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Grand Union Orchestra: Music and Movement

Duncan Heining By

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In March, 2012, The Grand Union Orchestra, one of the jazz world's finest and most ambitious ensembles, celebrates its thirtieth anniversary. Maybe you haven't heard of the band yet but if you have the chances are you'll revel in its kaleidoscopic blending of jazz and music from across the planet. Though based in the East End of London, it would be an outrageous misnomer to call it "Britain's Grand Union Orchestra." After all, it draws its participants from Africa, the Caribbean, South America, China and the Far East, Australia, Turkey, Italy and Britain and its music from all these places. Instead, let's call it the "pan-Global" Grand Union Orchestra because that's just what it is.

Unashamedly opposed to racism, unashamedly internationalist—Grand Union is a product of all of these peoples and their musics and, at its best, it transcends all of them. Long before the term "World Music" turned on a light in some record exec's brain, GUO Director and keyboardist Tony Haynes had seen his vision transformed into a remarkable vehicle for a fusion of forms and styles that remains quite unprecedented.

GUO's most recent CD, If Paradise (Red Gold, 2011), is arguably its finest to date and its most successful integration of content and form. Recorded in 2003, it tells a story of a young Asian couple caught up in contemporary events where imperialism and religious fundamentalism are no longer abstractions but touch all our lives for the far, far worse. In its text and its music, If Paradise does not shrink from confronting controversial issues. In fact, it questions "the moral certainties of all politicians and generals who tolerate, condone and often stir up conflict created by religious dogma and fundamentalism." Its case rests upon that potential of all human beings to transform their world, which is seen most powerfully in music and art.

If Paradise is both an amazing musical achievement, but also a very brave one.

"It doesn't seem like that to me," Haynes says. "I mean, it hasn't got a great deal of coverage. We shall probably do it again but I'm not sure when. One assumes, of course, that sadly it will remain relevant to what is happening in the world. Tell me, what is it about the recording you particularly liked?"

That is an easy one. It is one of the finest musical syntheses I've ever heard; it is coherent, consistent and that the performances are quite astonishing. More puzzled than frustrated by the absence of response elsewhere, Haynes replies, "Then how can I get it listened to in that light? Why is it that people aren't interested in covering something like this? I don't like the word 'message' because I don't think that's what we are involved in at all. We're expressing the world in which we live. I don't really understand why it doesn't seem to provoke more interest."

It sometimes seems that Grand Union's music is seen as "too jazz" for the world music audience and "too world" for the jazz audience. Is that part of the problem?

"Maybe," he answers. "And, of course, you have the lyrical content sung in several different languages, as well. Perhaps, it's hard for people to work out in what category it might belong."

One would think that diversity would be a strength. Haynes chuckles as he replies, "Exactly. But through my career, it's been a case of 'Lovely darling, but we can't sell this product because it doesn't fit anywhere.' So, when it comes to the shelves at HMV where are they going to locate it? Perhaps, if there were a category like the cleverly created 'world music' category, that wonderful catch-all category, or if there were a category called 'boundary-crossing' then people would be able to take on board what we do but there isn't [laughing]."

Yet we only have to go back to the eighties and nineties, when artists like saxophonists Courtney Pine and Andy Sheppard, and groups like The Jazz Warriors and Loose Tubes and others in Britain were being lauded by critics and fans for doing precisely that. Or think back to the sixties and how successful saxophonist Joe Harriott and composer John Mayer's Indo-Jazz fusion was. They even played rock festivals. Have we entered a period when such music is seen as too difficult—by the mainstream media at least?

"I think that's right," Haynes suggests. " Loose Tubes and the Jazz Warriors were all contemporaneous with Grand Union. They were, oddly enough, strangely monochrome in comparison—Loose Tubes, apart from the occasional conga player, were white boys and the Warriors were entirely black boys, while we were very mixed and had quite a lot of women involved as well. Perhaps that was thought to be a step too far [laughing]. I don't think any of it was conscious."

Having interviewed both pianist/hornist Django Bates and bassist Steve Berry for a piece on Loose Tubes a couple of years ago, both thought that by the nineties a band as diverse as Loose Tubes had become hard to sustain because the market had narrowed again, a consequence, perhaps, of the rise of Thatcherism in Britain and neo-conservative economics and politics across Europe and North America. Haynes responds with irony: "I often wonder about my own operation. From my own experience, projects seem to rise over a period of three or four years and then peak. Perhaps they lose their steam or perhaps audiences by that point are looking for the next new thing coming. Maybe, I should have tried 'to create a brand,' as they say nowadays, called 'Grand Union' and reinvent it every few years. Obviously, it has been constantly reinvented but it's too easy for people to disparage you on the basis of, 'Oh, not that old thing again!'"

His remarks lack any sense of bitterness. However, as he says, many it seems are just looking for "the next new thing" and much of the music media thrives on that very idea. Yet, only something as highly-developed as Grand Union can take on projects as vast and important as If Paradise. In comparison, much of the music praised in the broadsheets and better music magazines is just a momentary diversion on the road to doomsday. Chris May's excellent and authoritative All About Jazz review of If Paradise put it beautifully: ..."it is impossible to say where one culture stops and another starts. Listening to it is like looking through a kaleidoscope with a headful of the finest charas."
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