BEFITTINGLY, Colin Towns’ latest production, Drama, is lavish, expansive and thrilling. Drawn from the composer/keyboardist’s extensive, high-profile projects for the theatre – an environment which he has more than successfully navigated for many years – this double CD combines original music from an impressive range of stage productions with jazz-focused reinterpretations.
The Mask Orchestra was formed by Towns back in 1990 – and for this seventh release, he welcomes back a host of seasoned, big-name jazz artists to collaborate with new-generation players (all listed below) to create a dynamic 21-piece wall of sound. The scale of the undertaking is epic – so much so that these two and a quarter hours might initially feel somewhat dizzying. But then, out of the seemingly relentless rush, the detail begins to emerge as Colin Towns’ considerable jazz, rock, TV and stage soundtrack experience is distilled into a gripping collection of skilfully crafted portraits which draw on a variety of genres, whilst incorporating and encouraging jazz’s inherent improvisational excitement.
To ‘tread the boards’ appropriately, the band were required to digest the synopses of the fifteen storylines – from Macbeth to Hysteria, The Cherry Orchard to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Whatever level of understanding you may or may not have of these great theatrical works, there’s a hair-tingling exhilaration to the musical realisation of each; Towns’ description of his compositions (with their origins in shows from 1986 to 2014) being “simply maps, and the musicians are the magicians who turn them into 3D kaleidoscopes.”
As the house lights fade, this ‘supergroup pit orchestra’ launches into a raucous pictorialisation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a fascinating hybrid of Russian dance and New Orleans street jazz, briefly tempered by Julian Siegel’s lyrical tenor and then excitingly driven into its conclusion by Chris Montague’s electric guitar flamboyance and Stephan Maass’s elaborate percussion. The barren, windswept landscape of Shakespeare’s Macbeth becomes increasingly agitated as it evolves into big band grandeur, brimming with rippling horn riffs and Andrew McCormack’s propulsive piano energy; and the languid jazz expression of Long Day’s Journey Into Night reflects the relentless weariness and bitterness of Eugene O’Neill’s script, beautifully portrayed by close-knit harmonies and sumptuous tenor trombone and sax soloing.
Tom Stoppard’s Shakespearean tragicomedy Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is sneerily quirky and spiky, and The Bard’s own King Lear eerily captured in Towns’ choral synth miniature, with eloquent tenor solo from Nigel Hitchcock. Peter Shaffer’s troubled equine tale, Equus, darts and leaps with especially effective, sinister trumpet neighs and exciting brass and baritone chasing sections; disquieting Ghosts (Henrik Ibsen) floats mysteriously to Henry Lowther’s lithe trumpet lines; and closing ‘Act One’, Terry Johnson’s impressions of Dali and Freud, Hysteria, are portrayed on a grand scale by Towns’ inventive, saturated orchestration, including sumptuous tenor work from Tim Garland.
Opening ‘Act Two’, the Peruvian hues of Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun are enhanced by a buoyant passing around of its progressive, anthemic tune, swelled by saxophone-led improv and Joji Hirota’s huge, Japanese percussion; and vivid orchestration in The Cripple of Inishmaan (Martin McDonagh) cleverly evokes Irish pipes and fiddle. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s energetic fourteen minutes (interpreting Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s famous novel, then movie) become crazy, challenging, mesmerising… and downright entertaining (its fullness almost beyond categorisation), whilst the inquiring nature of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is reflected in the fantastic, pressing urgency of Towns’ big band thriller. And emotionally romantic Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) is captured by the misty, slow-waltzing soprano sax of Simon Allen.
Towns’ vast musical depiction of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (at virtually twenty minutes, almost too broad to take in) is volatile and impassioned, offering a spectacular window into the composer’s major contribution to British theatre. And before a triumphal, final reprise of The Royal Hunt of the Sun, the liberated themes of A Doll’s House (Henrik Ibsen, Frank McGuinness) are presented in exuberant, showy, jazz big band style, Montague’s guitar adding a contemporary, rasping edge – truly edge-of-the-seat stuff!
Most definitely not your average jazz release – but, especially for those with a theatrical proclivity, this is an ambitious project which delivers on so many levels. Released on 2 October 2015 on the Provocateur label, Drama is available from online and record store outlets, and at iTunes.
George Hogg, Graham Russell, Henry Lowther, Rory Simmons trumpets/flugelhorns
Barnaby Dickinson, Tom White, Harry Brown tenor trombones
Roger Williams bass trombone
Peter King, Simon Allen alto/soprano saxophones
Tim Garland, Alan Skidmore, Nigel Hitchcock tenor/soprano saxophones
Julian Siegel baritone/bass clarinet/tenor/soprano/clarinet/flute
Stephan Maass percussion/electronic percussion
Andrew McCormack piano
Arnd Geise bass
Chris Montague guitars
Ralph Salmins drums
Colin Towns keyboards
with special guest Joji Hirota percussion
Provocateur Records – PVC1044 (2015)