The idea for a spiritual jazz reimagining of St. Francis of Assisi’s mystical prayer The Canticle of the Sun was sparked when award-winning clarinettist and composer Arun Ghosh was browsing a second-hand bookshop near London’s Tottenham Court Road and came across a hardback about the saint’s prose and depictions in art. Feature by Martin Chilton:
Now, as Ghosh and his contemporary eight-piece ensemble tour the UK with a wonderfully moving version of St. Francis’ 13th Century work, he tells LondonJazz News how a moment of inspiration struck. “The book mentioned The Canticle of the Sun and the title jumped out at me,” Ghosh says. “I immediately thought this could be something I would like to set to music. I grew up with one of St. Francis’s prayers, ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace’. It was on a postcard that was pinned to a noticeboard at home in Bolton. My mum and dad cared deeply about St. Francis and I was drawn to him because of all the elements of nature surrounding him.”
The work premiered in May at St. Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich and Ghosh’s mother managed to hear it in June, when they performed at St. George’s Church in Bristol. “My mum lived and worked in Bristol for a time and I was over the moon that she heard it there,” he adds.
Relatives provided a key role in an eclectic music education for Ghosh. He learned Bengali folk songs from his extended family, South Asian and classical music from his father and sixties music, including the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, by listening with his mother. Jazz was core in his formative years, too. Before he got into modern jazz through Courtney Pine, Ghosh cites the influence of “old school” giants such as Benny Goodman, Stephane Grappelli (Ghosh played the violin in his childhood), and clarinet maestro Sidney Bechet.
Blue Horizon was a particular Bechet favourite and Ghosh says he referenced the tune on the closing track of his 2022 album Seclused in Light. “The track Farewell Blue is dedicated to my late father. It is modelled on that Bechet structure of a simple recurring theme towards the end of each blues cycle – a piece that stays on the 12-bar blues and just grows throughout it.”
Ghosh, who as a teenager found a mentor in Mike Hall of the Royal Northern College of Music, also soaked up the pop, rave scene sounds, grunge and hip hop and drum and bass music that swept through Manchester in the late 1980s and 1990s. “All these listening things came together. I love composing and when I think about standards and harmony, I always think about what Mike taught me.”
It was while studying in Manchester that Ghosh first met singer Seaming To and the pair became firm friends, sharing a love of experimental music. Seaming To is one of eight musicians on stage for The Canticle of the Sun, joining fellow singer Irini Arabatzi, Ghosh, bassists Ruth Goller (electric) and Davide Mantovani (acoustic double bass), Sarathy Korwar (drums), Mieko Shimizu (synth player and vocalist), and Camilla George (alto saxophone). “Most of the music I am known for is instrumental music but I enjoy songwriting, so setting St. Francis’s amazing words to music was lovely and I enjoy bringing it to life with two brilliant singers. Everyone gets quite a lot of space to play.”
For the show, Ghosh is predominantly on keyboards, setting up the grooves and supporting the harmony, while acting, he says with a laugh, as a sort of MD overseer in the Duke Ellington mode. He takes a back seat as a clarinettist to allow his “brilliant singers” to take centre stage. “I divided the poem into 11 songs based on the sections and themes and set it in the original Umbrian dialect. Each song begins with a chant in English about what the song is about. The music reflects the different themes. You have the raging intensity and excitement and power of The Sun, there is a gentle, almost ethereal, setting for The Moon and the Stars, which is almost like a jazz standard; Wind is driven by cymbals and Fire is wild, almost punky – and the sounds tap into my musical loves.
“In the second half of the piece, St. Francis explores more metaphysical themes, such as peace, love, faith and death. Each one of these has its own movement that has a purer, almost gospel-like setting. Towards the end of Death, I play clarinet. I deliberately save it for that moment,” explains Ghosh, whose father died at the start of the pandemic. “It’s quite significant for me because I get to express my feelings about death. Musically, it offers an opportunity to take the audience on that journey. The song is bluesy and stately and built over this repeated ground bass in D minor, very much a key associated with death. It’s mournful but powerful. It’s one of the pieces of music I have written of which I am most proud.”
Ghosh says that the overall sound of the concert is “spiritual jazz” but very much in keeping with the sort of world music and dance music rhythms that excite him, along with the haunting “down tempo ambient stuff”. Camilla George on alto is another key element of the soundscape. “She is doing the sorts of things that I otherwise might be doing if I was working on clarinet, interjecting among the melodies, supporting them and doing such expressive solos. It has been wonderful to work with her.”
The music is devotional and Ghosh believes there is universal spirituality to a 13th-century Umbrian work, written in the Umbrian dialect, “because St. Francis was dealing with themes that affect everybody. This is our world and this is about our connection to nature and connection to life and for that reason The Canticle of the Sun is very inspiring.”
It adds a special quality, too, that this transcendent music is being performed in such historic, impressive venues. Upcoming concerts are taking place at St. John’s Church, Bethnal Green (1 July), Hull Minster (1 September), St. Barnabas in Oxford (8 September) and St. Bartholomew’s in Marsden, near Huddersfield (9 October). “Performing it in sacred spaces has been the aim of this piece,” remarks Ghosh. “When I was developing it during the pandemic, I had a strong feeling that churches were the place to be, in terms of safety and the longevity of these places as ‘venues’. These are buildings that have stood for hundreds of years and it’s beautiful to present this music in that kind of setting.”
The London gig is part of the Spitalfields Music Festival. “The venue is great acoustically and we are really looking forward to bringing it to the capital. All the musicians are based in the city and Spitalfields is very special in terms of the range of music it puts on in East London, with a focus on jazz, classical and experimental music,” he says. “I am honoured they are presenting this work. I am proud of The Canticle of the Sun as a piece of work and would like to record it later this year.”
Ghosh reels off a list of iconic places they would love to showcase the music too, including Neasden Temple and St Ann’s Church in Manchester. “In 2024 it is the 800th anniversary of St. Francis writing this work and we’d love to take it to Italy then. I am hoping this will go on and on. The songs are strong and people have been very moved by it so far,” Ghosh says. “I would like to feel this is the beginning of something.”
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The Canticle of the Sun tour dates:
1 July, St. John on Bethnal Green
1 Sep, Hull Minster
8 Sep, St. Barnabas Oxford
9 Oct, St. Bartholomews Marsden