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Colin Towns: Rule Book? What Rule Book?

Ian Patterson By

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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.

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