The Julian Siegel Jazz Orchestra has five tour dates from 7 to 12 February. The 19-piece orchestra will be taking “Tales from the Jacquard” and other pieces to Birmingham, Southampton, Sheffield, Derby and London. Feature by John Fordham
After a quarter-century at the forefront of UK jazz and the wider music world too, the self-effacing Julian Siegel may still sometimes look as if he’s surprised to find himself a centre of attention – but the many milestones this resourceful and imaginative artist has passed in a career as a multi-reeds virtuoso, composer and bandleader since the turn of the millennium show exactly why heads turn his way whenever he unpacks a horn.
Nottingham-born Siegel co-led the innovative and globetrotting fusion band Partisans with guitarist Phil Robson from 1997 to 2019, became a rare British leader of a star US rhythm section in a trio with Americans Greg Cohen and Joey Baron on bass and drums in 2007 – winning a prestigious BBC Jazz Award for Best Instrumentalist the same year – and has played saxes and bass clarinet for international ensembles from Hamburg’s NDR Big Band, to those of Hermeto Pascoal, Django Bates, Michael Gibbs, Nikki Iles, and many more. His ongoing small-band touring project is the experienced and empathic Julian Siegel Quartet, with pianist Liam Noble, bassist Oli Hayhurst, and drummer Gene Calderazzo.
But from February 7 to 12, this man for all jazz seasons takes the most ambitious and personal project of his career on the road – his own A-list 19-piece jazz orchestra, formed in 2017 to play and record expanded arrangements of his small-band repertoire, but principally the autobiographical suite Tales from the Jacquard. The piece takes its inspiration from the Siegel family’s history in the Midlands’ lacemaking trade, and the influence on the bandleader’s life of music-loving parents who were devoted Count Basie and Gustav Mahler fans simultaneously, and plenty more besides.
“I grew up in Nottingham, where my parents were involved in the lace trade for over 50 years, and ran a lacemaking factory’, Siegel says, when we catch up on the phone to bring the Jacquard story up to date. “After work, at home, music would always be on the turntable, much of it jazz and classical. As a great music enthusiast, my dad used to say that when the lacemaking looms were running, he wanted to conduct them, they had such a groove to their sound. So when Geoff Wright of Derby Jazz came up with the original invitation in 2017, saying they’d like a big-ensemble piece, but ideally with an East Midlands theme, it made me think I’d try to do this project about the area’s lace industry, somehow.
“But I also thought I could draw on some of the music my parents loved, and which was all around our house in my childhood,” Siegel continues. “We went to concerts a lot when I was a kid, in the Midlands and in London, we constantly listened to music on record and on radio – Sundays especially, when the mornings were devoted to jazz and the afternoons to classical – and the record collection included much Basie and Ellington, vocalists Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams, as well as Mahler, Beethoven, and Brahms. My parents were signed-up members of the Count Basie Society, they used to go and hear his band whenever it toured here. They loved the saxophone players in the Basie band, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis particularly. And a huge big-band inspiration for me was the Mel Lewis Orchestra album 20 Years at the Village Vanguard, which I bought when I was about 18. Amazing arrangements by great musicians like Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer and Jim McNeely, fantastic playing from saxophonists Joe Lovano, Ralph Lalama, and Dick Oatts.”
From all those vivid memories, and the very different ones of hearing the vast but dizzyingly-intricate lacemaking machinery in action in his childhood, Siegel found the fuse for his project. Traditional lacemaking looms were sophisticated pieces of 19th century Industrial Revolution technology, their ironclad muscle capable of delicately spinning mimicry of spiders’ webs in linen and silk, the mechanism’s unerring paths dictated by cylinder-mounted punch-cards encoded from a designer’s hand-drawn sketches. Those Jacquard cards, named after the devices that brought automation to lacemaking, were where Siegel began looking for musical clues.
“The cards were a way in, because I saw some at my dad’s factory,” Siegel remembers. “They were old technology by then, because he’d modernised the machines and the cards were no longer used. But I remember thinking they were fascinating objects. Then when the project was commissioned, I discovered the Cluny Lace factory in Derbyshire, which has kept the old technology and still uses the traditional methods, so I spent a very memorable couple of days there, and talked to the “Card Puncher” at the factory who still makes those cards, copying the old patterns and developing new ones.
“So that was when I started work on the music. The cards reminded me of the punch-cards for player-pianos – where something similar automatically operates the keys. They use the forerunner of computer code – ones and zeroes – so I tried to understand the numbers in each column and what they were doing, and turn that into a musical code. The last section of “Tales from the Jacquard” begins with a rhythm the card suggested first, which in turn suggested a melody. After a while there were four or five ways I used to start off the sections in the suite. For this tour, I’ve written a new piece called “Twisthands” – the people operating the machine are called that in the trade – where I used the numbers from an unused card I had to create two melodies. One was diatonic – in a seven-note scale – the other was a chromatic version of the numbers in the card, using 12 pitches, with all the semitones. After playing with the melody for a while each melody implied chords and rhythms, the first one sounded like it was in 3/4, and the second chromatic one ended up as a ballad and then into a groove section. I can’t wait to hear what happens with it in rehearsal. I really enjoy writing for particular soloists in mind, it’s so exciting to hear them shape the music in their own ways.”
Siegel had begun the “Tales from the Jacquard” suite with an archive recording of the swelling hum and vintage-train-like clank of the looms in motion, before Liam Noble’s barely-struck piano ruminations usher in dreamily pulsating orchestral harmonies followed by a driving call-and-response of luxurious riffing and nimble trumpet rejoinders from the NDR Big Band’s Claus Stötter. A playful repeating piano figure echoing the lacemaking looms’ chatter underpins Siegel’s soprano-sax exchanges with Tori Freestone’s sensuous flute lines, and those hypnotic machine-grooves also open the suite’s third part, with its gripping slow transition from dark, disquieting drama to classic big-band-riffy bebop. The suite, a selection of Siegel updates from earlier small-group pieces, and a sprightly cover of Cedar Walton’s “Fantasy in D” (with a thunderous tenor-sax battle between Siegel and Stan Sulzmann) rounded off a formidable recording debut for the orchestra, assembled from live shows on the 2017 tour. Stötter, Freestone, Sulzmann, and long-time Siegel drums sidekick Gene Calderazzo are among several front-rank sidepersons from those sessions, returning to the lineup for this month’s reunion.
Julian Siegel muses on the early days of the orchestra in spring 2017. When the musicians first came together, he was sure something special was likely to happen, given the quality of the players, and the crucial presence of Julian Siegel Quartet lynchpins Liam Noble, bassist Oli Hayhurst, and Calderazzo, joining him at the core of the ensemble, alongside the ever in-demand guitarist Mike Outram. But the effect on that first rehearsal was something he hadn’t bargained for.
“The first thing they played at the first rehearsal just blew me away,” he says, “even though I already knew what a great bunch of musicians they were, and long-time collaborators of mine in my groups and their own. And then when we got on the road, travelling with any good band, whether it’s a small or a large group, really reminds you how much a group of fantastic improvisers change the music each night.”
Siegel is unmistakeably thrilled to be taking an ambitious venture so close to his heart and his personal history on the road again. The pandemic’s shutdown of live performance immensely disheartened him – as a player, as a composer without players to try out his ideas on, and as a music-lover who relishes just being around the spaces where creative sounds are being made. But he doesn’t take the arrival of opportunities like this month’s tour for granted, or underestimate the challenges artists face to get their work in front of audiences in such tough economic times. He unhesitatingly credits the invaluable organisational help of Elaine Crouch in getting this tour together, and is grateful for the support of Arts Council England, Whirlwind Records, and the tireless dedication of the UK’s jazz promoters.
“But it’s very difficult to know where things are at right now,” he muses. “Every project that suddenly appears on the scene, if you’ve done it yourself you know what a long arc there would have been to getting it there. When all live music stopped in the pandemic…well, what a terrible time that was. And now it’s back, it’s just so fantastic to play to an audience again, to be able to go to a gig again. This music isn’t just about the sounds – it’s about the scene it’s part of, it’s about being around the places where it’s made, and the amazing people doing it. Of course we’re in a period where’s money’s tight and it’s hard to foresee the future – but I’m just excited that lots of interesting things are happening now, and this music never stops. Musicians have a need to keep creating it and putting it out. It’s always so inspiring to know that’s going on around you”.
Before we part, we return to the ever-intriguing theme of inspirations – but this time not the examples of jazz giants of the past on lovingly-cherished vinyl albums, but the examples of the gifted composer/bandleaders Julian Siegel has worked with and learned from down the years.
“When you’re a sideman in a great leader’s band, you’re trying to take care of the written parts – of course! – but you’re also trying to listen to the sound and feel of the whole music that’s happening around you and go with that, whether it’s in written or in improvised sections”, Siegel observes. “In Mike Gibbs’ band, for instance, he manages to open the thing up so much, and so much of the music is off the page. Same with Stan Sulzmann, and Hermeto Pascoal, Django Bates, Nikki Iles and Jason Yarde. They manage to get the music happening that isn’t written down. So that balance of writing and letting it happen is incredibly exciting.
‘When to stop writing and let the band play is definitely a consideration, whether it’s for large or small group. It’s nice to try to write things that act as launchpads for the soloists in the band and to create some different spaces. On “Tales from the Jacquard” I wrote “into” and “out of” sections where I used the card in more defined ways – trying to have some fun with it and leave plenty of space for solos. So I’m very excited about this upcoming tour, really looking forward to seeing what happens when we get together again. With these musicians, I know it’s going to be different every night!’
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The Julian Siegel Jazz Orchestra play “Tales from the Jacquard” and other pieces at Birmingham Symphony Hall (7 Feb), Turner Sims, Southampton (9 Feb), Sheffield Jazz, Crookes Social Club (10 Feb), Deda Studio Theatre, Derby (11 Feb), Ronnie Scott’s, London (12 Feb). This five-date tour has received support from Arts Council England.
Tales from the Jacquard is on Whirlwind Recordings
Visit www.juliansiegel.com for more information on the tour and venue ticket links
Categories: Feature/Interview, Feature/Interview (PP)