John Law/Cornucopia Ensemble

Out of the Darkness

With Out of the Darkness, London-based pianist John Law and ensemble has created a pleasant, well-executed work which yokes classical and jazz influences into a mixed mosaic. But enjoyment of this achievement is tempered by the uneasy feeling that no one associated with this project seems to realize that successful jazz-entwined with-classical associations have been the norm for many years.

Someone whose affiliations since the 1990s have included playing Free Jazz with the likes of saxophonist Paul Dunmall, contemporary mainstream with saxophonist Jon Lloyd and performing concerts that feature arrangements of classical pieces by Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Gershwin, Law is by all accounts a masterful pianist. Yet as a composer combining classical and jazz impulses, he’s like a playwright who suddenly creates a sentimental comedy about an upper class English professor who teaches a Cockney girl how to speak and pass for a well-born lady.

Bernard Shaw already wrote that play, and those who have been mixing-and-match classical and jazz impulses before Law include George Russell, John Lewis, Willem Breuker, Barry Guy, Graham Collier, and Misha Mengelberg. And that’s just a list of established jazz and Free Music pioneers who attained portions of the synthesis. Additionally, for the past couple of decades composers and performers who deal with the twin strands of notated and improvised music – as Law does here – try to combine them, not utilize them as two parallel, but non-overlapping sounds as this work does.

Recorded live in a Birmingham, England concert hall, this 46-minute seven-part invention – and the three shorter works that follow it – accordingly illustrate what happens when you have a four piece jazz band and an eight-piece classical ensemble playing at the same time, but never really crossing over into one another’s sound world. Throughout the octet performs note-perfect background sounds, usually with the horns swelling in unison polyphony to emphasis a musical a point, or with flowing string quartet punctuation behind soloist. Occasionally a bassoon or orchestral bells sound by themselves for color. However any extensive soloing and improvisation is evidentially restricted to quartet members. Luckily they come through with the goods.

Someone whose background encompasses membership in saxophonist John Surman’s Quartet and playing in a symphony orchestra backing vocalist Elvis Costello, bassist Chris Laurence is versatile. Here he provides a walking bass line when needed and outputs the repeated ground bass chords on which the familiar-sounding theme of “Chaconne” is hung. Another gentle swinger, who apparently divides his time among jazz, classical and so-called World music, drummer and percussionist Paul Clarvis provides the backbeat on that piece and carefully measured ruffs, bounces and flams elsewhere. His solo in the penultimate movement is brief enough so that it doesn’t become heavy handed. And it’s framed in contrapuntal, tremolo string and horn parts.

As a pianist, Law, who has expressed reservations of the craft of some Free Jazzers, is technically superb. He’s equally proficient in creating precise Rachmaninov-like organic clusters on the plainchant influenced “Talitha Cumi”, or double-gaited Chick Corea style chording encompassing high-frequency arpeggios and stopped inside piano nicks on “Development”, part 2 of the suite. Sliding effortlessly from one genre to the other as the chamber group sounds buzz around him, he can build up a line with metronomic glissandi or limit himself to proper jazz comping.

Despite all this – and the coloring appended to Law’s compositions by the strings and horns – the saving grace throughout the CD in the solo department is Andy Sheppard. The tenor and soprano saxophonist who has toured as part of American pianist/composer Carla Bley’s quartet, is rather like a modern day Tubby Hayes, an exceptional British reed soloist, fully grounded in pre-Free Jazz, yet one who is thoroughly individualistic

On this CD, he plays Booker Ervin to Law’s Charles Mingus – enlivening the compositions with his rooted presence. “Fast Movement - Rondo “, for instance, finds him turning out the kind of melismatic solo that that tenor saxophonist often did for Mingus. Ervin’s soulfulness aimed and abetted the American bassist’s early mixture of jazz and classical inflections. Similarly, Sheppard’s barn-burning, slurry, double-tongued and well-shaped solo encourage the drummer to try out duple metres and flams in the background, Law to comp more forcefully, and brings forth unexpectedly dissonant sul ponticello sweeps from the strings.

This near-atonality is unexpected since the eight-piece Cornucopia Ensemble’s role is that of playing free counterpoint, accompaniment not interjections or dissonance. Hypnotic vamps and muted coloration are its forte.

Enthusiastically received by the concert audience, one wonders how Law’s magnum opus would have fared if presented during a festival of advanced, so-called serious music? More than 79 minutes of perfect recital hall sounds, more polite and polished than exciting or thought provoking, it could guarantee Law a higher profile among those who prefer music to be modern, but not spiky or shrill. Additionally, those who have followed the pianist’s varied stylistic twists and turns and prefer this sort of tonal impressionism will no doubt be taken by this so-called jazz and classical combination.

Others with longer memories and a desire for tougher and more profound sonic intermingling may turn to other sources.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Out of the darkness (for Melanie Day) 1. Part 1: Exposition - Canons 2. Part 2: Development 3. Part 3: Chaconne 4. Part 4: Slow Movement 5. Part 5: Ensemble 6. Part 6: Fast Movement - Rondo 7. Part 7: Coda 8. Talitha Cumi* 9. Nocturne 10. The Loop (for François Corneloup)

Personnel: Andy Sheppard (tenor and soprano saxophones); John Law (piano); Chris Laurence (bass); Paul Clarvis (drums and percussion); Cornucopia Ensemble [Bruce Nockles (trumpet); David Purser (trombone, Tibetan horn*); Melinda Maxwell (oboe); John Orford (bassoon); Rita Manning and Emlyn Singleton (violins); Andy Parker (viola); Nick Cooper (cello)]