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