Colin Towns: Rule Book? What Rule Book?
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 Argüelles, 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.