Colin Towns: Rule Book? What Rule Book?
“ I never understand why people don't have fun in music. You can have fun. Ellington had fun. He made it feel light, but there was still a great weight about it. ”
Since the 1970s, internationally renowned English composer/arranger/pianist/keyboard player Colin Towns has enjoyed an extremely varied musical existence. In that time, he has composed and arranged music in just about every setting imaginable, from heavy rock groups to jazz ensembles both small and large, and from theater to film and ballet. Little wonder, then, that his first small-ensemble outing in years, Stand Well Back (Provocateur Records, 2011), from his latest group, Blue Touch Paper, shows such breadth of musical influences. Starting from the foundations of his habitually dramatic compositional frameworks, Stand Well Back draws from rock, jazz, fusion, electronica, pop and more besides.
It's impossible and self-defeating to hang a name on the music, but suffice it to say, like Towns' musical journey to date, the music on his latest recording is a beautiful rollercoaster of a ride, as exhilarating as it is surprising. In a very English take on the Grateful Dead's refrain "What a long, strange trip it's been," Towns sums up his career to date thus: "It's a funny old road, isn't it, our personal road?"
Towns talks in excited tones about his new group, Blue Touch Paper. After years of writing and arranging for big bands, a return to a smaller, more intimate group format was clearly something that had been on Towns' radar for a while. "Blue Touch Paper" is something I've wanted to do for a long time," he explains. "Twice before, I had experimented with different lineups; the stuff was alright, and we could have gone out and done gigs, and it would have been fine, but it wasn't what I was looking for. I didn't think it was worth it.
"I might have had material for three albums, but I tend to be very selective with my writing; it's important. All the old record labels would have filtered what we've got, and that's kind of gone, so I think you have to be very critical about yourself and not just say, 'Well I've got an album of material, and that's it.' That's not it at all. You've got to keep going until you feel really comfortable and do the best you can at that time."
Stand Well Back has been worth the wait, but the music did not birth at all easily. "With Stand Well Back, I was trying for ages to find the right way through," explains Towns. "In the end, I did. I just demoed everything, absolutely loads of stuff, and then I could see a way forward that I was looking for." The next step was to find the right musicians, a search that took Towns two years. "I had a very simple brief for the musicians," says Towns. "I wanted people that were open minded." In saxophonist Mark Lockheart, (Loose Tubes, Polar Bear, June Tabor, Perfect Houseplants), guitarist Chris Montague (Troyka, Threads Orchestra), electric bassist Edward Maclean (Ron Spielman Trio, Peter Fox), drummer Benny Greb (Ron Spielman Trio, Strom & Wasser, Jerobeam) and percussionist Stephan Mass (Bob Mintzer, Randy Brecker, Idris Muhammad), Towns found as open minded a bunch of musicians as he could have wished for.
Though all the music on Stand Well Back was composed by Towns, the impact that the musicians make on the recording is huge. Towns, however, thinks of himself first and foremost as a composer. "I'm compositionally driven. It's my strongest club," Towns says, and so he looked to his band to provide the solos, duties performed in the main by Montague and Lockheart. "With Chris [Montague], I wanted someone who could play like [guitarist] John McLaughlin one minute or [guitarist] Jim Hall the next, but who could also be comfortable in [singer] David Bowie's band," explains Towns. "Chris fits all those criteria. He can sound like [guitarist] Stevie Vai one minute. He's an amazing player without a hint of snobbery, and I love that."
A short UK tour to promote Stand Well Back garnered rave reviews, and Towns describes this band and the chemistry at play as "like a dream come true." Yet anyone going to one of Blue Touch Paper's gigs expecting to hear faithful renditions of the tunes would have been a tad surprised at the show. For starters, Towns had already slipped five unrecorded compositions into the set. One composition, inspired by Shakespeare's Macbeth, involved actors and electronics, with Lockheart playing over the theatrical collage. It may seem like an anomaly in a concert, but it's part of Towns' DNA: "I do a lot of electronics in film soundtracks, so it seemed silly not to explore it in a band. It's opened a door on a particular area that I'm fascinated by." How did the audiences react to it? "They went nuts," says Towns, laughing.
Though a composer at heart, Towns has plenty of affinity with improvisation within his band: "I follow the Weather Report idea that songs should be short on a CD, because you can develop them on a gig. There's nothing wrong with long solos; [saxophonist John] Coltrane could do them all the time, but he always told an amazing story. But not everyone is Coltrane. Both Mark and Chris use space. It's a great trap for saxophonists and guitarists to play as many notes as possible, and with some people it's fine, but I love to go to things where you could hear a pin drop. I think that's as important as having someone that's full on."
Balance between form and freedom is central to Towns' approach, and while he likes to surprise his audience, he's also clearly sensitive to its expectations: "People want to hear the songs so that they can be brought into the atmosphere, which I've always felt to be important. So I think composition and leaving people wanting more is essential." The improvisational aspect of Blue Touch Paper also allows for experiments to fail just occasionally: "Sometimes it comes off the rails," laughs Towns, "though not very often. There's always a way out these musicians are quite amazing chaps."
The music on Stand Well Back has many colors, many layers and textures and drama aplenty. For Towns and the other musicians, there are simply no restrictions when it comes to making music. "When you play a tune at the beginning and then everybody solos and then everybody plays the tune again and then stops, well, that's great, but it's not written in stone. We can go all kinds of ways," says Towns. "And why can't the tune end up somewhere different from where it starts?"
Stand Well Back certainly goes every which way; there are shades of percussion-driven Weather Report fusion, a more folkloric, pastoral lyricism reminiscent of Oregon, melodies both ethereal and epic that are evocative of music by singers Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, and grinding 21st-century indie-rock, which bares its gnashing teeth. The music may be many things, but predictable it is not. It also has a distinctly European feel, reflecting the origins and base of the musicians. For Towns, this is something totally natural: "I don't want to get hung up on what it is. We've all got our influences, and I'm proud of my influences, but I don't want to wear an American accent."
While there's certainly no hint of an American twang to the music on Stand Well Back, Towns has plenty of respect for the American jazz tradition, and he is inspired by its most innovative exponents. "[Bassist] Charles Mingus and [pianist] Thelonious Monk were the sort of people who made me sit up," explains Towns. "They will always be my biggest inspirations, along with [pianist] Duke Ellington and [trumpeter] Miles Davis. I love Monk's compositions, and I'm always hugely inspired by the fact that it makes you think, 'Now where did that come from? What made him think that way 'round?'"
However, it's Towns' own lifetime of musical experiences that informs the compositions on Stand Well Back. The music has a cinematic quality and a narrative flow, which is like embarking on a journey. For Towns, there are endless sonic possibilities to be explored: "I do use a lot of colors, and sometimes it might feel a bit orchestral, and sometimes it might feel almost chamber-like. I just go where the wind blows and with what it feels like. I just don't think there's any rule book at all, as long as it makes sense and intrigues all the way through."
This openness to sounds is also reflected in Towns' approach to composition: "There are a lot of different ways of writing. Sometimes it's on paper; sometimes it isn't. Sometimes I just play and play, the way Joe Zawinul used to do, and just pick out the things that make sense. It's amazing what can come from all that. I see enormous amounts of colors, whether it's the sound people can reach on their instruments or using electronics and all kinds of things. I spread them all out and make a new kind of picture. That's all I'm trying to do."
As Towns' experience with Blue Touch Paper has shown, the process is not always easy, nor are results guaranteed straight away. However, the source material is not in short supply; it just needs to be dug up, refined and made to shine: "These things aren't sat there on your doorstep," observes Towns, "but they are there to be explored. Everything is there to be explored, isn't it? Everything is exciting, in the end."
Excitement would seem to sum up both the musicians' feelings playing this music live as well as the audiences' experience. The appeal of the music, Towns suggests, lies in its hybrid nature. "It's not an obvious jazz thing, and it's not an obvious rock thing, but the crowds went berserk. There was no repeating in those two hours, so everything becomes a surprise, which I love," explains Towns. "It was interesting to see people who you perhaps wouldn't expect to like the louder songs stay there. It's full-on rock in some places, but they didn't get up and walk out saying: 'What's this? This isn't Lester Young.' They know they're going to get all kinds of things, and it all makes one picture."
The reaction to Blue Touch Paper from audiences and media alike has been extremely positive, and there have been invitations from promoters to come back. There has also been some interest shown by summer jazz festivals, so all in all, it's been a great start for the band. Towns and his musicians, however, have their feet well and truly planted on the ground: "We're only starting out," observes Towns, "so we still have to convince people. We have to be patient and grow naturally."
Natural growth has been central to Towns' music in these past 35 years since he joined former Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan's band in the late '70s, transforming its fortunes in the process. "I really loved my rock 'n' roll time," Towns says. "I don't feel embarrassed about it at all. I managed to break the band so that it charted, but I wish it had happened slightly differently, because I was going to take it somewhere else, but due to the circumstances, I didn't." Towns acknowledges that, as for many musicians, there have been times when he's played gigs simply to pay the mortgage and help raise his family, but on the whole, his openness to all music from the very outset has only served to enrich his musical palette. One element that is common to pretty much all of Towns' musicand which is present in bundles on Stand Well Back is a pronounced sense of drama.
Towns is no stranger to the theater, having collaborated with former Royal Shakespeare Company director Terry Hands over many years at the Clwyd Theatr Cymru in North Wales. Towns has composed and arranged incidental music for Macbeth, As You Like It, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and equally timeless fare like Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. Then there is Towns' work with the Druid Theatre Company in Galway, Ireland, an association that clearly inspires him. "I go to Galway to the Druid Theatre at least once a year. It's a fantastic theater company, and Garry Hynes, the Artistic Director, is really wonderful. The plays they do there are of a fantastically high standard. It's unbelievable stuff," enthuses Towns. "It teaches me a lot. It's something I'm always talking to young people about: how to use drama with music, and how to contrast solos and composition."
Some of Towns' most dramatic arrangements have been in the setting of the NDR Big Band: "They asked me to do Kurt Weil [The Theatre of Kurt Weil (ACT, 2000)] and that was all about drama, taking this amazing music, making it suit the band, and in the end taking it all over the place." Since then, Towns and the NDR Big Band and the HR Big Band have come together to re-explore the music of Miles Davis, guitarist Frank Zappa and singer John Lennon. With the HR Big Band, Towns worked his particular magic on the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Most recently, Towns was commissioned by the Bohuslän Big Band to rearrange Cole Porter's music on Don't Fence Me In (ACT, 2011), and the results are striking: "I thought, everyone's done Cole Porter, so what shall I do? I turned to the words. Just reading the words told me everything I was looking for. They're full of drama."
In 2003, Towns turned his talents to another field of dramaballet. David Bintley, Artistic Director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, commissioned Towns to compose music inspired by the life and music of jazz's most influential big-band composer, Duke Ellington, and by the parallels with Greek musician Orpheus' life and struggles. Orpheus was said to write such beautiful music that it could charm the stones, and Greek poet Pindar credited Orpheus as "the father of songs." Such tributes, Towns acknowledges, seem appropriate for Ellington, too.
In musical terms, Towns can also relate to Ellington's ability to adapt to circumstances: "Duke had to trim his band in the 1960s because it wasn't as popular as before. He had to find a way of reinventing himself, which he did towards the end, but that's not what happens for a lot of people. They come and go." Towns, however, like Ellington, has adapted and thrived, and not without some sacrifice along the way.
Towns' smaller Mask Quintet hasn't recorded again since Still Life (Provocateur, 1998), his last small-ensemble recording prior to Stand Well Back, and he clearly has some nostalgia for a band that included guitarist John Parricelli, saxophonist Julian Arguelles, drummer/percussionist Ralph Salmins and singer Maria Pia De Vito. "It was a shame, really," laments Towns, reflecting on the short life of the group. "I would have liked to develop the quintet idea further, but I think Maria wanted to go off and do other things. She has got such amazing ability."
Around that time, Towns was investing a lot of time, energy and money in his independent record label, Provocateur Records, and giving musical exposure to a large number of artists: "I had to put a lot of my ideas on the back burner," he explains, "because I was putting a lot of money into other people's music." In 16 years, Provocateur records has released recordings by saxophonists Andy Sheppard, Julian Arguelles and Alan Skidmore, singer Norma Winstone and trumpeter Guy Barker, and gained a reputation in the process as one of the most cutting-edge independent jazz labels in Europe.
In that same period of time, Towns has accumulated an impressive C.V. of soundtracks for film and television, and it's perhaps no surprise that there is a certain cinematic feel to some of the music on Stand Well Back. "I suppose I do automatically see images," Towns reflects. "Films and images are around a lot in what I'm thinking. If it sounds cinematic and it works, then good. Film work bought me freedom to do what I'm doing now."
Towns once again united film and music at the Elbjazz Festival in Hamburg last year. Originally, the commission was to compose music to accompany photographs of Hamburg from 1925 on, but Towns' wife, Laura, suggested that they use film archive instead. After more than a year of preparation, the show went ahead. "There was one section," remembers Towns, "I think it was shot in the 1950s, and it's Hans Albers, a famous German star, singing in this really wacky club. It was almost like a Berlin circus, you knowpeople feeding horses beer and this kind of stuff. At a point in the song he whistles, so I had them freeze the film there, and the band played a drunken version of that song. This sort of interplay goes down a storm."
"Another black-and-white segment from the 1940s is from the Hamburg fish market, with all the rhythms of banging and shouting, which is really funny, so we did a percussion solo over it." The film archives also included footage from the war years, which could hardly have been overlooked. "You needed to show that Hamburg was destroyed," says Towns, "and by Hitler as well, actually. When he came to power, he destroyed some beautiful parts of the city, streets that were almost Elizabethan, to put up these austere buildings." This year, Towns played Elbjazz with Blue Touch Paper, on a boat in the harbor. "It was quite amazing, really," he says. "The Germans do festivals really well."
Hamburg is a city that Towns has come to know well in the last dozen years, through his work with the NDR Big Band, and this music represents some of the most exciting in Towns' discography. Interestingly, Towns didn't listen that much to Zappa's music before arranging the music for Frank Zappa's Hot Licks (and funny smells) (Provocateur, 2005). "When I did the Zappa program, I wasn't quite sure how to go about it, because if I find people that inspiring I tend not to listen to them. [Pianist] Carla Bley is another musician whose music I love, but I won't listen to her albums because I don't want to be influenced." Zappa's music, nevertheless, is close to Towns' heart. "I always loved Zappa. He was a master musician. The Yellow Shark (Barking Pumpkin, 1993) was just unbelievable," enthuses Towns. "The thing about Zappa is that you can go anywhere, and you can do what you like, and it can be fun. I never understand why people don't have fun in music. You can have fun. Ellington had fun. He made it feel light, but there was still a great weight about it."
Another musician who certainly balanced fun and gravitas was John Lennon, and Towns' arrangements of Lennon's songs on In My Own Write (Provocateur, 2010) provide arguably the most arresting of his collaborations with the NDR Big Band. "Lennon fascinates me because there's an edge to him that I can relate to. There was an aspect of drama about him, and this gave me more freedom. I did manage to get it past Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, and that's not easy," Towns reflects, laughing.
Towns and the NDR toured with the program of Lennon's music, to enthusiastic audiences. The first concert of Lennon's music took place in a circus tent. "A whole load of people thought they were coming to a Beatles concert. 'Oh, I didn't know it was going to be like this,'" Towns mimics, laughing. "It is odd when you do these sorts of projects, because not everybody gets it. Some people want you to be a straight- jazz thing; others want you to be more adventurous."
For someone of Towns' generation, The Beatles were as much a part of growing up in England in the 1960s as rain and fish 'n chips, and Lennon's murder in 1980 was hard to absorb. At the time, Towns was on tour in the states with Gillan, playing a gig just outside New York. "We came into New York that night. When we got onto the bus, all you could hear was John Lennon's music playing and we thought, 'What's going on?' It was a terrible shock, just awful," recalls Towns.
Towns' various projects with the NDR Big Band and the HR Big Band have been rewarding experiences, but the composer doesn't rest on his laurels easily. "If I'm not careful, I'll get known as a big-band arranger, which I am, but I'm not," he says. Towns certainly has more than one string to his bow. His versatility has seen him record soundtracks for television and for film, and compose and arrange music for ballet, small and large jazz ensembles, jazz-meets-flamenco, horn trios, clarinet trios, string quartet, theater and art exhibitions. Yet, despite such an impressive resume, Towns is still restless: "It's funny, because I've done all those things, and I've done nothing. That's how I always feel. I'm not [composer Claude] Debussy, who stuck to his vision his whole life; I've had to do other things to live, and in that process I've come down a different road."
For Towns, music has no limits: "There's no point in saying it's all been done; that's crap. Take away Miles Davis and then say it's all been done. He had ideas and visions." On the subject of whether Davis' first electric period marks the last major revolution in jazz, Towns seems to think not: "I think there's a quieter revolution going on. Miles, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra and [pianist] Herbie Hancock had an energy about them, which pushed the music towards young people and made them consider the music alongside rock. They captured a big audience. After that, it all became a bit serious. We're now in a weird position where we have to work out how to find these audiences when all the rules have just been altered."
"YouTube and things like that are possibly the way it's going to be done," Towns suggests, "but my problem is that any old bit of clip is being shoved on there. That isn't the way forward, either. You've got to hold your dignity, and you've got to hold your mystique. I think there's possibly going to be resurgence in jazz, but it won't be like it was in the '50s when traditional jazz took off in the UK. We aren't suddenly going to get a load of jazz music from the past suddenly turning people's heads. We're going to go about it in a different way. My own feeling is that there's nothing wrong with having a commercial aspect to what you do, but you don't have to sell out to make this happen. You've got to do it with dignity and still turn people's heads. I'm a great lover of melody, and melody will always capture people."
Typically of Town's music-without-borders philosophy, it's not one of the modern jazz bands that he trumpets as an example of innovation and commercial appeal, but a rock band: "We need bands like Radiohead," he says. "The fact that they can get a number one album in America and can be abstract as well as rock is, I think, a good sign." Radiohead has done everything on its own terms, and this is perhaps something that Towns can relate to, though he is also aware of the benefits of good marketing. "Miles understood how advertising worked, how promotion worked, how images workedall the things that rock uses and jazz musicians sometimes use. That's a weakness in the UK, where we're not able to sell ourselves as well as we should be," Towns states with simple honesty. "The Americans are the opposite. I've seen American groups sell themselves from the stage, and the audience is so whipped up that they think they're getting more than they are."
If there is another revolution in jazz brewing quietly or maybe lurking just around the corner, then for Towns it won't be looking towards the past for inspiration. "You can't live in the past," Towns states. "I don't want to. There's nothing wrong with wanting to go and see music from 30 or 40 years ago if that's what you want, but in terms of things growing, technology brings in changes, and you have to live with it and find your place. I take exception to [trumpeter] Wynton Marsalis on this point, because he looks backwards. I can look backwards and forwards, which makes complete sense to me. Unfortunately, because of the way things are structured in America, Wynton has a lot to say, too much to say, and he's not somebody I can personally look up to. The music has to change, and that's the nature of it."
One of the strengths of Blue Touch Paper is the complete lack of musical snobbery among the ranks, and Towns recognizes that jazz doesn't do itself any favors at all in that department. "Jazz kind of shoots itself in the foot by saying it belongs in the concert halls," he says. "That puts people off who should really be brought through the door. I say, 'Don't be frightened; it's fine.' I think that's the mountain we're all climbing.
"We're on a journey to explore," says Towns. "That's what I always thought. I'm at a point now where I really want to bring more of my own thoughts to fruition. I've spent my life balancing everything, and I want to push my own thing more." This sounds like good news for fans of Towns' incendiary new group, Blue Touch Paper, which he has every intention of carrying on with. "I'll make sure it has a longer life," he affirms. "I could certainly see three CDs. We are always going to treat it as special. We're not going to get into a situation where we don't want to be there. I need situations to write for, whether it be Mask or Blue Touch Paper. That's my way of getting through life," Towns says, adding through laughter, "I can't do anything else!"
Blue Touch Paper, Stand Well Back (Provocateur, 2011)
Bohuslan Big Band/Colin Towns/Nils Landgren, Don't Fence Me In (Provocateur, 2011)
Alan Skidmore's Ubizo, 50 Journeys (Provocateur, 2011)
Colin Towns & The NDR Big Band, John Lennon: In My Own Write (Provocateur, 2010)
Colin Towns & The HR Big Band, Visions of Miles: The Electric Period of Miles Davis (In + Out Records, 2009)
Colin Towns, Doc Martin (Provocateur, 2007)
Colin Towns/Billy Cobham/HR Big Band, Meeting of the Spirits: A Celebration of the Music of The Mahavishnu Orchestra (In + Out Records, 2006)
Norma Winstone with The NDR Big Band, It's Later Than You Think (Provocateur, 2006)
Colin Towns & The NDR Big Band, Lend Me Your Ears (Provocateur, 2006)
Colin Towns & The NDR Big Band, Frank Zappa's Hot Licks (and funny smells) (Provocateur, 2005)
Colin Towns Mask Orchestra, The Orpheus Suite (Provocateur, 2004)
Colin Towns Mask Orchestra, Another Think Coming (Provocateur, 2001)
Colin Towns & The NDR Big Band, The Theatre of Kurt Weill (ACT, 2000)
Chano Dominguez, Gerardo Nunez, Michael Brecker, JazzPana II (ACT, 2000)
Colin Towns' Mask Symphonic Featuring Norma Winstone & Maria Pia de Vito, Dreaming Man with Blue Suede Shoes (Provocateur, 1999)
Colin Towns' Mask Quintet with Maria Pia de Vito, Still Life (Provocateur, 1998)
Alan Skidmore, After The Rain (Miles Music, 1998)
Guy Barker, What Love Is (Emarcy, 1998)
Colin Towns' Mask Orchestra, Bolt From The Blue (Provocateur, 1997)
Colin Towns' Mask Orchestra, Nowhere & Heaven (Provocateur, 1996)
Gillan, Future Shock (Virgin, 1981)
Gillan, Mr. Universe (Acrobat, 1979)
Ian Gillan Band, Clear Air Turbulence (Island, 1977)
All Photos: Courtesy of Colin Towns / Provocateur Records