The last two big band suites by the late contemporary jazz composer Graham Collier, recorded by his 14-piece big band The Jazz Ensemble and described by the critic Brian Morton as comparable to Miles Davis and Duke Ellington.
First, some history.
When Graham died in 2011 he left two major compositions unreleased. After relook in early 2012, it became apparent that it was imperative to record and release these last suites. With the help of some of his closest friends and collaborators over the years, including Roger Dean, Tom Leader, John Marshall, Geoff Warren and Steve Waterman, we set out to arrange the last suites sessions. Geoff agreed to become in effect ‘executive producer’, organizing the rehearsals and conducting the sessions, with Roger, Tom, John and Steve offering help and advice.
'The Blue Suite' was written for a student big band performance at the University of Victoria, Canada, at the invitation of friend and colleague Hugh Fraser in 2007. Graham had just finished writing his last book, the jazz composer, moving music off the paper (2009), parts of which addressed Miles Davis’s 'Kind of Blue' (1959). He had the idea of a piece that would “capture the essence of each of the five pieces on the album in a new way”:
Not a pastiche but a homage to what the pieces, singly, and as a whole, have meant to me as a jazz composer and to jazz in general. Each of the five movements – ‘Kind of Sketchy’, ‘Kind of So What’, ‘Kind of Freddie’, ‘Kind of Green’ and ‘All Kinds’ – can be played alone and contains much room for improvisation, both from me as a director and from the musicians concerned. But the aim in this performance is to ‘mix them up’, to move around freely between the movements, thus adding another dimension to my feeling that each performance of a jazz composition should be very different to the previous one.
It wouldn’t feature any of Davis’s music but, rather, the ideas behind the pieces. It received its European premiere in 2009, when Graham conducted it with the Orchestra Jazz del Conservatorio “A. Boito” di Parma, at the Parmajazz Frontiere Festival in Parma, Italy, at the invitation of his good friend Roberto Bonati. (You can see that version at his jazzcontinuum website.)
'Luminosity' was also written with a concert in mind, an invitation to conduct saxophonist Paul Cram’s Upstream Orchestra in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in February 2011, which would be the last concert Graham ever gave:
This was, like many of my previous compositions, inspired by a specific artist, this time Hans Hofmann, one of the first Abstract Expressionists. I chose five paintings whose titles and imagery appealed. Four of them – ‘Yellow Hymn’, ‘Above Deep Water’, ‘Jardin D’Amour’ and ‘Blue Monolith’ – could stand alone but I decided to frame them, and at times interrupt them, with ‘Orchestral Dominances’, which follows Hofmann’s titling of three related paintings: ‘Orchestral Dominance in Red’, ‘in Yellow’ and ‘in Green’. Thus, in a similar way to The Blue Suite, each performance will produce a different end result, both in the internal elements and in the overall structure.
These recordings were realized with a reconvened version of Graham’s The Jazz Ensemble, the italicized J-word being what Graham probably wouldn’t have called an act of guerrilla polysemy, at Livingston Studios in London in June 2013, with Geoff conducting a 14-piece line-up of old and newer friends, and with permission to use a Hofmann painting on the cover (I should perhaps add that the right-hand crop is Hofmann painting up to and over the canvas edge: another liminality in Graham’s idea of the ‘third colour’, perhaps?).
When the Upstream Orchestra had to temporarily postpone plans to release a DVD of its concert, I sent a copy of it to Michael Rabiger, Graham’s dearest and oldest friend, nowadays semi-retired from his job as Chair of Film/Video and founder of the Documentary Center at Columbia College in Chicago, and Michael’s reply was too lovely not to include here as an unintended sleevenote-cum-memoir. And I could not think of a more acute critical mind than Brian Morton to put these pieces into context.
I would like to thank Michael and Brian for their contributions; Geoff, for taking on the role of executive producer, organizing the sessions and conducting them; Tom, whose ears Graham considered a natural wonder, for producing the recordings; and the musicians, who would, I think, have been Graham’s choice for these sessions, many of whom went out of their way to make themselves available. In a tribute to Graham at his own website, the composer and musician Corey Mwamba wrote perceptively that Graham was, if not unique then notable, for “using the improviser as the material”.
This is what that sounds like.
John Gill, Skopelos, 2014