Preparing for the Proms performance on August 31 with guitarist Martin Taylor
The Spirit of Django Orchestral Suite, which will be performed on August 31 at the Albert Hall as Prom 65, has, in a way, been 40 years in the making. It was back in 1972 that I first came across the superb guitarist Martin Taylor, whose themes form the basis of the piece. As Martin says: ‘Guy and I first met when we both played in a youth orchestra that was run by trumpeter Ray Crane, a good friend and musical colleague of my father.’
It was the Harrow Youth Jazz Orchestra, and we were a group of young school kids grappling for the first time with the intricacies of trying to play jazz.
At that age I didn’t even realise that the music was improvised and it was a huge shock for me to discover the spontaneous aspect of the genre. ‘Oh no,’ I thought, ‘they make this stuff up as they go along! That’s impossible’.
We struggled gallantly, but none of us could get even close to the music-making of the young guitarist who was with us, who just seemed to play beautiful melodic music like a veteran jazzer, yet was frustratingly around the same age as the rest of us. It was the first time I heard teachers and older professionals use the word ‘special’ to describe an emerging talent.
Martin, though, remembers that he ‘felt a bit out of my depth, as I was the only member of the band that couldn't read music, because I had learned how to play the guitar totally by ear. And I remember my father turning to me and saying: “That lad’s good on trumpet. He’ll go far.”’
We both became full-time musicians, touring the world and recording with various ensembles. Martin again: ‘After that one concert, we only seemed to meet when we were both playing at jazz festivals. One memorable occasion was when Guy was with his great friend Dizzy Gillespie and I was working with Stephane Grappelli. But we always promised ourselves that we would make a point of finding time to share the stage together on a regular basis.’
My life over the past 15 years has moved more and more away from being a gigging musician towards composing and arranging, so when in 2007 Dave Tracey from the International Guitar Festival asked me if I would compose a concerto for Martin, I was intrigued and very excited.
The plan was to perform the projected piece with members of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra plus my big band. So, a lot of musicians, which meant an equally large slice of funding was required. Not only that, but a standard concerto is 20 minutes long, whereas we had an entire evening to fill. This was turning out to be a bigger job than I had anticipated. Over the next three years, there were a series of false starts, variously down to cash flow and the availability of musicians, dates and venues. Eventually, in 2010, a firm slot was set for November and funding was in place from North West Arts. By a stroke of good fortune, 2010 was also the centenary of the birth of one of Martin’s great inspirations, Django Reinhardt. As the concert approached, we realised we were still going to be short of funds, so the Worshipful Company of Musicians stepped in and plugged the gap.
At this stage, though, I still didn’t know exactly what I was going to write. Martin invited me up to his home in Scotland and we spent a great day in his studio where he played for me and showed me themes of his that could form the basis for the whole suite. He also came up with the idea that, even though he was the main soloist, it might be more interesting if we made his group, Spirit of Django, a featured element, a ‘concerto grosso’ if you like. Martin: ‘I suggested to Guy that he could take six of my original compositions for Spirit of Django and expand them into a centenary tribute. It would be straightforward to learn and I’d have the added bonus of hearing my compositions reworked for symphony orchestra.’
We decided that the piece should ‘reek of nostalgia’. Of course, it needed to have many elements of Django Reinhardt but also hints of Debussy (whom Django greatly admired) and the feel of the 30s and 40s, as if it were an imaginary soundtrack to a black and white film depicting summers in France. In fact, it became clear to us that France would also provide another key element to the project. One of Martin’s pieces was called Monsieur Jacques, in tribute to the great Jacques Tati. I wanted to use that theme to create a comedic, almost cartoon-like section of the piece for the French filmmaker.
I realised then that as well as orchestrating and arranging Martin’s tunes, I needed to compose a considerable amount of new material that would form the orchestral settings as well as linking the whole suite together. These big orchestral sections would weave and combine with the big band, the small group and, of course, Martin’s solo guitar. I left that day with the hand written manuscript of Martin’s six themes and a biography of Django, feeling inspired and energised.
I started writing the opening orchestral section on August 1, 2010 and kept writing for the following three months, all the time meeting up with Martin and showing him how it was progressing. He would play along with my demo recordings and in the breaks we would listen to Django and watch Jacques Tati films. It was during one of these moments that Martin said to me: ‘When this is all written, my ultimate dream would be to play it as part of the Proms.’
The premiere of the suite at the Floral Hall in Birkenhead, performed as part of the International Guitar Festival, was a great success. Due to restrictions of the size of the stage - as well as financial considerations - the original piece was written for 41 musicians, with the four saxophone players in my big band doubling all the woodwind parts. It was suggested to me after the concert that there would be more performance opportunities if I were to re-orchestrate the piece for a full symphony orchestra.
In fact, that was how Martin and I had always envisaged the piece. So a couple of months after the first concert, I re-orchestrated the suite and added eight orchestral woodwind, a second harp, timpani and orchestral percussion plus a baritone sax for the big band.
We had the opportunity to play this full 54-minute version in 2011, when we were invited to work on the suite with the students of the Royal Northern College of Music. This gave the college the opportunity to have its orchestra and big band sharing a stage for the first time along with the professional players of Martin’s Spirit of Django. It was a hugely rewarding experience, with a slight feeling of déjà vu, as Martin recalls: ‘It felt as if Guy and I were in the process of taking our musical lives to a full circle since that concert almost 40 years ago, when we were both nervous young musicians trying to grapple with the intricacies of the music we loved and felt so passionately about.’
After that, we went back to our respective careers, Martin on the road and teaching, me straight into writing for the annual Jazz Voice concert at the Barbican, which traditionally opens the London Jazz Festival, and to work on a piece for a French jazz quintet and the Mexico Philharmonic Orchestra.
Then, in the spring of this year, Jazz Voice was confirmed again for November, and at the same time I received a commission from the BBC to arrange and orchestrate the music of Miles Davis for the BBC Philharmonic plus my big band. This latter is an enormous task involving 80 musicians and close to two hours’ worth of music. So I knew that the next few months would be extremely hectic. Shortly after all that was confirmed, I received a phone call from Roger Wright, the director of the BBC Proms, inviting me to give my own concert at the 2012 Proms. He didn’t have anything specific in mind, and said I could perform whatever I wanted.
As I was talking to him, I was pacing up and down, thinking that this was an amazing opportunity, too good to miss, but that I didn’t have time to create something new. As I continued to pace, I was a second away from almost giving up on the idea, because my mind was so full of the other commissions. Roger told me to have a think about it and call me back and suddenly I heard Martin’s voice at the back of my head: ‘When this is all written, my ultimate dream would be to play it as part of the Proms.’
I immediately said, wait a minute, wait a minute, I’ve got something! I then explained all about the piece to Roger. He said: ‘It sounds like a great idea, you check if Martin and your big band are available and I’ll book the Britten Sinfonia.’ It felt like such a wonderful moment, I immediately phoned Martin and said to him, ‘Now, you’re NOT doing anything at all on August 31, are you?’ I explained why and he was overjoyed.
He still is: ‘Collaborating with Guy on The Spirit of Django Orchestral Suite has been a real highlight in my musical career. Hearing how he has given my musical themes a totally new orchestral life has been such a thrilling experience for me. The Albert Hall has got a really special atmosphere like nowhere else and me doing this Prom there is really special for another reason – you dare to wish for something and, for once, it comes true.’
Martin Taylor and Guy Barker will be performing their Spirit of Django Orchestral Suite with the Britten Sinfonia, the Guy Barker Jazz Orchestra and the Spirit of Django group at The Albert Hall on August 31 (Prom number 65).