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Stravinsky, Bernstein and Simcock

The BBC prom on Saturday 2nd August was devoted to jazz, or rather to jazz-classical crossover music. Sad to say, it didn’t really work. Some of the pieces were okay – Bernstein’s “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” and Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” are fun – but it was all a bit lightweight. There were a couple of premieres: Jason Yarde’s arrangement of part of “Porgy and Bess” contained more real jazz than the rest of the concert put together; and there was a piece for piano and orchestra by Gwilym Simcock which, although colourful and skillfully put together was terribly conservative in its musical language and didn’t come across as having any real depth.

Gwilym Simcock is an odd case. BBC Radio 3 loves him, to the extent of having made him one of their “New Generation Artists“, but I sometimes get the feeling that he’s got the gig because he’s got the most convincing classical credentials of his jazz peers, rather than because of his jazz credentials. That’s not to say that he’s a bad musician, it’s just that I think there are several other folk of his generation who are equally deserving of publicity.

It’s not Gwilym Simcock himself who’s the problem, it’s the way the BBC New Generation Artists scheme is being applied to jazz that’s the problem. It’s less of a concern when you’ve got a dozen New Generation Artists (like the classical part of the scheme), but when you’ve only got one token jazzer a couple of issues arise:

1. Unless there’s one musician who is head and shoulders above his or her contemporaries in talent, the scheme effectively builds one person’s career at the expense of other equally talented musicians. I certainly think there’s more than one potentially excellent up-and-coming jazz musician around: Konrad Wiszniewski, Paul Towndrow, Zoe Rahman, the folk in Empirical, and no doubt someone I haven’t heard yet because he or she is gigging away in pubs in Leeds or Leicester, unnoticed by London medialand.

2. The musician you pick might not make it, for one reason or another. Think about some of the young stars of the 80s jazz scene: Steve Williamson rarely plays jazz these days; Gail Thompson’s had health problems which forced her to more or less give up playing; and Phil Bancroft (although still an interesting player) has been rather eclipsed by his John Rae Collective bandmates Brian Kellock and Colin Steele.

Maybe the BBC needs to rethink how the scheme is applied to jazz, for instance by offering several musicians rehearsal time and a tour of small-scale venues, rather than concentrating on the one player all the time.

As far as classical-jazz crossover in general goes, I was listening to Simon Nabatov’s “A Few Incidences” recently and wondering what it would sound like done by a good classical new music group (the Ensemble Modern or similar). Maybe if there is to be a successful interaction between jazz and classical music it will be at the more avant-garde end of things? Heiner Goebbels and Mark-Anthony Turnage have both done some interesting jazz-related stuff, although I don’t think either of them have managed to get an orchestra to swing properly yet. And there’s always Anthony Braxton’s operas….

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