LondonJazz interviewed trombonist/arranger CALLUM AU, who talks about the new arrangements of West Side Story which will be premiered on 13th June at the Spice of Life by the Callum Au Big Band.
LondonJazz - You've been arranging for big band for many years. How/ when did you get started?
Callum Au - My first trombone teacher, Terry Reaney, is a great big band trumpet player, and ran his own big band for his students. It was through him that I became interested in the genre, and the first things I ever wrote were for that band.
LJ: And then there was Bill Ashton and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra?
Absolutely. I only started writing seriously because of Bill and NYJO. He found out that I had written some music in the past and asked me to write charts for the band on a regular basis almost as soon as I started playing with them regularly in 2007. By the end of my tenure with NYJO I’d written about 50 charts for the band’s library! I’ve always listened to a lot of orchestrated/large ensemble music: my first ever jazz albums were Mark Nightingale’s Destiny and Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers – so it’s a natural progression for me really! Since then I’ve been lucky enough to have written and arranged music for a fair few different bands and ensembles on the scene.
LJ - And what's your personal history with Bernstein's music?
CA - I've always listened to a lot of classical music, as both my parents are classical music lovers - and I remember 'West Side Story' in particular being played in the car on the way to school a fair bit! But I first looked at the music properly and in depth about a year ago.
LJ - And what drew you to it?
CA - I was looking through the score basically as a study guide for orchestration purposes. Some of Bernstein's melodies are just incredible: particularly Somewhere, .Tonight, and Maria.
LJ - How many pieces have you arranged?
CA - Currently, six - Something's Coming, Maria, Cool, Somewhere, America, Tonight. Hopefully I'll add more as the project progresses: Mambo is probably next on my list, as well as the Prologue. It's actually some of the incidental music that I like the most.
LJ -Are there big band arrangers or other composers who you had in mind when writing?
CA - Probably Bill Holman, Thad Jones, and Jaco Pastorius. I love the way those writers can write rhythmically and harmonically complex music while still making the music swing. Among British big band writers, my favourites are Laurence Cottle and Gareth Lockrane – I definitely draw influence from them as well. I'm also a big fan of Nelson Riddle and Billy May - while what they did doesn't translate directly to what I am doing on this project, there is always a lot to be gained from considering how they wrote.
LJ - Is there one piece from 'West Side Story' which presented particular challenges and what did you do?
CA - A lot of the pieces I arranged translate really well for big band, even without much alteration. With 'America', however, I had to make some pretty big changes to keep it from sounding very silly, since the original harmony is so triadic (common in musical theatre but not so much in jazz). I basically reharmonised the whole thing with very fast-moving slash chords to match the harmonic interest with the rhythmic interest.
LJ -Have you had some of it played before and how did that work out? Did you have to re-write?
CA - Other than Something's Coming (which I wrote in time for my last big band gig to record as a bit of a preview), none of the music has been played before. I don't often need to re-write anything, as I tend to check what I write with the players as I go along to an extent - if there's something I'm not quite sure of I'll send the chart to whoever is going to be playing it and ask them what they think.
LJ -Have you written parts with particular players in mind?
CA -Yes, there are a couple I could mention. The lead alto saxophonist Lucas Dodd is an excellent soprano sax player, so a lot of the suite is written for soprano sax lead. Baritone sax player Richard Shepherd is an incredible jazz soloist - so I have made sure that there is an arrangement to feature him (despite the fact that baritone features are generally quite rare). And I always make sure to write some very hard changes for trumpet player Henry Armburg Jennings, as he will always hit every single one.
LJ -You're a trombonist. What are the trombone moments?
CA - There isn't exactly a 'trombone section feature'. On the other hand, there are plenty of trombone and bass trombone moments. One thing that is sometimes lost in a big band (where everyone plays very small jazz instruments) is the broad, round sound that a trombone is able to produce - to circumvent this problem I have myself doubling on euphonium, another trombone doubling on a classical tenor trombone (a Conn 88H for those who are curious!), and the bass trombone player doubling on tuba. This gives a much fuller sound at the bottom end of the chords and is very useful at times, particularly when I want a more 'classical' sound.
Also: although it won't be ready for this gig, when I get round to arranging 'Officer Krupke' it will probably be a bass trombone feature!
LJ - Is there a latin percussionist who gets his or her moment in the sunshine?
CA - I did consider bringing a percussionist in for this, but I think that the Spice of Life is probably just a bit too small to fit him plus congas and vibraphone on the stage along with the rest of the band! But it's definitely something I'll think about in the future if the opportunity arises: it does add a lot to the overall sound of the band.
LJ- Thanks Callum, and all the best for June 13th