Will Butterworth Trio/Adam Turns at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast

Ian Patterson By

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Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memories.
—Oscar Wilde
Will Butterworth Trio/Adam Turns: The Nightingale & The Rose
Crescent Arts Centre
Belfast Book Festival
Belfast, N. Ireland
June 17, 2017

Fortune and happenstance collided beautifully at the Belfast Book Festival with the performance of pianist Will Butterworth's jazz suite "The Nightingale & the Rose," inspired by Oscar Wilde's children's tale of the same name. That Wilde's tale—written in 1888—has been frequently adapted for the opera, ballet, cantata and even Sufi poetry, says much for the lyrical, romantic and dramatic nature of the work, but Butterworth is, perhaps, the first composer to tackle the story through the prism of jazz.

Butterworth to the Belfast Book Festival without drummer Pete Ibberston and bassist Nick Pini. This double blow was mitigated to a significant degree by replacement drummer Dylan Howe. Howe knows Butterworth well through their unlikely Igor Stravinsky tribute duo, and whilst the bass voice was missed, pianist and drummer negotiated the rhythmic spaces vacated by Pini's absence with panache and evident freedom.

Until now, Butterworth's suite had always been performed as an instrumental interpretation of Wilde's tale, but for the Belfast Book Festival local actor Adam Turns read Wilde's sumptuous text, with words and music dovetailing in sympathetic symmetry.

The story tells how a young student falls head over heels with a girl who promises to dance with him if he brings her a red rose. Despite his efforts he is unable to find one and weeps in despair. A nightingale decides to help the student. It all seems simple enough but Wilde's genius was to create a fairy tale-like children's story laced with profound adults themes: the environment; altruism; love; vanity, sacrifice and futility.

Butterworth's suite too, spans forms both simple and complex, starkly beautiful melodies and simple rhythms juxtaposed against intricate contours and free-wheeling improvisations.

Music plays a very significant part in Wilde's tale, with the nightingale singing three songs. "She sings like there's no tomorrow," Butterworth tells the audience, which chimes with the intention of jazz to really be in the moment. To that end, the soloing of Butterworth, saxophonist Séb Pipe and Howe is highly animated, the freer flights contrasting sharply with the through-composed segments.

Elegiac piano and brushes combine in plaintive discourse as Turns relates the student's fruitless search and sorrow. 'Ah, on what little things does happiness depend!' An elegantly flowing, impressionistic piano solo is followed by a swinging trio passage as a little green lizard, a butterfly and a daisy observe the student's weeping with cynicism and laughter. The nightingale silently contemplates the mysteries of love, represented by a fiery, mellifluous solo from Pipe on alto saxophone, and a boppish response from Butterworth.

The nightingale takes flight and goes in search of a red rose, but finds only white and yellow ones. A quickening of Howe's brushes, circling piano figures, tumbling cadenzas, and searching alto lines correspond to the nightingale's ever- more desperate search in the service of love. A storm-battered oak tree tells the nightingale that there is one way to fashion a red rose, although the cost is high. The nightingale must 'build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart's blood.'

For the nightingale, love is more valuable than life -the heart of a bird nothing compared to the heart of a man. The nightingale sings a final song to the tree, 'like water bubbling from a sliver jar.' In an extended trio passage where Butterworth and Howe gradually ratchet up the rhythmic intensity, Pipe's alto lines grow from elegant and resolute to uninhibited release, as though mirroring the nightingale's passionate song.

The nightingale flies to a rose tree where she presses her chest against a rose thorn and sings all night long, the thorn pressing ever deeper towards her heart. She sings the birth of love in a girl and boy, and a beautiful pale rose blossoms; she sings of the birth of passion, and a flush comes to the rose. With day fast approaching, the nightingale presses closer, the thorn piercing her heart, and she sings through bitter pain of the love that is perfected by death. The rose becomes crimson, 'like the rose of the eastern sky,' and the nightingale gives one last burst of song.

'The white Moon heard it, and she forgot the dawn, and lingered on in the sky. The red rose heard it, and it trembled all over with ecstasy, and opened its petals to the cold morning air. Echo bore it to her purple cavern in the hills, and woke the sleeping shepherds from their dreams. It floated through the reeds of the river, and they carried its message to the sea.'

A repeating piano ostinato, buoyant drums and serene alto offer not a lament for the nightingale's death, but a celebration of the birth of beauty, fashioned from selfless sacrifice. The music swells dramatically, Pipe's flowering alto lines gaining vibrancy like the color to the rose. The music plays into the hearts of the audience, just as the nightingale's last song touches the moon, seduces the rose and travels far.

To the backdrop of delicate piano and soft mallets, the student comes across the rose, which he bears to object of his love. Alas, the girl tells the boy that, unfortunately, the red rose wil not go with her dress, and anyway, a new suitor has brought her jewels, which are obviously far more valuable than a mere red rose.

Angrily, the student casts the rose into the gutter, where it is run over by a cart wheel. Sadly resigned, the student walks away, reflecting that love is silly for it is unpractical, 'and in this age to be practical is everything.'

When words finish music begins; said poet Heinrich Heine, and music has the final say; Pipe's alto lines, underpinned by a steady rhythmic pulse, sing of bitter-sweet melancholy, of a heart, perhaps, that aches and yearns. The suite concludes with Butterworth and Howe in tandem, the piano notes falling as softly as the petals of a rose, cymbals sighing as faintly as the last, dying breath of a nightingale.

Applause was stifled during the performance for fear of breaking the spell that the trio and narrator cast, but into the silence that enveloped the final note burst applause and cheers as the audience offered a standing ovation.

Butterworth's studio recording of The Nightingale and the Rose is due for release on Jellymould Jazz in September 2017. Clearly, based on this live performance, Butterworth's suite captures some of the poetry, pronounced rhythmic cadences and vivid colors of Wilde's text, but, for those fortunate enough to have been present at the Crescent Arts Centre it's maybe going to be hard to hear the music without a narrator's voice bringing Wilde's words to life.

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