French horn player Jim Rattigan’s new release, the 3-CD box set “Duos” – also featuring pianists Ivo Neame and Hans Koller, and guitarist Nick Costley-White – will be released on 20 October and launched at Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, London, on 9 October. Feature by John Fordham
When Jim Rattigan and I last talked for LJN in December 2020 (link below), the former classical French horn player and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra member was launching the sixth album he’d made since he swapped a classical career for jazz at the turn of the millennium.
Entitled simply When (expressed with characteristic Rattigan quirkiness as a statement, not a question), that set brought together this versatile artist’s inimitable horn sound, a classical string quartet and an A-list jazz rhythm section on ten of his genre-fluid original pieces.
As we reconvene this month (a welcome appointment since Rattigan is the most affably eloquent of interviewees) to catch up on his latest release, he turns out this time to have headed in the opposite direction – into more private, delicate and personal conversations with just three other jazz soloists, on a trio of very different albums gathered into a single box set.
The new 3-CD collection, Duos, features the leader’s caressing and pliable horn sound in exchanges with the acclaimed and multi-talented former Phronesis pianist Ivo Neame, with composer/pianist, Thelonious Monk devotee and long-time Rattigan soul-mate Hans Koller, and subtle postbop guitarist Nick Costley-White.
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Since Rattigan’s original plan had been for a single-disc duo improvisation on jazz’s standard songs – that mix of downbeat poetry, wry humour and street wisdom that came to be known as the Great American Songbook – the project has considerably outgrown its first intentions. But happenstance got a grip on the plans, as it so often does – beginning when the composer met Ivo Neame, an occasional dep for pianist Nikki Iles on piano on the tour following the launch of When.
‘I’ve always written my own music, I’ve done it on the piano for years, way back into the time I was primarily a classical musician,’ Rattigan says, ‘and most of the material on my own albums has been pieces I’ve composed. But I love standard songs too, it’s just not always that easy to find a situation to explore them in contemporary music.’
In Ivo Neame, however – despite a work schedule that might well have put the gifted pianist out of bounds – Rattigan found a willing partner.
‘I entered the jazz world relatively late because I had a classical career first,’ Rattigan says, by way of background. ‘And I’ve found that for people of my sort of age now, or maybe in their 40s or younger, if you just ask them if they’d like to have a play for fun, it’s rare they’ll say yes, because they did all that casual playing when they were 20. You can say “fancy a play?” and they’ll probably say “ok yeah, when’s the gig?”.
‘So it’s quite rare for someone with a reputation like Ivo’s to agree, but I asked him after he’d done one or two gigs on the When tour, and he said “yes”, so we did some duos at his place, where he has a recording studio. The first thing we played was Bill Evans’ “Very Early”, a beautiful tune that felt great straight away. That’s a good feeling in a duo because you have to have a complete affinity with each other. There’s nowhere to hide in that situation.
‘Then I went back a couple of weeks later, and we batted some other tunes about – ‘Chelsea Bridge’, which I’ve always loved, and ‘Infant Eyes’, which sounds great on the French horn. Ivo had great rearrangements of both of those, though his versions were quite challenging for French horn. So we were on our way.’
At this time, Rattigan was still imagining a single album of standards. But the curiosity and originality of both players took their encounters somewhere else. Neame introduced a dreamy, unhurriedly time-changing original tune called ‘Passing Point’, a reverie mixing poignant long tones and episodes of scurrying figures which Rattigan considered tailor-made for his instrument.
‘But at this point I thought, hang on a minute, this is turning into an Ivo Neame album’, Rattigan announces, with his periodically hilarious Tommy Cooper-like guffaw. ‘Well, no, I didn’t really, but we were clearly going somewhere different, which was leading to our own material. I had some sketches of pieces I’d worked out for an all-day event at the Bear Club in Luton, where musicians had been invited to show the audiences how compositions emerge from sketches to finished pieces – so I showed some of those to Ivo, who’s very quick at reading anything you put in front of him, and getting inside unfamiliar music. I brought out a piece of mine called “A Hero’s Path”, which was inspired by Richard Strauss, and “Reverie”, which is a piece by the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov, which I’d played many times as a classical horn player, and it’s a lovely tune. I’d always thought it would make a great jazz standard.’
At this point, in January 2022, Neame’s home studio allowed the pair plenty of time to shape and rework what became a seven-part tracklist, but one that finally included only two tunes – Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Chelsea Bridge’ and Wayne Shorter’s ‘Infant Eyes’ – that could nowadays be regarded as ‘jazz standards’.
‘So we had an album that had been great to do, but then I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it next, to be honest,’ Rattigan says. ‘How to promote it, how to get gigs for such an unusual duo – playing mostly new music, for piano and French horn. Promoters and audiences go “French horn, what’s that?”.
Those concerns parked the project for a while, but Rattigan had a connection that offered another route to the standards theme. On some gigs in 2019 with the former Graham Collier saxophonist/composer Pete Hurt’s big band, he met young guitarist Nick Costley-White, an accomplished contemporary bandleader with deep roots in the classic jazz tradition. Listening at close range to the guitarist’s warm chordwork and subtle interplay with soloists, suggested a duo sound to Rattigan that struck a particularly familiar chord.
‘It’s always been in the back of my mind, and particularly over the past ten years or so,’ Rattigan observes, ‘that I’ve been a great admirer of the work of Jim Hall’s guitar with Bob Brookmeyer’s valve trombone, particularly on a fantastic 1979 album of theirs, Live At The North Sea Jazz Festival. Their interplay on it was really inspiring – though I wouldn’t compare the sound of the French horn and the valve trombone; they’re very different.
‘But I could hear how something similar could be done with the French horn and Nick’s guitar. So after I’d played with Nick in Pete Hurt’s band, I went to a gig of his at the Vortex Club. He was in a quartet with the vibes player Jim Hart. It was great to hear him in that small setting, so afterwards, I rang him up and arranged to go to his Dalston flat for a play, and that’s how the second album of this set – I titled it “You Must Believe In Spring” – came about in October last year. Playing tunes with Nick just felt so nice. He’s got so many tunes in his repertoire, his own and other people’s, but he knew all the standards.’
Rattigan and Costley-White recorded 11 tunes for ‘You Must Believe In Spring’, from Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Ligia’ to the bebop classic ‘Parker’s Mood’, to the Michel Legrand title track, Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life’, the ever-haunting ‘Body and Soul’ and more. This was when Rattigan mentioned these explorations to the Three Worlds Records label, which had released three of his earlier albums. It was yet another piece of happenstance that dropped the third piece of the jigsaw of Duos into place.
‘I told them about another collaboration I’d love to do, with Hans Koller – a great pianist and composer, and a friend of mine for many years – that would be dedicated to Thelonious Monk’s music,’ Rattigan recalls, ‘and they immediately said, “why not make it a box set?” I don’t know exactly why the Monk idea came about at that time, but I think I did a Zoom interview during the lockdowns with these students from a college in New Jersey I’ve played at in the past. One of them, a big Monk fan, asked me what my favourite Monk tunes were, and apart from “Round Midnight” and “Ruby My Dear” I realised I didn’t know them well enough. And I thought, if I want to delve deeper into Monk, it’s got to be with Hans. He’s been listening to Monk since he was a kid.’
When Jim Rattigan was making the difficult shift from a distinguished classical career into a contemporary jazz world of pitfalls and unfamiliar challenges in the 1990s, the erudite and polymathic Hans Koller – developing fast as a big-band jazz composer at that time and a fan of Rattigan’s unique horn sound as a key ingredient – had often been his guide. Years of playing and talking music together have infused the sound they make as a partnership now, and Koller’s decades-long fascination with Monk’s wayward yet profoundly logical imagination has been an influence on Rattigan’s thinking for much of that time. ‘Thelonious Monk’, the third element of this quietly but richly diverse Duos box set, makes a fitting finale for it. Monk’s music sounds contemporary in any era, and on classics like ‘Trinkle Tinkle’, ‘Blue Monk’, ‘Pannonica’, and ‘Ruby My Dear’, Rattigan and Koller reiterate that truth in their own devotedly but idiosyncratically Monkish ways.
‘Monk wrote melodies that last forever,’ Rattigan says. ‘They have classic progressions which the tunes work incredibly well with, but never quite in the way you thought they would. Hans says Monk’s music “throws curveballs”, and I think that’s a great description. He has also said, “It’s in the DNA of the French horn to throw curveballs”, and that’s true too, and it’s the reason why I try not to imitate the sound of another instrument but use the French horn for what its strengths are. It’s always up to the players to make the music work.’
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Jim Rattigan’s Duos, featuring Ivo Neame, Nick Costley-White and Hans Koller, is released on Three Worlds Records in collaboration with ECN Music on 20 October, and launched at Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, London, on 9 October.