Graham Collier: Forging Ahead


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Jazz is a different kind of music than any other, because it relies on improvisation. So it follows that jazz composition is different than classical composition. And my feeling is--very strongly--that many jazz composers don
GrahamBritish bandleader and composer Graham Collier is seventy this year. In the course of his career he has, perhaps, unusually become more expansive in his musical outlook, fashioning pieces for ensembles larger than those he was working with during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period which is effectively the high water mark of the documentation of his music on record.

One of the many characteristics of his work is a singularity of artistic vision, arguably the pinnacle of achievement for any creative individual. At the same time he has always fashioned music in which soloists as diverse as trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Harry Beckett and John Surman (reeds and keyboards) have flourished.

I recently put a few questions to him about his music and his life.

All About Jazz: Prior to your career in music you were a bandsman in the British Army. In much the same way the likes of drummer John Stevens and trombonist Paul Rutherford served part of their musical apprenticeships in the British armed forces. Do you think it would be true to say that an enlightened attitude to music and musical expression was a part of the institutional culture in that respect?

Graham Collier: We joined the forces because we had to—I joined for longer because there was a chance for some musical training, my family were working class and universities weren't on the cards and I wasn't interested in classical music which, of course, is what the music colleges did at that time.

I don't think it was anything to do with enlightened attitudes—just that we had to, and the services gave you a degree of freedom and access to other musicians—and travel— which most of us wouldn't have been exposed to at home, so our outlook was widened. I certainly feel that I would have been a different person if I hadn't joined up. I attribute my liking for travel to that experience also.

AAJ: In the early 1960s, whilst you were getting your degree at Berklee on the back of a very small scholarship, you served a different kind of time in the ranks of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Was that band a home for the tried and tested at the time?

GC: It was Jimmy Dorsey's ghost band. We were once asked if Jimmy had got off the plane yet and we said we hope not.

Not really—New Zealand pianist Mike Nock was in the band with me for a time (he was a fellow student at Boston's Berklee College of Music) but no one else I remember. It was just a way of making a few bucks.

AAJ: Graham, you were the first person to receive a grant from the Arts Council of Great Britain for Workpoints (Cuneiform, 2005) back in the late 1960s. What was the attitude of that august body towards the music? Was it an achievement in itself convincing it of the artistic value of the medium?

GC: I was encouraged to go in for it by a friend who said it's about time jazz got a slice of the Arts Council cake and to my surprise I got the commission. As ever one had to couch the application in serious words—"a long work exploring the area between what's improvised and what is composed —that sort of thing, but I think there must have been a feeling there that the time was ripe and my application came at the right moment. I was getting publicity in the Sunday Times and such classy papers (there was more of that around then!) and that could well have helped.

AAJ: You've gone on record as saying that "jazz happens in real time, once. How does that belief influence your work as a composer, antithetical as it might be to the notion of composition?

GC: Ah, the 64,000 dollar question. Hidden in the phrase is the implication that jazz is a different kind of music than any other because it relies on improvisation. So it follows that jazz composition is different than classical composition. And my feeling is—very strongly—that many jazz composers don't realize this.

[Trombonist] Bob Brookmeyer was quoted in the New York Times recently, saying that he didn't bring a solo in until he—as a writer—had nothing else left to say. There are two problems I can see with that statement apart from its arrogance. One is that if you're not using the soloists strengths then why are you bothering writing jazz in the first place, and the implication that what is written is sacrosanct.

In my view there needs to be space left for something to happen—in the writing, which is difficult. But thinking the other way places too much emphasis on the written notes, and uses the musicians—apart from the rhythm section and soloists—as cannon fodder. Just like the classical approach in fact. There should also be regard to using the soloists' strengths, allowing them room to influence the composition.

It's a delicate balance and my new book—being read by an American publisher as we speak—deals with this, historically, philosophically and practically. It's called The Jazz Composer. Moving Music Off The Paper. And the moving should have its double meaning. In it I talk about how many so-called jazz composers haven't moved on in any real way from what Don Redman was doing all those years ago.

One chapter is called "Duke the Compiler (after a comment made to him by Laurence Brown), where I discuss the fact that he compiled his music from what the musicians gave him—even their tunes at times—as well as his ability to draw out their essence into his voicings, attributes which Gil Evans had, particularly in the way he "wrote in the last period of his life. I also speak of Miles' [Davis] comment, "why do you want to repeat it, didn't we do it right the first time?

AAJ: Right from the time of your earliest documents on record your bands have been blessed with some stellar soloists. In view of this, has knowing who's going to be performing the music had some kind of influence on your writing process?

GC: Yes, as we've already discussed. But there's also the thing of leaving enough space (another lesson from Miles) so they can be themselves. Trusting that they'll find the right thing to do when the time comes instead of being over-prescriptive. And that approach works—if the music is loose enough—even if the musicians are new to me (as most of the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra were, or the Australian band [The Australian band was The Collective, with whom Collier recorded 2001's Bread and Circuses for the Jazzprint label])

AAJ: By a similar token, has the fact that you no longer play a role as an instrumentalist in your bands exerted any kind of influence on your music? Do you hear it differently?

GC: You do hear it differently from the front and I have more freedom to control what's happening. One Canadian musician said he felt like a color in a paint box, and a friend of a friend at the 2004 LFJ [The London Jazz Festival in Great Britain] concert said it was like I was directing fourteen Jackson Pollocks! I was praised in a review of something recently for being a good orchestrator and what irritated me was that what I do was explained in the notes (which also referred to another record where the same music could be heard, but performed differently). I can orchestrate well, but choose not to at this time.

Geoff Warren wrote, after hearing the tapes of the LJF concert, and said I was in danger of being praised once again for my good orchestration and the funny thing was that the comment would be right. Which is somewhat complicated but I take that as a compliment from someone who knows how I work.

AAJ: Your musical relationship with trumpet/flugelhorn player Harry Beckett is a long one—he apparently started working with you back in 1963. In a recent interview [Jazz Journal International (February, 2007)] he referred to the fact that he tries to play a piece of your music as if it was his own. Do relationships like that make the work especially worthwhile?

GrahamGC: Very much so. It's very much a matter of trust again—and loyalty from both sides. Harry. Art Themen (reeds), Ed Speight (guitar), Roger Dean (piano) and John Marshall (drums), have added immeasurably to my music—as indeed did the up-and-coming saxophonist James Allsopp on the LJF gigs. I would do a world tour with them and others like Geoff Warren (reeds) and Steve Waterman (trumpet) if I ever won the lottery.

AAJ: Finally, I gather there's to be a premiere of your new composition with Beckett as the soloist later on in the year [The concert took place in the Main Hall of the Assembly Rooms in Derby, England on March 26, 2007]?

GC: The Derby Jazz Festival has commissioned me to do a new piece for Harry as guest with the East Midlands Youth Jazz Orchestra (many of whose players are apparently studying at RAM [The Royal Academy Of Music in London]—which is where I met James Allsopp). Harry was in my band twenty-five years ago when we did the first gig for Derby Jazz, which has blossomed into what it is now. The gig is at the end of this five-week tour around northern Europe. I'm in Holland, Germany, Sweden and England, all working with other bands but that's a very enjoyable way to start my eighth decade!

Selected Discography

Graham Collier, Hoarded Dreams (Cuneiform, 2007)
Graham Collier, Workpoints (Cuneiform, 2005)
Graham Collier, Portraits (Disconforme, 2000)
Graham Collier, Mosaics (Disconforme, 1971)

Photo Credits
Courtesy of Graham Collier

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