Milton Court. 13 July 2023. Part of Guildhall Jazz Open Day. Live review by Sebastian Scotney)
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Scott Stroman has led quite a few major projects recently at Guildhall/ Milton Court. Last year there was a ‘Mingus Epitaph’ and ‘Birth of the Cool’; and this year Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Scorched, written for John Scofield and Peter Erskine, in January, and a new jazz orchestra suite Stroman wrote from Art Blakey’s ‘Moanin’’ in March. Stroman is busy: he also directs the London Jazz Orchestra and Jazz Vespers… and has directed a new, prize-winning recording of Gil Evans’ arrangement of Concerto de Aranjuez with Alison Balsom for a Warner Classics recording.
Last night, Miles Davis/Palle Mikkelborg’s Aura was given its first performance anywhere in the world for the first time since the 1980’s.
Why “Aura”? Here is Scott Stroman launching into his programme note:
“I know of no other piece quite like Aura. Of course, on first hearing, it is the unmistakable voice of Miles which catches the ear, but there is something about the setting, the larger piece, which stands it apart from any other Davis recording since the 1960s. It is the voice of another musician, one who seems to know how to draw out the best in Miles in a large palette; one who somehow, from a distance, shares his world. I know of only one other, Gil Evans, who could do that. Palle Mikkelborg walks in his footsteps.”
“Aura” was originally written as a continuous piece, rather than as on the Grammy-winning album in separate tracks/ movements. Palle Mikkelborg is not well enough to travel so Stroman went to Copenhagen and interviewed him and this interview, interspersed with television footage from the 1980’s was screened to provide the audience with the necessary context.
That background is also given in a digital programme (link below). The key to the work is that its “main theme consists of ten notes generated from the letters ‘M-I-L-E-S-D-A-V-I-S’, with each movement representing a different colour of Davis’ aura as seen by Mikkelborg.” So the movements are Intro / White / Yellow / Orange / Red / Green / Blue / Indigo / Violet / White. Mikkelborg described it in the interview as “a long journey” and that is spot-on. But it is one that is full of event, interest and variety. Mikkelborg also confessed like a naughty schoolboy to having thieved some chords from Messiaen. I think he’s been forgiven..
Stroman also writes in the digital programme: “After a 25-year attempt to make it happen, it finally has, thanks to Adam Williams‘ unearthing of its score in the Danish Radio library, Stuart Hall‘s remarkable achievement in extracting performing materials, and the dedication of all the young musicians on stage. And Palle revealed himself to be a generous, modest, and kindred spirit while hosting me in Copenhagen over two life-enhancing days to discuss music, life, and ‘Aura’.”
It is a hugely ambitious piece, but on a first hearing, my reflection was that it is very hard indeed to believe that it hasn’t been performed for nearly four decades. Why? WHY??!! Surely a trumpeter like Rava or Fresu or Eric Truffaz must have wanted to do it badly enough to make it happen. Or maybe an American conductor could have given it an American premiere. Perhaps it’s because it is a work for augmented jazz orchestra in which the trumpeter is only sporadically involved. Who knows…
(Cue to heap praise on Robbie Robson for his total command of the part and the idiom, and the flawless deployment of an armoury the reverb/effects equipment.
It is strong, vivid atmospheric music, with an astonishing ebb and flow. There is a substantial oboe/ cor anglais part. Well done Charis Lai. The chorus of singers has some amazing and varied writing. Sometimes they supply wordless harmony, at others they seem to be commenting delphically on what is going on. And the score has some amazing switchbacks: my ear was caught by a hushed Section for flute, clarinet, bass clarinet and cor anglais with some other-worldly (make that outrageously dense) harmony…immediately followed by a percussion riot (Marilyn Mazur was involved in the original album (and performance?). That certainly figures.
There was one section where the intensity build made it sound like an ending was coming (just like that point in ‘Firebird’ where audiences always clap and feel dumb), but Stroman managed to indicate very clearly that there would be more music after it and that the applause should be held back. For the ending, there is a section for trumpet and rhythm that recalled “Jack Johnson” and then final word goes to the chorus: everything about it feels mysterious, other-worldly, cosmic…
Conclusion: this is a major piece and Stroman and the Guildhall forces made the case for it impressively, triumphantly. The best test I know after hearing new music is whether I want to hear it again, and when that should be. The answers to that are: Yes. And. As soon as possible.
LINK: Full programme note