Category Archives: Loose Tubes

Bright Smoke, Cold Fire: some secrets

BBC Radio 3 commission for Loose Tubes, first performed at Cheltenham Jazz Festival May 3rd 2014
 
The piece started as a bag of disparate elements and ideas about the kind of thing I wanted it to be – lots of changes of tempo and texture, something in the Mahavishnu Orchestra arpeggiated chord vein, something beguine-ish with rhythmic brass, a swooping tune, a busy, unpredictable tune, a rising sax soli gesture; these jotted down in the summer of 2013 when the idea of a reunion commission first came up. Then I let it go to sleep.
 
When the project was confirmed I began to work on the piece in earnest. I still had the idea of music which changes abruptly from one area to another and I set to work on fleshing out the different kinds of material. As I went on, it became evident that these different areas were related – they were transformations or translations of each other. I also became fascinated by the idea of how seemingly angular, atonal melodies could become tonal, and vice versa. There is a jagged, abrupt melody in the opening half minute, which comes back a little later in a more harmonically focused context. Motifs from the opening melody are harmonically refocused later on, and extrapolated contrapuntally towards the end.
 
The harmony is the real foundation of the piece. The sequence of 9 harmonic areas, expressed in chord symbols, goes:
 
 F maj7+5,     B11,     Bbmaj7#11,    Bb11,    Emaj7#11,    Emin11,    Abmaj7+5, C7alt,    F#maj7+5
 
This is quite a rich sequence. Looking at the chord scales, you find that A maj triad belongs to the first two chords, and that the 7th and 11th of the second chord become the maj 7th and # 11th of the third, and so on. In arranging and voicing these chords you can also express them in close form, with the 13th a semitone below the 7th, or in expanded form emphasising min 9th intervals. This is a bit of a technical explanation, but it means that the sound of the harmony can go through different transformations. The music can sound sometimes “jazzy” and sometimes “contemporary”.
 
After the opening rising sax figure the first version of the harmony, a tribute and reference to John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra,  is a filtered version of the sequence, with fewer notes to give a more gutsy sound. When it returns at the end in fuller orchestration the bare intervals remain – I didn’t fill the sound out with other extensions etc. I like this “white hot” sound – it expresses the shock of revelation in Mahavishnu’s music, and here something hopefully similar: wake up!
 
Next comes the keyboard arpeggiated chords – another Mahavishnu trademark – and then the band comes in with parts that trace the keyboard and an angular phrase over the top at odds with the harmony, from which a lot of the later melodic material is derived. A sound that suggests a complex woven thread.
 
The next version of the harmony is in beguine tempo, with close voicings arranged for the brass. The large – interval melody which appeared earlier is on the guitar, doubled below on bass and bass clarinet. Also in this section is a little melody for alto and trumpet harmonised in fourths. This is lighter in mood, with a dancing rhythm.
 
Now comes another harmonic sequence, unrelated to the central one and providing a release from it; the time signature settles to a regular 3 in the bar. Now the atonal angular phrase is recontextualised in tonal harmony. There follows a flute solo on the sequence, followed by a recapitulation of the melody with high woodwind trills – suggesting a Debussian delirium. The fourthsy melody has now acquired a little countermelody.
 
An abrupt change leads to the second half of the piece, a percussion-heavy groove in 6 with accented bass notes. A saxophone solo weaves in between until the horns begin their contrapuntal explorations of the intervallic and melodic material. There is an urgency in this section – the high woodwind trills sound like a phone ringing (must take this call!), the chromatic lines propel the music forward with increasing complexity, like a polemic. The grand brass chords which stand monumentally over the music from time to time are another iteration of the original harmonic sequence, this time arranged in expanded intervals to give a more plangent contemporary sound. In fact the bass notes spell out the roots of the original sequence, and the rhythmic accents have been in the piece from the beginning. So the abrupt change to something seemingly unrelated is in fact a change to the same thing as before!
 
The contrapuntal section leads headlong into the opening Mahavishnu-style music with cataclysmic force; then comes a final reiteration of the beguine tempo section with yet more dancing counterlines. And finally another abrupt change: the mood becomes more forgiving, more wistful, thinner in texture, and gently waltzes to a close that feels unresolved, a dot-dot-dot ending. The harmony in this section is in fact a re-spelling of the original chord sequence – each chord has the same parent scale as the original, F maj+5 becomes A maj +5, B11 becomes F#min11, and so on. The voicings are similar to things that happen in the late Pete Saberton’s music, and this section is a fond tribute to his memory.
 
 
 
So what, finally, is the meaning of the title “Bright Smoke, Cold Fire”? In the original Shakespeare Romeo uses the phrase to illustrate what it feels like when he doubts Juliet’s love for him – a world turned upside-down. But here I intend other, broader meanings. The world is not as it should be: there is still, even now in the 21st century, war, children starving to death – that’s Bright Smoke, Cold Fire; greed, fear and power are still abroad both in the wider world and in the interactions of daily life – that’s Bright Smoke, Cold Fire; music is still used by many as acoustic wallpaper while doing something else, or as mere entertainment, or as social badge, or as a means of manipulating opinions and buying habits, instead of as the supreme medium of transformation and healing – that’s Bright Smoke, Cold Fire;  music history is a list of officially approved figures rather than a universal legacy of generosity, free to all – that’s Bright Smoke, Cold Fire… and more… I think, or I hope, the urgent need for these revelations is there in the sound of this music.
 

Two Loose Tubes Compositions

Two Loose Tubes Compositions: “Sosbun Brakk” and “Delightful Precipice”

 

A lot gets said about Loose Tubes in performance – reviews of gigs naturally tend to talk more about the spectacle, the humour, the energy, etc, but so much remains to be said about the compositional side of the band. In an interview trumpet player and composer Chris Batchelor said that the standard of writing in Tubes had “raised the bar” for bands playing their own music. I interpret this as meaning that expectations were raised, that for example after Tubes it was no longer adequate merely to write a “head” with (or without) chord changes: original compositions had to be much more thoroughly conceived, not only in the arrangement, the chord voicings or part-writing, but in the fundamentals of what the music was, how it sounded, and how it related to the larger world it made connections with. Loose Tubes was a meeting place of styles and influences. Sometimes the band sounded South African, sometimes avant-garde, sometimes funky, sometimes folky. I think Chris was implying that it is no longer possible to make assumptions, to rely on clichés. From now on composers need to not only embrace, but explore, probe and question their influences. And be prepared for new ones.

 

There was so much music and so many styles it’s almost too hard to begin. But begin I will, and forgive me if I blow my own trumpet a bit and choose one of my own pieces and an area of music close to my heart – the relationship between jazz and classical music. I’m going to start with my own piece “Sosbun Brakk” and put it alongside Django’s “Delightful Precipice”, both of which appear on Loose Tubes’ second album “Delightful Precipice”, and both of which appear on the second volume of material recorded at Loose Tubes’ final week at Ronnie Scotts. “Sosbun Brakk” bears traces of composers like Ligeti and Berio, as well as Eric Dolphy, Anthony Braxton etc on the jazz side. Django’s piece sounds at times like Charles Ives and Varese but also gives a gruntling nod towards minimalists like Riley, Reich and Adams.

 

 

Jazz/Classical Cross-Over

 

Both pieces can be heard in relationship to contemporary classical music idioms; I guess because of my own background I’m particularly interested in the cross-over between classical music and jazz, but by this I don’t mean the blatant bashing together of the two idioms. This has never interested me. I am attracted by subtle blends of musics; I’m impressed when an artist’s work shows a deep level of understanding of musical idioms rather than a superficial one. For example I find the addition of an oboe or sitar to an otherwise conventional post-bop jazz rhythm section (that used to pass for “cross-over”) gratuitous, lumpy and gimmick-prone. Neither have I ever been a great fan of early 20th century classical composers trying to “do jazz” – Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto and Milhaud’s La Creation Du Monde always sounded awkward to me (Gershwin was always more successful than these).

 

But for me the real stuff starts with Gil Evans. Gil Evans’ music was by far the most successful blending of jazz and classical sensibilities. It is to be found in the harmonies and textures, the shifting of orchestral settings from intimate portraits and interiors to wide open landscapes, that occur in his work with Miles: it isn’t just the choice of material that speaks of classical influences in jazz. The relationship is much more fundamental, much more organic. Gil Evans’ harmonic and arranging voice is as jazzy as Tadd Dameron’s but as orchestral as Ravel’s. The term “third stream music” seems to have fallen from use these days; it was Gunther Schuller who first coined it, and an interesting though (in my opinion) limited brand of jazz, some of which explored serial techniques and sounds, grew up around him. Gil was associated with this brand but his work has a warmth, and an expansiveness, which I do not find in other “third streamers”. Gil also has great command of orchestration and a large vocabulary of what I might call “orchestral gestures”.

 

 

Sosbun Brakk

 

The title is the name of a mountain in the Karakoram range of the Himalayas. A picture in Mountain magazine shows a jagged, angular, wedge-like peak with a plume of icy cloud perpetually blowing off into the stratosphere. I liked it! And I liked the words.

My thanks go to my friend Chris McHale in Liverpool for introducing me to it. So there is a programmatic element to this piece, especially at the end.

 

I wrote “Sosbun Brakk” partly as a way of working through my experiences with contemporary music at York University where I immersed myself in that kind of music, playing tons of Berio, Victor Hoyland and other stuff. There is a moment in Berio’s monumental music theatre work “Laborinthus II” when suddenly a jazz rhythm section erupts into the music, playing fast time-no-changes in the style of Ornette Coleman. I had the idea to turn this image on its head. I felt there was a space for a modern jazz piece that made use of contemporary classical sounds and gestures, just as Berio had made use of jazz.

 

It was my first piece for Loose Tubes and the one I agonised about most – I wanted, like all young composers, to be as impressive and as whippersnapper-like as I could. So my compositional task was to create a sustained piece of atonal music in which no elements were repeated, but which nevertheless sounded complete and of one piece. I had no numerical or integral serial scheme for this. I just tried to hear all the sounds in the piece as belonging to one idea or mood. The sources of the sounds in the piece are probably quite traceable: for example, the muted trumpets behind the first solo are not a million miles from what happens in a quiet moment in the second part of the “Rite of Spring”; the melodic writing in the opening section before the first solo is similar to moments in “Out To Lunch” by Eric Dolphy.

 

From an improviser’s point of view I also wanted to create a vehicle for non-chord based playing. It was my attempt to contribute to a rapprochement between “free” and “harmonic” improvising, and over the years it was interesting to hear the various soloists’ approaches to playing on this tune. I particularly love Dai Pritchard’s bass clarinet playing, so reminiscent of Dolphy, and so nuts! Django’s comping behind the trombone duet in the live recording is a direct reference to Conlan Nancarrow and also luminous and deranged.

 

I’ve always been fascinated by music which is on the “event horizon” between tonality and atonality, between harmony and texture, and between the abstract and the programmatic. That’s why Debussy is always the greatest classical composer for me, why I love Alban Berg, why I immersed myself in Luciano Berio’s music, and why I believe Ligeti will eventually be recognised as the greatest of the Darmstadt avant–gardists. Not that I don’t like other kinds of music; but there is some kind of philosophical tingle associated with music “on the cusp” – you can’t quite pin it down; it defies the categories. This is one of the things I was trying to achieve in Sosbun Brakk: there is melody, but not in any key; the piece is in common time but without the feeling of “hard” barlines or four-bar squareness. The opening of the piece is jagged and discontinuous in true avant-garde music-theatre style, with abrupt starts and stops; Dai Pritchard takes the first solo with an accompaniment of orchestral gestures and colours. Then there is a section after the first solo when the rhythm drops out and a tune is suspended over some chords – again there is no key, but the melody and harmony just sit together somehow. A passage of extreme, jagged, battling accents follows and then we are into the second, extended improvising section.  And at the end, after the spiky avant-garde abstraction of the second solo, you get to hear the mountain itself growing higher and higher, line by line and note by note, until the perspective changes and you see the whole thing as from a distance, vast, imposing, unchanging and austere (in the first rehearsals of the piece several members of the band screamed at this point). And just to remind you that it’s jazz you hear a flat five interval in the bass!

 

Delightful Precipice

 

Django has said that his piece “Rowing Boat Delineation Egg” (on Loose Tubes’ first album “Loose Tubes”) was an attempt to sound like randomly edited tape; “Delightful Precipice” is in the same whacky wing of Django’s oeuvre but more developed. There are some kaleidoscopic repetitive passages where themes (including that of the BBC Radio programme “The Archers”) emerge from a psychodelic fog; abrupt changes in genre (eg from classical choral music a la Parry to South African Township jazz); and some Varese- or Berg- like melodies and chords. Despite, and maybe precisely because of this angular, jerky, whacky character, this piece became something of an anthem for the band. It shot from angst to joy, from enormity to frivolity, in a surprisingly authentic way  – authentic to our experience of life, that is.

 

At the beginning and end of “Delightful” a twisting, chromatic melody is heard. The accompanying music is circus-like, demonstrative and bombastic and bearing more than a trace of American writers like Ives, Varese, even Frank Zappa. This chromaticism, with the mosaic- or collage-like approach to accompanying orchestral gestures, is an aspect of Django’s writing he was to continue to explore in later pieces like “Fox Across the Road” and his setting of “New York, New York”. Django has repeatedly demonstrated his love for both circus and cinematic devices – changes of “scene”, tempo, scale (I mean numbers of instruments playing). The sequel to Loose Tubes, the band entitled Delightful Precipice, was the vehicle for many of these explorations.

 

Next we hear a short repetetive section in minimalist style, here delivered in mesmerizing legato but later developed at greater length as a sprightly staccato. The tonality is Ionian mode – “true major” – one’s sense of tonality begins to swim – Django plays with harmony and tonality throughout this piece. Disolving from this scene to the next, there is  now a passage of “extended tonality”, in other words, the harmonies contain strong tonal elements but these are offset by “wrong notes”; the melody set against these block chords is twisting and non-repetetive.

Later, after a reprise of the first section, there is a passage of trembling beauty in which the harmony is suspended in a series of trilling chords like a down-feather bed (with a bass flute solo supplied by yours truly!).  A wonderfully striking trombone melody gives a slow-tempo nod to Carla Bley, then there is a return to the pacey trance tempo (sounding so very English ((all based on the diatonic A-major scale but offset by the octave–displaced C sharp –D – E)) like Gavin Bryars, or fellow Scratch-Orchestra member Howard Skempton, perhaps) which finally gives way to the Berg/ Varese-like ending.

 

It’s interesting that we were both looking into the idea of forming a kind of continuity from discontinuous or heterogeneous elements in these two pieces.

 

It knocks me out how much these two pieces sound like they belong together, but also how the other pieces on the album (e.g. John Eacott’s “Sunny”, Steve Berry’s “Shelley”) complement them and make a foil to them – they are the edges of “Sosbun” and “Delightful” while “Sosbun” and “Delightful” are the edges of them. That was the way Loose Tubes worked but also the way our own individual oeuvres worked. After I wrote “Sosbun” I wrote “Children’s Game” and then “Shadow Play” and  “The Last Word”. These pieces are all very different from each other; some might be challenged to understand how they might be written by the same person: unless you know me! Similarly, put “Delightful” or “Rowing Boat” next to “Yellow Hill” or “Like Life” and you might ask a similar question. Stylistically heterogeneous oeuvres may seem commonplace now (do they?!!) but it was one of the things that made Loose Tubes really different back then, and it was important then as it is now for Django and for me to make the connection between jazz and contemporary “classical” music.

Dancing On Frith Street: An Interview with Duncan Heining

 

 

This is the full version of an interview with Duncan Heining, parts of which were published  in Jazz Wise Magazine on the release of Loose Tubes “Dancing On Frith Street”, October 2010.

 

 

  1. How did your involvement with Loose Tubes start and what had you been up to before that?

 

I had been visiting Django and Steve Berry where they lived in Beckenham, having a play with them. They were on their way to this rehearsal band run by Graham Collier and I tagged along. I think it was the second or third meeting of the band, before Django and Steve had started bringing their own charts. I kept on coming; Graham Collier didn’t seem to mind that I had gatecrashed!

 

Before that I had been playing with Django’s group “Humans” (we did a couple of BBC radio broadcasts) which later turned into “Human Chain”, and Steve Berry’s group. I had also become involved with John Stevens through Community Music recently and was beginning to play a bit with “Freebop” alongside Courtney Pine and others.

 

Before that I did a degree in Music at York University where I played a lot of contemporary music. I met some great musicians there like the clarinet player Alan Hacker, composers like Trevor Wishart and Victor Hoyland – very inspiring!

 

And before that I played in a rock band in school doing (amongst other things) Jethro Tull and Focus tunes!

 

  1. Have you heard the live CD and (if so) what are your thoughts about it?

 

Yes I have heard it. I think it’s brilliant! The band sounds really amazing. You really get a sense of the physical power of all those people playing together, which was one of the things that knocked people out about Loose Tubes. And the band is really hot – the playing is excellent and the ensemble incredibly sharp. Live recordings are always problematic to mix and Django has done a great job.

 

  1. Loose Tubes played several residencies at Ronnie’s.  Were Pete and Ronnie supportive and what are your recollections of your residencies at the club and in particular this last set of gigs?

 

Ronnie and Pete loved the band. Well it put bums on seats for one thing, but I know they dug the iconoclastic spirit. I remember one time when some tourists complained to Pete because Ashley (compere and bass trombone, went on to form Freak Power with Norman Cook) had sworn at them for talking loudly during the music. Pete responded with: “he’s right you are a bunch of *****” and threw them out of the club! Pete and Ronnie came with us when we marched offstage and into Frith Street intent on marching to Downing Street. (We decided to come back onstage and finish the tune). There is a lot of doom and gloom around now about the economic climate, “tightening our belts”, etc which is quite similar to the Thatcher days Loose Tubes evolved in. Although Tubes was never a political band (despite the odd statement opposing nuclear power and some benefit concerts) it was the spirit of the music itself which loudly opposed the deadening, reactionary political climate. Our trombone section blew a nice long raspberry at Thatcher, Tebbitt and all the rest of them. It was like we were letting people in on a great party. At the same time there was something considered, intent and purposeful about Loose Tubes; not mere technical display, not just loud riotous splattering notes and audiences against the wall; it was serious and it was fun. It was like the music was saying “never mind the numbing lies of politics. Here is the real truth!”

 

 

  1. What for you were the highpoints of your time with Loose Tubes?

 

There were so many! Certainly the Ronnies residencies were important because they were so intense: concentrated playing; concentrated relationships. And because of the time of day (first set at 10pm, second set begins after midnight) you get into this strange other way of existing. Other high points were: the Proms – very scary!; touring abroad, especially Canada (my first experience of midnight sun), but also Europe. The broadcasts, making the records. Everything! Even the interminable coach trips – bombing along the autobahn in driving rain; epic journeys punctuated by riotous and howling laughter and intense, heated and often inconclusive discussions; tumbling out at the other end to do a gig; and then the après-gig drinking in foreign bars… Onstage, the feeling of being part of this unstoppable force, of the music having this palpable, physical presence… I think you can hear this on the new CD.

 

In the 1980’s Loose Tubes were one of the most popular jazz bands in Britain. People were excited about the band, not just because of the humour but because there was real quality there, real musical ability and ingenuity. I’m not casting aspersions but there have been other bands that just blustered a lot and made a riotous row. Loose Tubes was much more than this.

 

  1. What do you value most about your time with the band?

 

It’s difficult to single out particular aspects, but I’ve got to say that it put me on the path of composing my own material, and gave me tons of experience of writing for large ensembles. After years sitting amongst them, you really know what a saxophone section sounds like! Or four trumpets, or four trombones and a tuba. You also get to know what is possible, what you can ask people to play, and what is impractical.

 

Another area is my playing. Being around such great musicians, like Django, Iain Ballamy, Tim Whitehead, to name only three, was incredibly inspiring. Not only their playing but their thoughts, their spirit and intellect, were so beneficial to me. They helped me to think about how I wanted to sound, what my direction was.

 

 

 

  1. What if any regrets do you have about your time with the band?

 

None!

 

  1. Looking back what for you are Loose Tubes achievements and did it (for you) achieve its goals?

 

For me Loose Tubes was about welcoming all the different musical influences that go to make up our lives. We live in an age when it is possible to be exposed to and influenced by a huge range of musics, either voluntarily or involuntarily. As a child I heard lots of classical music but also Stevie Wonder and other Tamla Mowtown artists; as a teenager it was pop and rock but I also started pursuing ever more far-flung and esoteric interests, from Javanese Gamelan to Karlheinz Stockhausen to Captain Beefheart to the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Later on I discovered a love for Charlie Parker, Keith Jarrett, Kora music, bossa nova, Sardana music, etc. Loose Tubes played an eclectic repertoire that reflected the passions of the different musicians in the band. There was an awareness of the mainstream jazz tradition but without being straightjacketted by it. Sometimes it’s possible to get a very narrow conception of jazz; there are voices – strong, influential voices – that seem to be dictating what Jazz should be. Often it’s a historical thing. There are those that say that Jazz is that thing that died when Charlie Parker died (just as there are those reactionaries that say that classical music is that thing that died when Wagner died). Some don’t want tunes or grooves but noise and are obdurate about it. Others want to go further back, to say Jazz should sound like The Hot Five. For some, big band music should sound like Boyd Rayburn or Maynard Fergusson or Benny Goodman. Loose Tubes came along said “ No disrespect to Boyd Rayburn or Maynard Fergusson or Benny Goodman, but COBBLERS!!!!”

 

Early on, one of the most important tunes we played was Django’s arrangement of Weather Report’s “Young and Fine”. That tune sort of positioned us with respect to a certain modern jazz sound – Weather Report were also a very eclectic band that were not afraid to sound at one moment funky, at another moment like Duke Ellington, at another like an African marketplace, at another like a wild west scene with whippoorwills blowing through the desert –  and there were other Jazz precedents like Gil Evans, some of Herbie Hancock’s writing on “Speak Like A Child”, for example, that were there in quite a lot of the writing in Loose Tubes. But because Chris Batchelor was into Ghanaian Kpanlogo and Columbian Merengue and Irish ballads as well as Anthony Braxton and Keith Jarrett; and because Dave DeFreis was deeply into South African township Jazz as well as Brazilian music, reggae, and other things; because of these other passions, the doors were open to these sounds as well. I had the sound of avant-garde composers like Ligeti and Berio in my ears and it seemed right to me to find a place for these alongside Eric Dolphy, Braxton, Ornette Coleman, Evan Parker, etc. So I wrote a piece called “Sosbun Brakk” which tried to bring all these things under one roof. I didn’t do it for any gimmick – it seemed very natural for me to write it, and it is a serious piece, not a weird aberration or cul-de-sac. But it was just as important for me to write the smooth-funky “Children’s Game” which came straight after, and also to write the reggae-style “The Last Word” which came after that. What I’m getting at is that Loose Tubes promoted a concept of Jazz that was extremely broad, without becoming hopelessly eclectic and dilettante. I know there are musicians around now who were inspired as young players by Loose Tubes in this.

 

8. As a teacher what have you carried forward into your teaching practice that you learned in Loose Tubes?

 

I’ve tried to show my students that you can learn from very widely different musical genres, whatever your particular chosen area might be. Some of the sonorities of Debussy, Poulenc, Satie, Stravinsky, Berg, Bartok and Messaien show up in the playing of Jarrett and Bill Evans and in the writing of Gil Evans (classical musicians can learn from these too); the kind of rhythmic fluidity you find in Ghanaian music feeds into the way you might play funky styles; the intense listening involved in free improvisation helps in playing any and all styles of music, written or not.

 

One “should be” thing:

music should be fun!

 

I teach a lot of junior age children with my partner Elaine using percussion instruments and classroom xylophones, playing mostly rhythmic music. The workshop sessions are lively and fun and always involve a bit of singing and dancing. We have composed a repertoire which includes bits of African, Brazilian and Middle Eastern music as well as pop and rock styles, so that’s quite “Tubesie”. And we also do some improvised soundscapes where the children have to listen carefully and respond sensitively, taking the sounds seriously. All of these things I think are in keeping with the Loose Tubes vibe.

 

 

 

9. Do your students ever ask you about the band?

 

Yes some (older) young musicians are aware of it and speak in reverential tones! So I’m so glad this release is coming. It’s hard to find the vinyl albums and “Open Letter”. Sometimes it’s possible to feel that Loose Tubes has been air-brushed out of Jazz history. This release is amazingly and undeniably strong and sounds like now. So now people can really hear what all the fuss was about!