Book reviews

Vivien Ardley – ‘Neil Ardley: Kaleidoscopes and Rainbows’

Vivien Ardley (with additional material by John Coles and Dave Gelly) – Neil Ardley: Kaleidoscopes and Rainbows

(Jazz in Britain. Book review by Tony Dudley-Evans)

Not yet a subscriber of our Wednesday Breakfast Headlines?
Join the mailing list for a weekly roundup of Jazz News.


Neil Ardley was a major figure in British jazz in the 1960s and 1970s who combined his activities as a jazz composer and arranger with the writing of science and information books.  He also acted with his first wife, Bridget Ardley, as a researcher for the BBC television programme Mastermind.  These non-jazz activities supported his work as a composer and arranger.

Ardley initially studied composition and arranging with Bill Russo, who had worked with the Stan Kenton band, and also with Ray Premru, an American big band player and writer who worked for many years in London.  Then after a period as pianist in the John Williams Big Band , he joined the New Jazz Orchestra (NJO).  Their coming together was serendipitous in that the NJO were looking for a leader, and Ardley was looking for a group to compose and arrange for.  It was with the NJO that he created his most important works, notably Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe and Kaleidoscope of Rainbows, the latter being regarded by critics as one of the key compositions of British jazz of that period, or indeed any period.

Ardley had the ability to write extended composed pieces that nonetheless left space for improvisation.  He combined the structure of composition with the spontaneity of improvisation, and had the skill of adapting his writing to the individual members of the ensembles he worked with. He took jazz composition beyond theme and variations to a more orchestral approach influenced by Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis and Duke Ellington.

In the period while he was working with the NJO, and after it folded, Ardley became fascinated by synthesizers and integrated their sounds into his compositions.  At one stage he had a recording contract with Decca Records, but its cancellation meant that he was unable to develop his work for synthesizers as fully as he would have liked.  He did, however, put many of his ideas into practice with the Zyklus group with Ian Carr, John L. Walters and Warren Greveson.  Much later he developed a strong interest in vocal music, and wrote a number of pieces for choral groups.   

As a writer of over 100 books about science, engineering and music, he had the skill of writing in a language that was easy to understand for both children and adults.

Vivien Ardley’s book goes into great detail on the various stages of Ardley’s career as a composer and as a writer.  The biography provides an excellent snapshot of the period in the 1960s and 1970s when Ardley was working with the New Jazz Orchestra and a comprehensive description of the many players associated with the Orchestra, players such as Barbara Thompson, Ian Carr, Paul Rutherford, Don Rendell and many others.  It is also very good on the revival of Ardley’s major work, The Kaleidoscope of Rainbows, in the late 1990s, and the tour that it undertook.

Also welcome is the detail on the less well known post New Jazz Orchestra period, when he continued to be very active with writing for  synthesizers and for choral groups.  Aspects of Ardley’s personal life are delicately handled.

The book is beautifully produced with numerous photos of Ardley himself, musicians he worked with and memorabilia such as press releases, liner notes, tickets and posters.  There is not much analysis of the actual music, but Dave Gelly’s introduction is insightful on Ardley’s compositions for the NJO, while John Coles goes into great detail on the electronic equipment Ardley used and developed.  It is clear that Ardley was very creative in the area of technology and in using it in the creation of innovative music.

The best summary of the success of the book comes from the fact that it does what all good books about music should do: it makes one go back to the actual music and listen to the recordings.  The book comes with two CD’s, one of selected works by Zyklus, the other of Ardley with the Danish Radio Big Band playing Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe, Greek Variations and other pieces, including his arrangement of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya’s Surabaya Johnny.  

LINK: Purchase Kaleidoscopes and Rainbows

Categories: Book reviews, Reviews

1 reply »

Leave a Reply