Ahead of LONDON JAZZ x LSO: Part I, award-winning jazz trumpeter, composer and producer Emma-Jean Thackray lets us in on what’s happening behind the scenes, her thoughts behind the concert and chats to the artists involved, including London’s most sought-after jazz drummer Tom Skinner (aka Hello Skinny).
LONDON JAZZ x LSO: Part I is happening on Saturday 28 April at LSO St Luke’s. It’s a night curated by me for the Jerwood Composer+ Scheme, the LSO’s new programme for emerging composers. The scheme supports composers in programming, planning and delivering chamber-scale concerts including work of their own developed through the programme.
The entrepreneurial spirit behind the Jerwood Composer+ scheme is what first attracted me to it. In jazz we always have to think like entrepreneurs. The genre is very much underfunded, and artists have to wear many hats: performer, bandleader, booker, marketer and more. I’ve always put on my own events, at school, through my studies at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Now with the help of the LSO, I'm learning what goes on behind events and gaining the knowledge to sustain my career in the future.
My Jerwood Composer+ buddy (there are only two of us) is Jasmin Kent Rodgman, a fellow cross-genre composer. Her event HUH, the first of the scheme’s events back in March, was a sold-out smash, featuring works from some outstanding composers such as Ayanna Witter-Johnson and Errollyn Wallen. What I loved about Jasmin’s concert was that it felt completely new, it was truly unique. She used the whole of LSO St Luke’s Jerwood Hall: the balconies, the stairs, screens, the whole space. We felt surrounded by this fantastic, genre-defying music. In her interactive sound installation, the audience became literally part of the piece, changing its direction with their movement, making it our own, unrepeatable work.
The unrepeatable-ness has always drawn me to jazz – the improvisation has this ephemeral quality. I love that what you’re experiencing in that moment will never be repeated, it’s a unique moment in time, in the universe, and the relationships which form between performer and audience are quite beautiful. There’ll be a lot of ‘one-off’ stuff happening in the London Jazz x LSO, particularly my reimagining of Hello Skinny’s acclaimed album Watermelon Sun. The whole album will be played live in its entirety (something never done before by Hello Skinny and band). It’s been rearranged by me to be performed by Hello Skinny, some of the LSO’s finest musicians and myself, for a one-off performance – never to be repeated.
Playing Watermelon Sun in a more stripped back, chamber ensemble context is something that works really well. The beautiful subtlety of Hello Skinny’s compositions lends them to the instrumentation I’ve chosen. His sonorous melodies will shine within the delicate timbre of the ensemble, and weave beautifully through the hypnotic, electronic soundscapes.
On being asked to be part of this concert, London’s busiest jazz drummer Tom Skinner (aka Hello Skinny) had this to say: ‘When Emma called and explained that she wanted to reinterpret my latest album Watermelon Sun as part of her residency at the LSO I was quite surprised! I felt extremely flattered that she liked the record enough to want to do something like that. I completely trust Emma's artistic vision and I'm very excited about exploring this music in a different context.’
I think context is key to my thinking for both of my Jerwood Composer+ events. In both the London jazz and contemporary classical scenes, I see music being placed into different contexts, different venues, to different audiences than I’ve seen before. It demonstrates the universality of sound, that no matter the venue, the music is all coming from a similar place. I hear the prolific explorations of Arthur Russell just as much in Anna Meredith’s music as I do in Hello Skinny’s. There are so many parallels between these two worlds: the squawks and skronks of Christopher Fox and Shabaka Hutchings, the trancelike repeated phrases of Steve Reich and Sons Of Kemet, the transcendent soundscapes of Kerry Andrew and Hector Plimmer, and the playfulness of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Elliot Galvin. New classical music and the London jazz scene both are both so richly diverse, and they have so much in common to my ears.
Tom Skinner, for whom Hello Skinny and Sons Of Kemet are just the tip of a musical iceberg, is a perfect example of how jazz in London has been taken so much further than we’ve seen before. Jazz musicians in London are involved in so many different projects and soundworlds, and those influences are so clear to see in our music.
London being the amazing hub that it is, musicians come from all over the globe. International artists stop here to perform, record and live and consequently, the city is a melting-pot of amazing art and culture.
You can hear all of that Watermelon Sun, which is just as much jazz as it is electronic soundscape as it is left-field NYC disco.
When talking to Tom about genre boundaries, I asked what parallels he could see between jazz and classical music. ‘Everything and nothing! I mean genres don't really mean anything anymore do they? Which is a good thing in my view... they never meant much to me anyway. There is a lot of so-called jazz and improvised music that is more through-composed and there is a lot of contemporary classical music that uses improvisation as a compositional tool. It's kind of pointless to make such distinctions these days, good music is good music.’
Speaking of improvisation, I have been incredibly impressed with the LSO musicians so far in our rehearsals. When improvising with non-jazz musicians, I’ve often had very mixed responses. There are sound-painters from Europe who are fantastic at sculpting the overall arc of a piece but dismissive of details, there are classical musicians who simply ‘don’t improvise’ and some wonderful improvisers who don’t use jazz language at all. But Hilary Jane Parker (violin), Hannah Grayson (flutes) and Heather Roche (contrabass clarinet) are some very sensitive improvisers who totally got what was required right away. When rehearsing the Watermelon Sun set, they have improvised with such musicality and a total understanding of the need for space and for letting phrases breathe. They also threw themselves completely into using electronic effects for the first time too. Expect big things from these musicians: every single member of the ensemble holds their own identity and shines as an individual. There are no weak links or background players here.
Throughout this process, I’ve tried to make sure that the musicians from the LSO are seen as musicians with their own voices, rather than mere ensemble players. Of course, when playing in the orchestra, their job is to blend seamlessly within their sections, but I wanted to have them stand on their own. It was so important that I got to know their individual sounds as well as musical backgrounds.
Hannah Grayson will be playing flute and alto flute. She has such a gorgeous tone and all of my fluttery lines for her she plays with ease. I first met Hannah while working on the Sound and Music Young Composer Summer School, where she’s on hand to field students’ questions about the flute, as well as perform and record their final pieces. Even working with young composers who are experimenting or perhaps just taking their first wobbly steps toward writing for the flute, she makes everything she plays sound secure and divine. Her commitment to new music and to helping the younger generation with their musical development means she is not only integral to this chamber ensemble for our concert 28 April, but to all of new British music.
Excerpt from Emma-Jean Thackray’s piece Make Do. Hear it on 28 Apr
Not only does Hilary Jane Parker (violin) play the heck out of her instrument, she wants to understand the musical intent behind what she plays and to use that to fuel her. She’s excited by the new, rather than scared or dismissive. She wishes to ‘listen with bigger ears’, and when I asked her about genre-crossover work she said, ‘real musicians and audiences never ‘pigeon-hole’, they just open their ears.’ And that both jazz and classical music are ‘pushing timbres to the edge of ‘decency’ ‘. I think we’ll definitely push to the edge of decency on April 28 – we’ll show the beautiful and the ugly, the calm alongside the manic.
Heather Roche joins us on contrabass clarinet. She originally started playing new music for composer friends during her undergrad, her proficiency for extended techniques making her the one to call. Even now with several research degrees under her belt and an international performing career, she’s an advocate for new music, and often helps composers with writing phases of their work. Her website is also a goldmine resource for composers wanting to write the weird and wonderful for clarinet (including myself, even before Heather was confirmed on the project). ‘It's always been exciting, hearing new things each week, being challenged in different ways. And I still really love the community aspect of it, and being part of something that's really alive. And if I can use what skills I have to help composers make their stuff exist in the world that's just really empowering.’
On the mic on 28 April is poet and rapper Cecil B Dyslexik, a key member of the burgeoning south London music scene.
He is a fierce presence on stage as part of the duo Debtford and a collaborator with celebrated young jazz band Sumo Chief (now split, but check out the solo projects of former keys player Joe Armon-Jones and guitarist Oscar Jerome). He’s also the spearhead for Deptford jam night Feed The Fishes and previously been a core figure behind Steez, a community and night of live music, poetry, jams and DJs through which many of London’s hottest young acts have come up.
Cecil B Dyslexik has been there behind some of the most integral live music events within the current London music scene, and even a programmer further afield at award-winning festival Brainchild, although he would never say so himself.
‘My place in the scene has been as an occasional collaborator with bands such as sumo chief but predominantly as an observer. Anything I could of done to help I like to think I have and would of seen in terms of putting nights on as being a facilitator to people or a movement that exists regardless of my involvement.’
I asked Cecil if he was aware of the importance Steez would come to have, when he was working on the early events. ‘I think everyone who was around at the early Steez events felt something exciting was brewing, but I wouldn’t of said at the time that it was just the jazz elements or bands of the scene that were exciting, it was a melting pot of sound on the same stage and at the same events – people from all walks of background and sound and skill just wanting to share with each other. A strong spoken word/ poetry community was being built along side the jazz scene, as well as a myriad of producers and beatmakers, songwriters, rappers, singers and artists. I think you can hear that in a lot of the new London jazz scene. There’s all sorts of inspiration in the sound, which is why I’m hesitant to solely call it a new London jazz scene, as I believe everyone involved knows the scene extends past just jazz.’
Having been involved in many genre-defying events for a long time, Cecil and I first met four years ago whilst working on a night for Filthy Lucre, an art collective (also partnered with We Break Strings) who put on events that move from concert to gig to club night, focussing on ambitious contemporary music.
‘Filthy Lucre had hit up Steez, ran by Luke Newman at the time, who recommended myself and him to collaborate, and one of the artists involved was Emma-Jean Thackray. She’d composed a track called mosquito for electronics and jazz guitarist Rob Luft and I wrote a few verses titled ‘Concrete Slabs’. We’ve stayed in touch and often talked about more collaboration, so it’s exciting for that to now materialise …’
Nick Rutter, for Filthy Lucre: Lost In The Nameless City
I’m so excited to be sharing some brand new music with you at this event. There will be new work commissioned especially for this concert, and also material from my forthcoming release with The Vinyl Factory, Ley Lines. The whole record was written, performed, record, mixed and produced by me. And so it’s really refreshing to take the material and play it with other musicians. It has been breath-taking to hear their touches on music that was originally from a singular voice (literally – it’s me playing all the instruments on the recording).
I feel so lucky to be collaborating with such wonderful artists for London Jazz x LSO: Part I. For me, curating the event is just about setting the wheels in motion. I know these people will work fantastically together and create a night to never be forgotten, but that doesn’t mean they have to play exactly what I write … I like to think of my scores as guides, and I love for musicians to take ownership of their parts and expand on what I’ve written down. Yes, I’m there to guide and to coax as a performer/ conductor, but the unexpected is where the true excitement lies for me. That ephemeral nature of a moment that can never be repeated is the core of live music for me.
So, come through on April 28 at St Luke’s for a truly one-off concert. These arrangements with these people in this place will never be performed again, and even if they were, it would sound totally different, so don’t miss out and make sure you get those tickets. Don’t sleep!!
Hear Emma-Jean Thackray at LONDON JAZZ X LSO: Part 1 at LSO St Luke's on 28 April.