Colin Towns: Rule Book? What Rule Book?
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.