Don’t Look Back - The CD
When worlds collide
Over the course of four sweltering days last July, while the G8 leaders held their summit at Gleneagles, an historic meeting was taking place in the west end of Glasgow.
BBC Scotland's Studio One was the setting for a unique recording project which, from the outset, has captured the imagination of everyone involved. The recording was by the top American jazz cornetist Warren Vaché, and it featured the Scottish Ensemble, the acclaimed, 12-strong classical strings group. I was there to make notes for what would eventually turn out to be the CD's accompanying booklet.
The recording, for the American independent jazz label Arbors Records, was the result of months of planning by Vaché, who assembled an awesome range of material for the CD. Not only did he make his debut as an arranger for the project, but he also got hold of arrangements by friends, the guitarist James Chirillo – who also played on the recording and wrote an original composition for it – and the British jazz all-rounder Alan Barnes.
As if all that wasn't enough, he talked veteran arranger Bill Finegan out of retirement and into providing three arrangements.
And, to cap it all, Chirillo came up with a previously unrecorded chart written for jazz legend Charlie Parker's own strings album nearly 50 years ago.
So, with only four days to rehearse and record what Vaché undoubtedly regards as the most prestigious album in his 30-year career, the heat was on when the jazz star and the virtuoso classical group finally met up. From the start, the tension was tangible: here were musicians from two almost entirely different – and only occasionally overlapping – schools collaborating on what, for the jazz contingent, was very much a labour of love.
It was no surprise to find that classical musicians prepare for a recording session differently from the jazz musicians. Ironically, however, it was Vaché who, because it was his baby, knew the music inside and out – although he was improvising his part. The classical musicians were sight-reading.
Whereas Vaché was itching to get on with his dream recording, the classical way was more formal, with the Scottish Ensemble's artistic director and leader, Jonathan Morton, asking questions about specific aspects of the music so that he could then give the musicians notes on tempo and colour.
But all it took was one run-through of the first number, My Mistress' Eyes, before Vaché, conscious throughout of getting the recording done in the time available, tipped the wink to the sound guys – from the famous Nola Studios in New York – to start recording. Knowing the next run-through would be a "take" seemed to galvanize everyone, and the second performance of the tune sounded totally different – fuller and more complete – to the first.
By the fifth take, Vaché was visibly and audibly more relaxed. The playfulness that characterizes some of his best playing had kicked in – his cornet skips over the notes when he solos – along with his habit of swaying gently from side to side on his stool.
He may have been playful and seductive-sounding as he was being recorded, but the famously irritable star was clearly struggling to keep his blood pressure from responding to the "nit-picking" that went on throughout the sessions. A large part of the problem was, again, the varying ways in which different types of musicians do things, though it was also Vaché's acute awareness that the clock was ticking; if the session overran, then Arbors was going to have to pay the band overtime – and that they could be playing rather than discussing, as he put it, "individual notes".
There were some memorable exchanges between Vaché and Morton, which, at the time, seemed to have the potential to trigger a third world war, but were defused as soon as they started playing together.
Upon being asked how a particular section of Bill Finegan's arrangement of Harold Arlen's It Was Written in the Stars should sound, Vaché mischievously replied: "Menacing. Think of me when you play it."
Again, the pressure was on Vaché with the Finegan numbers: he made it clear that he was determined to give the best possible account of them, to make the veteran arranger proud.
Fast forward to May this year when I bumped into another of the arrangers – Alan Barnes – at the Blackpool Jazz Party. Thanks to my trusty iPod, I was able to give him his first taste of the final mix of his contribution, David Raksin's haunting ballad My Love and I.
Ecstatic doesn't cover it.
Barnes was blown away by the introduction, and the earphones were passed around the assembled company so everyone could marvel at the sumptuousness of the playing.
And that reaction has been typical.
Vaché and the Scottish Ensemble are thrilled with each other's work.
Arbors is so thrilled with the CD that there's talk of a follow-up.
In the meantime, this one has captured the imagination of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival directors, who plan to reunite Vaché and the ensemble at this year's event.
The jazz musician and the classical player may be two entirely separate species but, based on the evidence of this CD, they can clearly make beautiful music together.
Allison Kerr, The Herald, June 07, 2006