Colin Towns: Rule Book? What Rule Book?
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."