience to settle slowly into somewhere like Canterbury Cathedral or Lincoln Cathedral, taking the time to get used to the acoustics and the atmospherics and where best to position the players, with such incredible sights and sounds all around you. Like being in a massive beautiful playground for a day.
‘Of course I’d love to do something like that again, but that tour was generously funded – which was essential, because unlike concert halls, churches don’t tend to have first-class grand pianos, so you’re into the huge costs of hiring and transporting them. We’re in a different time at the moment. But who knows? We could have drawn a line under Acoustic Triangle because we’re all so busy with other things, or living in different countries, or raising families. But we haven’t because we still love it – and I hope we can continue to show our audiences why, whatever kind of music they’re coming from.’
Acoustic Triangle’s 20th Anniversary tour opens at Stapleford Granary, near Cambridge (01223 849004) on Saturday 18 September, and continues until 21 October.
Sat 18 September 7.45pm (60 – 70 min set, no interval)
Stapleford Granary, near CAMBRIDGE
Thu 23 September 6.00pm & 8.00pm (2 x 60 min concerts)
St. John the Evangelist, OXFORD
Fri 24 September 7.30pm (2 x 45mins plus interval)
Riverhouse Barn, WALTON on THAMES
Sat 25 September 8.00pm (2 x 45mins plus interval)
Turner Sims Concert Hall, SOUTHAMPTON
Sun 26 September 8.00pm (2 x 45mins plus interval)
The Main Hall, Walthamstow Hall School,
Hollybush Lane, SEVENOAKS, Kent, TN13 3UL
Thu 30 September 7.30pm (2 x 45mins plus interval)
National Centre for Early Music, YORK
Thu 21 October 7.30pm (2 x 45mins plus interval)
Firth Hall, SHEFFIELD