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Mosaics: The Life and Works of Graham Collier


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The following is an excerpt is from "Chapter 9: The Eighties or Graham Collier -The Wilderness Years" of Mosaics: The Life and Works of Graham Collier by Duncan Heining (Equinox Publishing, 2018). All Rights Reserved.

The late Graham Collier was a bandleader, a composer and a jazz educator. As far as this latter role was concerned he was arguably one of the most significant figures in jazz education, a point supported by the many awards he received in this respect.

AAJ writer Duncan Heining's detailed and insightful biography, Mosaics: The Life and Work of Graham Collier, succeeds in revealing and even celebrating the complexities of his subject. In many ways, Collier was an outsider in a 'music outside,' to use trumpeter-author Ian Carr's telling phrase. Collier emerges as a contradictory figure falling between several different camps. He was never an out-and-out musical, cultural or political radical but rather an individualist continually forced to confront the contradictions in his own position—a musical outsider working within a marginalised area of cultural activity; a gay man operating in a very male area of the music business and within heterosexist culture in general; a man of working class origins stepping outside traditionally prescribed class boundaries; and a musician-composer seeking individual solutions to collective problems of aesthetic and ethical value.

The edited extract that we publish here will hopefully reveal Collier's commitment to the music and to jazz education, as well as highlighting his often combative personality and frustrations with the music business and jazz press . It tells of Collier's involvement in the birth of Loose Tubes, one of the most intriguing and anarchic big bands to emerge in the 1980s, as well as discussing one of Collier's most important works, Hoarded Dreams (Cuneiform).

In his private life, Collier seems to have been very settled in this period. In 1980, he and John Gill had moved out of Earl's Court and bought a Victorian house in Shell Road in Lewisham. They entertained regularly and film director/producer David Cohen, who visited them at their home on several occasions in the 1990s, described it as a 'kind of slightly chaotic, comfortable, very middle-class home. They were always very hospitable.'

Collier and Gill were, by all accounts, very happy there and this was their home until 2000, when they moved to Ronda in Andalucía. In 1983, they began taking holidays on Paxos, Greece. There they made friends with another British citizen, who had a house on the island. When the friend died, they left Collier a half-share on the property, and for many years, Collier and Gill would spend at least a few weeks annually on Paxos.

Reading Collier's papers and talking to friends, one gets the impression that there was often a gap in Collier's emotional world between the private satisfactions of home and relationships and the public dissatisfactions of career. Some of this may be explained by the nature of the artistic life itself. To a degree, this could only be fully lived in the act of creativity—that is, writing or making music itself—or at least engaging with music in some other way, such as teaching. One does get the sense that Collier was a person who never quite relaxed, and perhaps it was at those times of inactivity, enforced or simply the result of circumstances, that the doubts crept in.

The feeling that somehow he was not receiving his due persisted for Collier and would even be amplified by changing fortunes in British jazz. In the 1980s, jazz in Britain saw a resurgence. Even major record labels such as Columbia, EMI (through the relaunched Blue Note imprint), Polygram and RCA suddenly began to take an interest in music that they had promoted so abysmally just a decade and a half earlier. Of course, the extent of that interest depended on who one was and how one looked, as much as the actual music. With the exception of veteran Stan Tracey, whose contract was briefly picked up by Blue Note, the musicians who signed on the line were young, good-looking and image-conscious, a situation that reflected similar happenings in the USA.

These labels were, of course, international companies and required sales not just in Britain but across Europe and in the USA as well. In the case of essentially North American concerns such as EMI/Capitol/Blue Note, Columbia and RCA, a further problem arose with British artists signed to these labels. They and their music did not travel to the USA—physically or metaphorically.

Whether in North America, Britain or mainland Europe, these young musicians looked good on album covers and in magazine features. They might, it was felt, be the kind of 'cats' that could turn the fortunes of the music around and finally lay claim to that chimera—a young audience for jazz. Andy Sheppard signed first to Island Records, along with Courtney Pine and the Jazz Warriors. Sheppard would later record for Blue Note but would find himself out of pocket on the deal (Heining 1998b). Trombonist Annie Whitehead recorded for Paladin, a Virgin records' subsidiary, and saxophonist Steve Williamson and trumpeter Guy Barker landed deals with Polygram. The other major big band of the time, Loose Tubes, a band midwifed by Graham Collier, were somewhat cannier. Their first two albums, Loose Tubes and Delightful Precipice, were released on their own imprint, before their final album of that period, Open Letter, came out on the independent EG Records.

That said, the lack of interest shown in those d'un certain âge, who did not wear sharp suits or look quite so hot on the cover of GQ magazine clearly rankled with Collier, as did a sense that he did not rank with others of his own age amongst jazz critics. For its April 1985 issue, The Wire celebrated British jazz and, though he featured in a short piece by Roger Cotterell (Cotterell 1985: 43), Collier's name did not make it onto the front cover alongside the names of Annie Whitehead, Harry Beckett, Mike Westbrook and John Surman. Interviewed by John Wickes a year later, it is evident this 'oversight' still hurt (Interview Collier/Wickes 1986).

This resurgence in British jazz fortunes coincided with an artificial, credit-driven boom in the economy during the period of the Thatcher government between 1987 and 1990. Neither the resurgence, nor the economic boom, which shattered with the recession of 1990, lasted. At the same time, looking back at the period, it is hard not to see the efforts of these major record companies and their executives as inept, firstly, in signing these artists and, secondly, dropping them as soon as the expected sales failed to materialize. For reasons that will become clear, Collier largely lost interest in making records after The Day of the Dead. His only release in the eighties was Something British Made in Hong Kong, which came out in 1988.

However, he was far from inactive during the decade. He toured, undertook commissions and began teaching at the Royal Academy of Music. Such opportunities came Collier's way because he pursued them, though perhaps the renewal of interest in jazz might also have opened a door or two. As we have said, inactivity was avoided like a curse. Collier's ability to negotiate with arts bodies continued to be a feature of his career. In 1982, he decided to form a rehearsal band for young musicians. As he later told John Wickes, he was aware that a number of experienced composers—not just himself but others such as Mike Westbrook—had music they had written but which was rarely performed. He saw this as a way of providing an opportunity to bring together players new to jazz and give them the opportunity to develop their skills as performers and writers through exposure to material that would stretch and challenge them. As he said in 2010,

"The band was formed using some money left over from an Arts Council grant as a rehearsal band for the young musicians, who I felt were being denied effective big band experience—for which, read 'NYJO.' Many young players didn't want to join because of the NYJO ethos of louder, higher, faster." (Interview Collier/Heining 2010).

Trumpeter Steve Waterman had taken part in the European Youth Jazz Orchestra workshops in London in 1981, where Collier had been one of the guest tutor-composers. Waterman suggests that it was this experience that made Collier realize that 'there were young musicians interested in the kind of music he was writing,' which encouraged him to set up the rehearsal band and in which Waterman was one of the regular participants. He added, 'It wasn't just Graham. He was bringing in other composers. I certainly remember Roger Dean coming in and working with us' (Interview Waterman/Heining 2014).

As Collier explained to John Wickes, '[I]t worked for about six months. Then suddenly it seemed to develop a life of its own' (Interview Collier/Wickes 1986). There was a parting of the ways that was at the time quite acrimonious. That rehearsal band, of course, became Loose Tubes. Quite what went awry is hard to say at this distance in time. Interviewed in 2010, when Loose Tubes' live album Dancing on Frith Street was released, both parties had mellowed somewhat in their take on events (Heining 2010). The immediate incident that caused the split seems to have been the band's failure to invite Collier to a gig they had set up. Collier saw this, with some justification, as a snub and one that smacked of ingratitude at the time and money he had invested in the band. However, this particular gathering of young players contained more than its share of strong-minded individuals—people such as Django Bates, Steve Berry, Eddie Parker, Chris Batchelor and Ashley Slater. Quite a few were already connected personally and musically. With hindsight, it was not a case of whether there would be a split between Collier and the band, but rather when. The signs were there once Django Bates and Steve Berry and others began bringing their own tunes to rehearsals, though Collier was certainly not opposed to this, as Steve Waterman, then a student at Trinity College, explained: 'Graham was very encouraging over allowing people to bring their own pieces in to rehearsals. I don't think he was particularly pushing his own music. He was trying to get everyone to contribute. It was more a collective with Graham being the figurehead pulling it together.'

Waterman has no recollection that the parting between Collier and those who would form Loose Tubes was bitter. Nor did he recall much friction between Collier and Django Bates, Steve Berry and the others. Waterman would, of course, go on to play and record with Collier's big band and smaller ensembles and Collier would also employ him as a trumpet tutor on the jazz degree course at the Royal Academy of Music, which began in 1991. From the perspective of Steve Berry, "The stuff we wrote ourselves seemed to take better to us than the stuff that was provided. People were coming in with stuff written for their own bands. I'd be looking at a bass part written for Paul Bridge or Chris Laurence that wasn't written for me, whereas when we wrote things we wrote for Tim Whitehead and our drummer Nic France and so on.

Roger Dean directed the rehearsal band on several occasions and recalls that these musicians were determined to pursue their own course: 'Yes, I recognise this very well from the sessions I did directing the Loose Tubers. They really did want to do their own thing, which I loved. I see them as jumping head first into fairly post-modern more than avant-garde approaches when they got going.'

Given the time over again, those involved would probably have done things differently. As Collier said in 2010, 'In retrospect, I guess it doesn't matter. As the world sees it, a good band was formed, which helped a lot of musicians become better known and I get a little footnote in the history books! Steve Berry feels it important that Collier receive proper credit.

"Graham's role in the genesis of the band should be acknowledged. Because it was a messy divorce, the band was at pains to excise him from any mention. With hindsight, it obviously should be pointed out that it was due to Graham that it came about at all. He got money from the Arts Council to provide a forum for creative players, who you wouldn't expect to turn up in NYJO. That was his premise and he was entirely right because to us NYJO represented precisely nothing we wanted to do.

The saddest thing about the affair was that it represented a lost opportunity. Those involved succeeded in creating an impressive and even ground-breaking ensemble. However, the rehearsal and performance orchestra for young musicians—an anti-NYJO as it were—that Collier had envisaged did not result. Collier was hurt by the way the enterprise ended and his enthusiasm for such ventures was dampened, at least for a time, as he told (author) John Wickes: "I feel a bit of antagonism. It ruined the idea. It can't happen again—not for a few years anyway. You might get some public money if it had turned out successful. I still think there's space for a band of that kind but it won't be me who organises it.

Fortunately, Collier soon had another major project to occupy his time. Towards the end of 1982, with the support of John Cumming and Serious Productions, Collier obtained another grant from the Arts Council to compose a work for a hand-picked orchestra to perform at the Bracknell Jazz Festival. Serious were responsible for programming the festival and their support was crucial. Further to this, Bryan Izzard's Brighter Thoughts film company were to make a documentary of the performance, including interviews with Collier and others conducted by critic Charles Fox. The documentary would later be shown on Channel 4, at that time Britain's newest TV channel and, back then, keen to live up to its public sector broadcasting mandate. The new work was called Hoarded Dreams, its title taken from a book by George Steiner. The title, Collier explained in the programme notes for the festival, seemed 'ideal' for the commission, 'in that it could be used as a springboard for various dreams to be represented in music: a Thatcher-less Britain perhaps, or an Arts Council gift of a Cotswolds' house plus limitless barrels of Fullers.' Noting that it was the dream of any jazz composer to be able to choose 'a large group of star musicians to perform a long composition written with absolutely no outside restrictions,' he explained succinctly his intentions for Hoarded Dreams.

"The structure is simple and presents all the musicians in solo situations but situations which are affected strongly by the written framework and the interrelationship between ideas throughout the piece. Essentially, there is a three-way process: the composer was affected by the improvisers; the improvisers will be affected by the writing and we will all be affected by the interplay between all these elements and the overall ambience of the actual performance. Returning briefly to John Gill's earlier comment that Collier was not 'a joiner' and chose to keep his music separate from politics, should not blind us to the fact that he did hold views on such questions and could reasonably be seen as left-of-centre in terms of his political opinions, if somewhat vaguely so. His reference to Thatcher and her policies above was a rare example of him making any kind of political statement, though in an article for The Wire in 1985 he would make similar rather general remarks (Collier 1985b).

The Bracknell performance attracted generally favourable reviews. Its subsequent performance as part of the Camden Festival, also produced by John Cumming and Serious, in 1985 and the broadcasting of the Channel 4 documentary shortly before that performance would attract a more negative response in some quarters. However, with the 2007 release of the concert on CD (Cuneiform Rune 252), Collier's achievement with Hoarded Dreams now seems a remarkable one.

It is not 'perfect' by any means. In fact, given Collier's approach and his perspective of jazz in performance, one wonders if such a thing might be possible—all compositions are, by that definition, in a simultaneous state of being and becoming. Yet it is a huge, diverse, even sprawling work which by rights should have collapsed under the weight of its own conceit and contradictions. It does not do so. Its architecture, somewhat improbably, holds it together and binds very different performers and performances into something resembling a unitary and satisfying whole. It is interesting to hear what one of the musicians felt at the time and how his view of it was later changed on hearing the recording. Geoff Warren, who played alto sax and flute and was a relative newcomer to the Collier band, recalls:

"At the time I must confess I didn't really understand it. It was very long. The risk was that it became too many episodes because Graham had got too many guys in, fantastic guys, all very, very different.

And he continued:

"It seemed to me at the time to be overlong and lacking form. When the CD—when Graham released it, I relistened to it. I thought, 'This is fantastic.' It was just like a dream, going exactly the way a dream progresses from one episode to another, sort of sliding between one piece and another... I think it's brilliant now but, at the time, perhaps I was too young, too inexperienced."

In a sense, Collier's striving to work within and between the twin poles of total freedom, on the one hand, and form and structure, on the other, is significant on a number of levels. Firstly, this is more than a mere desire to blur the boundaries between improvisation and composition. To a certain extent, most jazz does this all the time. What Collier proposes, instead, is a dialectical or dialogic relationship between the two, which exists within the permanent state of tension between the two. The composition, for Collier, like the improvisation, is never final or complete. Secondly, where the approach fails to produce a satisfying outcome on occasion, this is not simply the difference between a good and a poor performance but on the failure of the process. The creative moment requires the tension at its heart to be maintained, with neither composition nor improvisation being ever entirely dominant. In this regard, Collier's approach involves large elements of risk-taking and he is in this respect, therefore, closer to the position of free improvisation than to more straight-ahead jazz practice. The third point concerns the difficulties that Collier's approach and work present in terms of how these are understood and evaluated. Collier's position makes him an outsider. In effect, his work demands to be judged essentially on how successfully he meets his own objectives. In a critical environment that often seemed split between the more or less straight-ahead and the more or less avant-garde, that is a big ask.

The concert brought together Collier stalwarts such as Ed Speight, Roger Dean and Art Themen, with guests and past associates such as John Surman, Kenny Wheeler, Malcolm Griffiths and Henry Lowther. From (East and West) Germany, the orchestra was joined by trombonist Konrad 'Conny' Bauer, trumpeter Manfred Schoof, saxophonist Matthias Schubert and guitarist John Schroder. Schubert and Schröder were two young musicians whom Collier had met working with the European Youth Jazz project in London in 1981 and who had impressed him greatly.

Other additions included Finnish saxophonist Juhanni Aaltonen, Swedish trombonist Eje Thelin, Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko and American trumpeter and Mingus alumnus Ted Curson. The other musicians were from the UK. Geoff Warren was on alto sax and flute, Dave Powell played tuba and Ashley Brown played drums, with Paul Bridge on bass.

In terms of its overall structure, Hoarded Dreams contains seven sections, with 'Part 1,' the introduction, and 'Part 7,' the coda, being quite brief. Geoff Warren's analogy of a dream with a series of semi-connected episodes is a useful one. Another might be of a series of rooms at an exhibition, each room with different content but linked somehow by the artist's imagination.

With Hoarded Dreams, Collier utilizes his entire armoury of compositional signatures and techniques. There are interludes of free improvisation punctuated with stabbing riffs and motifs, which then seem to be passed across the orchestra. He would later use this technique (one far from uncommon in symphonic music) to fine effect, most notably on Charles River Fragments. There are the inevitable cadenzas, changes of tempo and mood, fluctuations in volume and abrupt endings. Ballads contrast with a fast waltz or with driving jazz-rock or swinging big band jazz, at times with a strong Latin feel. And, perhaps more successfully here than on any of Collier's previous compositions, we hear the deployment of discrete improvising units. In 'Part 2,' he features all of his five trumpets—Schoof, Wheeler, Lowther, Stańko and Curson—weaving intersecting melody lines with solos from Lowther, Schoof and, finally, Curson. In 'Part 3,' Ed Speight duets, first with Aaltonen on alto on a ballad over glistening orchestral colours and then on a fast-paced waltz with Wheeler. 'Part 4' features the trombones—Bauer, Griffiths and Thelin—with Geoff Warren's flute. This passage is beautifully eccentric with a vaudeville or circus-like quality before the trombones lead a big band section that seems to echo Ellington's 'It Don't Mean a Thing.' And one of the record's many highlights is heard in 'Part 6' with the three tenors of Schubert, Aaltonen and Themen, who are heard as an a cappella trio, then as soloists and finally as a trio but backed by the whole band in a powerful bebop finale to the section. In addition, the record contains some highly effective and affecting duets, for example between Curson and Brown in 'Part 2,' another between Surman on bass clarinet and Stańko in 'Part 5' that has an almost baroque feel to it and later some wonderful interplay between the guitarists in 'Part 6.' This was, as Collier pointed out, a dream band and every single player rises to the occasion, whether it is the tried and tested such as Themen, Griffiths, Wheeler and Surman or the (relative) newcomers such as Warren, Schubert, Schröder or Brown. Ashley Brown, in fact, is a revelation, which, bearing in mind that he came to the orchestra somewhat late in the day, is even more to his credit. He explained:

"With the bigger band, I took over from Alan Richard Jackson. Alan did a rehearsal for Hoarded Dreams at the Tramshed in Camden and he got fed up with it. So, I was slipped in to do the actual performance because Alan had been in the big band and I was in the small group (Interview Brown/Heining 2016). Brown also notes one rather amusing aspect of the concert (and of other experiences he had in large ensembles with Collier). It related to the composer/conductor's 'lazy eye.' It was not always possible for the musicians to know just who Collier was looking at. As he would sometimes look at a player to cue them in to solo or whatever, this could be and was a problem at times. (Interview Brown/Heining 2016).

The closing coda ('Part 7') is quite marvellous. It is as if the whole piece has been condensed into its final two and a half minutes. Motifs, riffs, themes and trios and duets are reprised and the main theme of the piece is recalled. Four chords from the horns and a final fifth ends with what sounds like an interrupted cadence. It must have been very difficult to find a way of bringing this huge work to a successful close but it is hard to imagine a better ending to one of Collier's most successful compositions.

But the record's finest moment is also its most controversial. It comes towards the end of 'Part 5' and features Conny Bauer. Writing about the incident a quarter of a century later, Collier noted:

"Reflecting his [Bauer's] usual home in free jazz groups, he played an absolutely staggering, but very long, solo cadenza. It was far too long for the situation, but I could find no sensible way of stopping him, and it was so good that in some ways I didn't want to. But I was aware that, at least as I saw it, he was spoiling the shape of the piece. So, in an attempt to move the piece on, I brought the band in. One critic picked me up on this—in a way rightly, but if I hadn't, I suspect he might still have been playing! (Collier 2009a: 255).

The critic Collier refers to was Dave Gelly, writing in the Observer. Gelly pointed out the difficulty faced by the composer in bringing together this diverse collection of players and then, in addition, predicting how each duet or solo or trio might turn out. Gelly continued:

"Sometimes, the guess was brilliant; you couldn't tell where improvisation ended and writing took over. Occasionally, as after a breath-taking cadenza from German trombonist Konrad Bauer, the band's entry stopped the music in its tracks." (Gelly 1983: 30).

As Collier was so fond of noting, jazz happens in real time once. Gelly is correct, though he remains sympathetic to Collier's dilemma. In a way, the entry of the band is too much of a contrast initially. By any standards, Bauer's performance is astonishing, as his multiphonics at times have him duetting with himself. However, Collier quickly corrects his initial error by allowing the orchestra a freer rein that then complements Bauer's solo and opens the section out with Stańko joining Bauer.

Of all Collier's compositions, Hoarded Dreams is one of the hardest to map and describe. Like the later Charles River Fragments from 1994, there is simply so much musical information contained within its seventy minutes. The audience reaction is spontaneous and rapturous, marking one of those transcendent moments in music that follows a massive building of tension before a final release. It might not be 'perfect' but it was a triumph and its availability on CD twenty-four years later makes Hoarded Dreams an essential and pivotal work in the Collier canon.

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