Music Matters: Graham Fitkin

If memory serves [and, increasingly, I fear, it doesn’t quite] I first came across the music of Graham Fitkin, like so much other interesting and occasionally testing music, on BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction; this back in the days when I could stay awake late enough to listen. I can’t recall the particular piece that was played, but it might well have been Flak, written for and performed on two pianos, or one of the composer’s more reflective piano pieces, titled simply Piano Piece followed by the date. Whichever it was, the name stuck and it wouldn’t have been much later, browsing the CD racks in the classical department of the late and lamented (by me, anyway) Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus, that I came across the album Flak, released by Manchester’s Factory Records in 1990, and featuring ten compositions, arranged, as the sleeve note disarmingly states, into two groups: “Numbers 1 – 4 are written for two pianos/eight hands and are generally fast. Numbers 5 – 10 are for solo piano and are generally slow.”

Flak

Although those are Laurence Crane’s words and not those of Fitkin himself, they serve to indicate the straightforwardness of Graham Fitkin’s approach to both the music and its audience: okay, this is contemporary classical music and while it may sometimes be intricate and difficult to play it is not difficult to listen to and enjoy. One thing that immediately becomes clear when you see Fitkin in concert is his concern for communicating with his audience. Shock, horror, he even talks to us; and talks in an engaging, sell-deprecating, slightly bumbling manner that has the desired effect of breaking down any imagined barriers. Not only that, he has been known to cook for us too! Meringues at a recent band gig in Kings Place’s smaller hall and last night, in the main auditorium, dish after dish of small and richly delicious chocolate truffles.

Fitkin was born in West Cornwall – the Penwith Peninsula – where he lives with his partner and frequent collaborator, the harpist Ruth Wall, and studied first with Nigel Osborne and Peter Nicholson at the University of Nottingham [Penwith & Nottingham, perhaps the perfect combination!] and later with Louis Andriessen in Holland. Andriessen aside, his style owes much to the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and, although that is never really left behind, there is a restlessness that pushes the music into exciting and sometimes surprising areas – the audio-enhanced duets with Ruth Wall; the as-close-to-jazz-as-damn-it gigs by the Graham Fitkin Band; and, memorably, the 2016 London Jazz Festival evening at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, which quite thrillingly merged minimalism with disco and featured two counter tenors singing girl group back-up.

K Place

Last night’s concert at Kings Place was arranged around the launch of a new album on which the Sacconi Quartet, who have been collaborating with Fitkin for some ten years, play all six of his existing pieces for string quartet. Nicely programmed, the evening featured three of those compositions – concluding with Servant, my personal favourite and, I would guess, also theirs – four pieces of solo piano, including Running & Breathing and two beautifully reflective Piano Pieces, 00 & 95; these interspersed with Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2 and Arvo Part’s Summa [irrevocably linked in my mind with my radio dramatisation of A. S. Byatt’s Frederica Quartet, for which it was the theme music.] All in all, a warm, engaging, enthralling evening of music … and chocolate truffles.

You can find out more about Graham Fitkin and listen to some of music on his web site.

Fitkin

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Summer Playlist, 2017

No accident these, no throw of the random dice, but compiled with loving care.

  1. Body & Soul : Billie Holiday, from The Quintessential Billie Holiday Vol. 8
  2. Brickyard Blues : Helen Shapiro, from Rhythm on the Radio – Oval Records 1974-87
  3. California Bloodlines : Dave Alvin, from West of the West
  4. Don’t Take This the Wrong Way : Graham Fitkin Band, from Veneer
  5. Falling in Love Again : Billie Holiday, from The Quintessential Billie Holiday Vol. 8
  6. Flamingo : Earl Bostic, from Larkin’s Jazz
  7. Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves : Cher, from Cher’s Greatest Hits 1965-92
  8. Hemingway’s Whiskey : Kris Kristofferson, from This One’s For Him, A Tribute to Guy Clark
  9. I Got Rhythm : Django Reinhardt, from Djangology
  10. I’m Down in the Dumps : Bessie Smith, from Larkin’s Jazz
  11. I’ve Had It : Aimee Mann, from Whatever
  12. Is This America? : Charlie Haden, from Rambling Boy
  13. The House That Jack Built : Jack ‘N’ Chill, from Rhythm on the Radio – Oval Records 1974-87
  14. Jumpin’ at the Woodside : Count Basie & His Orchestra, from Larkin’s Jazz
  15. Leaving the Table : Leonard Cohen, from You Want it Darker
  16. Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor : Mississippi John Hurt, from Today
  17. Never Not You (Remember to Breathe) : Girlboy, from Late Bloomers
  18. New Orleans Hop Scop Blues : Bruce Turner & Wally Fawkes, from That’s the Blues, Dad
  19. Now’s the Time : John Lewis, from Improvised Meditations & Excursions
  20. Our Song : Joe Henry, from Civilians
  21. Private Life : Grace Jones, from Island Life
  22. Rosetta : Allen Toussaint, from American Tunes
  23. Round Midnight : Robert Wyatt, from For the Ghosts Within
  24. Runaway : Bonnie Raitt, from The Bonnie Raitt Collection
  25. Sister Mercy : John Stewart, from The Day the River Sang
  26. Someday You’ll Be Sorry : Louis Armstrong, from Louis Armstrong at The Crescendo 1955
  27. Stone for Bessie Smith : Dory Previn, from Mythical Kings & Iguanas
  28. Vamp : Graham Fitkin Band, from Vamp
  29. When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful : Fats Waller, from Larkin’s Jazz
  30. You Don’t Own Me : Dusty Springfield, from A Girl Called Dusty

Perhaps the most surprising, to me, single track is Helen Shapiro’s remarkably strong version of Allen Toussaint’s Brickyard Blues, originally written for Frankie Miller, and recorded by Shapiro for Charlie Gillett’s Oval records in 1984. I knew she had grown to be a far better singer than her very early Don’t Treat Me Like a Child pop days, touring and recording with the Humphrey Lyttelton Band, for instance, but this – this is, I think, superb.

What else is worth commenting on? The way in which both the Leonard Cohen and John Stewart tracks seem so knowingly valedictory, Cohen aware, I think, that he was dying; Stewart conscious, perhaps – just listen to the opening lyrics – of the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.

And the fact that most of the jazz tracks included here come from a 4 CD compilation commissioned by The Philip Larkin Society,  based upon Larkin’s years of jazz record reviewing – how could someone who often came across in his other writing as being uptight, mysogynistic, mean-spirited and cheerless, have enjoyed such joyous music?