Matthew Wright writes...
Trish Clowes is Radio 3’s New Generation Jazz Artist 2012-14, and the first woman to be given the role. Her music incorporates an extraordinary range of reference, with sound-collages from not only the classical tradition but also from a wide range of jazz. She sounds, according to John Fordham, ‘as if the young Stan Getz had morphed into Wayne Shorter’.
She has released two acclaimed albums, ‘Tangent’ and ‘And in the Night-Time She is There’. Though sometimes described as a blend of the jazz and classical traditions, Clowes’ musical approach is rooted in jazz, though her choice of inspiration is dizzyingly eclectic, including poetry as well as huge range of musical styles.
Unassuming, with an evident delight in discussing musical plans and ideas, there is all the same a self-assurance in the wide horizons of her source material. The heritage of jazz and classical music, cabaret, folk and poetry all inspire her work, and the openness with which she considers such a breadth of experience as inspiration is both refreshing and impressive.
She is impatient with the idea that coming from one musical tradition limits the way she can approach composition: “I hate the phrase ‘respect for a tradition’ when it’s used in a negative way, to mean you can’t do anything different,” she says. Her open-mindedness is one of the defining features of her music, and the search for inspiration clearly one of the many fascinating things about her work. “Jazz musicians spend their whole lives looking for new ideas,” she suggests.
Clowes is interested in the different sound worlds classical music can offer, which she incorporates directly with violins, viola and cello. Her compositions for larger groups, like the ‘Iris Nonet’ on the recently released ‘And in the Night-Time She is There’ contain glimpses of woody string quartet sound, though it’s not just the classical soundscape she is interested in. “Improvising string players usually have a different approach to jazzers. As opposed to improvising over chord sequences from the American songbook, their heritage is in folk and bluegrass, so they have a different improvising language and are more used to modal settings,” she says.
Within jazz, Ellington - “such joyous music” - is recognised as a big influence. Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss gets a mention in the notes of her first album Tangent, where Clowes’ ‘Prelude to a Sketch’ and Sketch’ both share Ellington’s gift for lilting romance. Clowes won’t be drawn on whether Ellington’s writing of longer pieces for orchestra was an attempt to secure the same status for his music as classical composers received. In that respect at least, he’d surely be satisfied with the state of affairs today.
When I ask about Parker, whose ‘With Strings‘ album would seem to be an obvious influence (though much glossier than Clowes’ sound), she enthuses about the appearance of the oboe within the jazz setting, which she has experimented with at the Emulsion festival at the Vortex last year.
She’s most excited about her introduction to the music of the English group Loose Tubes, which came about by chance when her first saxophone teacher in Shropshire (Stuart Spiers, who is also father of Thea Spiers, violinist in the Tangent Nonet) played her a cassette of their album Delightful Precipice, given to him by bass player Steve Berry. “That was a pivotal moment for me,” she says. “There were great melodies throughout the music, such a range of individual musical voices.”
There are many other musical voices in her musical hinterland: Bill Frisell - “unbelievable tunes” - who gets a mention on her track ‘Blues for Frisell’; Charles Lloyd, and Keith Jarrett - “big influence when I was younger”; and Joni Mitchell - “I was discovering more popular music at college - having been raised mostly on classical and jazz - and I just thought she was incredible.”
Discovering Mitchell’s orchestral albums 'Both Sides Now' and 'Travelogue' (featuring Wayne Shorter, an array of other jazz musicians and arrangements by Vince Mendoza) was an especially crucial formative experience. “Wayne has such a noble sound,” she says, “it's as if he's playing an obligato line along with Joni's vocals, like the line you would find in an opera.”
Then there’s the cabaret. Saxophonist Barbara Thompson suggested Clowes perform her album 'Barbara Song' which is a collection of Kurt Weill songs arranged by the likes of Mike Westbrook, Richard Rodney Bennett, Mike Gibbs and Barbara Thompson herself. "Barbara - who is unfortunately not able to play much herself at present - and her husband Jon Hiseman thought my sound would work well for performing the music, so when the opportunity to play at St James' Piccadilly came up its seemed like the ideal project to work in that setting,” she explains.
When I ask about the dizzying array of genres she has been involved with, she is unfazed: “I enjoy all styles. There’s so much music out there, I go with what grabs me,” she concludes.
The organic quality to each performance, how a tune grows and develops over a series of perhaps very different outings, is one of the key delights for Clowes. “If you listen to live recordings of the Davis Quintet,” she says, “the tracks are very different from the original studio versions. I don't like the restriction of having to sound exactly like the record, but increasingly for some jazz artists, the pressure to do so is there.”
Expectations in jazz are distinctively different from in classical performance. “There’s huge pressure on classical performers to be perfect. People are waiting to pounce on any imperfection.” Clowes says. “Having to be technically flawless, while offering a new interpretation of a well-known piece is hugely demanding.”
She enjoys collaborations with classical artists and ensembles, though, and has many opportunities to do so as a BBC New Generation Artist. She’s planning quartets with other NGAs, and a series of songs for classical singers based on Oscar Wilde. She finds the new generation of classical players refreshingly open to collaboration and experimental performance.
But at heart she relishes jazz performance, and is suspicious of classical high-concept work in which a schematised idea dominates. “Live interaction in jazz forces any compositional concepts to be a starting point, not the main event” she suggests.
She regards the fact she is the first female jazz NGA with equanimity, finding nothing in the jazz establishment itself that makes it harder for women. In any case, she points out, “there are still not many male jazz singers. Gender makes no difference. I’m just lucky to be able to do what I want to do.”