Paul Mottram’s ‘Seven Ages of Man’, with major roles for Tim Garland, Jason Rebello and Jonny Mansfield, will be “among the most ambitious UK jazz or jazz-related album releases this year.” Feature by John Bungey.
By any measure, Paul Mottram’s suite for jazz sextet and orchestra is set to be among the most ambitious UK jazz or jazz-related album releases this year. Over 70 minutes and nine sections this deeply melodic work treads a nimble path between jazz improvisation and classical form as moods change from jubilant to restless to reflective. Tim Garland‘s talents on saxophones and bass clarinet take the spotlight, but there are telling contributions too from Jason Rebello, piano, and Jonny Mansfield on vibraphone.
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Seven Ages came about because the composer, who has enjoyed a long, successful career writing music for TV and film, wanted to create a concert work for Garland, an old friend from student days at the Guildhall School of Music. “I imagined music where Tim could seamlessly start improvising from a musical backdrop which might be notated, might be improvised,” he says.
It was the saxophonist who suggested using a schematic framework and Mottram eventually settled on Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like lt. Thus the piece moves through a lullaby-like “Infant” section, playful “Schoolboy”, the angst of “Lover”, the adult concerns of “Soldier” and “Judge”, before “Pantaloon” and the resolution and return to childlike simplicity of “Old Age”.
Although the arc of a life appealed to Mottram, he decided to expand on the Bard. Musically, he says, it made sense to add two preceding sections, “Origins” and “Gestation”. “’Infant’ sounds gentle and didn’t seem like the route into the album I wanted, hence the more abstract, philosophical opening, which is designed to tee you up for the Seven Ages proper.” Moods differ too from Shakespeare: there’s not much “mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms” in Mottram’s altogether happier and more serene take on the early years.
The suite’s own infancy began with a draft of “Gestation” back in 2018. “That was a little bit of a test piece in that I knew Tim was going to be in the work and I knew there was going to be a string orchestra. I wasn’t quite sure how much of a jazz group was going to be around him. I began to realise that with such a big work he couldn’t be the only jazz element, I needed a bigger palette.”
When it came to recording, Mottram’s A-list sextet also included Ralph Salmins on drums, Misha Mullov-Abbado on double bass and Paul Clarvis‘s percussion; each player bringing some of their own personality to the concept. “You write the piece,” says Mottram, “and then the recording process continues the evolution of the composition, almost like excavating. You’re remodelling and going down slightly different avenues.” The strings were recorded in the famous acoustic of studio one at Abbey Road.
The resulting album resolves “unfinished business”, says the composer – his desire to write for his old friend, a player who climbed to the jazz summit as a member of Chick Corea’s band for 17 years.
Mottram recalls the impact of first hearing Garland: “At the Guildhall Tim wasn’t on the jazz course, he was studying classical, and at the beginning of the year wasn’t really playing in any of the jazz groups. Then I saw him as a new guy in the saxophone section; he started soloing and he was just on a completely different level to anyone who was actually on the jazz course.
“When I talked to him I saw the depth of his musical knowledge. It’s no surprise he has been so successful.”
Mottram began his own career orchestrating for films including Chaplin, Shirley Valentine and Rain Man. Later he started writing for radio and TV and his compositions are often sprinkled across an evening’s viewing: The Great British Bake Off, The Apprentice, Doctor Who, QI, The Crown … The Seven Ages concept appealed to his way of working. “I like composing within parameters. There is nothing more terrifying that the blank canvas; to have a few anchors to tie the music in always helps.”
He doesn’t see the suite as part of any grand Gunter Schuller-esque, third stream tradition of jazz-meets-classical experiments. “That didn’t occur to me. It’s just an expression of how I see my relationship with classical and jazz music. If I wrote an out-and-out classical piece I think I’d probably have a similar harmonic sound-world. As soon as you introduce grooves you invite the possibility of improvisation.
“For me and for Tim, we don’t really see the divisions. There used to be improvising in the classical world but it was lost in the Romantic era. Of course, you hear of Franz Liszt extemporising, but never within a notated composition – Mahler wouldn’t have been impressed.”
Mottram is now exploring the idea of a Seven Ages concert. “I was thinking of a live performance around the time the album comes out but it might be easier after the record is released and hopefully has made a little bit of a splash. It would lend itself possibly to dance, or an audio-visual production – I can see that working.”
Mottram, who for all his talents is not one to blow his own trumpet, smiles and adds: “It’s very easy for a composer to have grandiose ideas above their own station.” He is though delighted with the album. “I was overdue writing some concert music and I think I’ve been able to express the things I wanted to say.”
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Seven Ages of Man is released by Ubuntu (CD and digital) on 6 October