Ethan Iverson’s Rent Party

 

 

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Ethan Iverson, flanked by Adam Fairhall (on his right) and Alexander Hawkins

The third part of Ethan Iverson’s Kings Place residency during this year’s London Jazz Festival went under the name of Ethan’s Last Rent Party, but rather than it being a bring-a-bottle, pay-what-you-can-at-the-door event being put on in order to assuage the venue’s doubtless huge rates bill, it turned out to be – with Iverson joined on stage by British pianists, Adam Fairhall and Alexander Hawkins – an exhilarating, sometimes thrilling, examination of the links between British music in the first decades of the last century and jazz, between the likes of Percy Grainger of English Country Garden fame and syncopation.¬†And one of the most musically satisfying and surprising, enjoyable, educative and entertaining musical events I’ve attended.

Iverson – he late of The Bad Plus – clearly knows, as anyone familiar with his blog, Do The M@th, will know, a lot about a lot of things, things musical in particular; one of his more obsessive areas of interest [about as obsessive as his interest in crime fiction] seeming to be British music & composition. Who knew, for instance [well, obviously, Iverson did] that when Will Marion Cooke’s African-American revue, In Dahomey, played¬†London’s Shaftesbury Theatre on the 16th May, 1903, Percy Grainger was in the audience and was inspired to write a piano piece of the same name in a syncopated, ‘raggy’ style. Nor that in 1923 Constant Lambert went to the London Pavilion to see Dover Street to Dixie, featuring the orchestra of black musicians led by Will Vodery. An experience, Iverson says, which led Lambert towards the use of syncopation in his work, including the 1929 Piano Sonata.

The link, Iverson says, between Cook, Vodery, Grainger and Lambert is the Duke, Duke Ellington. But, instead of me further pillaging his blog, why don’t I step aside in favour of Iverson’s own words?

Duke Ellington is a linking theme. Will Marion Cook and Will Vodery were two of Ellington’s teachers and mentors. Both Grainger and Lambert knew and respected Ellington. There’s a picture of Grainger with Ellington when Grainger invited Ellington to he NYU classroom in 1932. Lambert (who had a major career as a feisty critic) was one of Ellington’s most vocal supporter in the 1930s, writing in the famously caustic Music Ho! that Ellington ” … has crystallised the popular music of our time and set up a standard by which we may judge not only other jazz composers but also those highbrow composers, whether American or European, who indulge in what is roughly known as ‘symphonic jazz'”

So, what actually happened? Iverson introduced the subject before chatting a while with Fairhall and Hawkins. Then he played Grainger’s In Dahomey and the first movement of Lambert’s Piano Sonata; Hawkins [stretching further back in time] played William Byrd’s ‘First Pavan & Galliard’, with a nod towards the recording by Glenn Gould; Fairhall, to my delight, played Winifred Atwell and Billy Mayerl; they each played a composition by Ray Noble, Iverson doing the honours with ‘Cherokee; and, finally, all three sat at the same piano to take Grainger’s ‘Country Gardens’ to places I doubt it’s composer would or could have envisaged.

Brilliant!

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Adam Fairhall in action

 

 

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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