INTERVIEW/PREVIEW: Chris Caldwell, CRIMSON! (St Johns Smith Square 1st May)

On 1st May at St Johns Smith Square The Delta Saxophone Quartet join forces with jazz pianist/composer Gwilym Simcock for the London premiere of a new composition CRIMSON! Sebastian Scotney interviewed Delta's baritone saxophonist Chris Caldwell, first about Crimson, and then about the quartet:


LondonJazz News: How did you first get to know Gwilym Simcock?

Chris Caldwell I'd known of Gwilym's brilliant performances and projects for some time but had never had the opportunity to work with him as a musician. I couldn't believe it when a work colleague of mine told me that Gwilym played in a musicians south London football team and was also a fan of my local boyhood team… The Potters (Stoke City FC).  My first communications with Gwilym started out as group text updates from Stoke City matches provided by my cousin…the other group member is also a musician who's second trumpet in the BBC Concert Orchestra. Our first meeting was at the Britannia Stadium on December 1st 2011 when Stoke played Dynamo Kiev in a European match. 

LJN:  And "Crimson!" is the second work which the Delta Saxophone Quartet has commissioned for its 30th Anniversary?

CC: Yes, the quartet since its formation in 1984 has always looked to encourage and inspire composers to write new works for the ensemble. We've commissioned the jazz composer Mike Westbrook twice, Gavin Bryars (the long time friend of Evan Parker), Graham Fitkin, Issie Barratt and many more contemporary composers. So we wanted to mark our 30th year with something special. Mark Anthony-Turnage composed a 12' quartet for us called 'Run Riot' which received its London Premiere at SJSS and was also recorded by BBC Radio 3 in March 2014. Gwilym's work for Saxophone Quartet & Piano (like any canny composer there is also a version for solo saxophone quartet too which means we can take this new work to many smaller venues too) is the longest work we've ever performed coming in at over 50'… the previous holder of that title was Louis Andriessen with his homage to the life of Charlie Parker 'Bird' and his saxophone quartet version of 'Facing Death' (released on FMR Records). This is just shy of 20'.

LJN:  What albums is the original music taken from and how did the idea evolve for Gwilym?

CC: Here's the set list:

A Kind Of Red - Simcock Coda: Marine 475 - (From THRAK)
The Night Watch - (From the Night Watch)
Dinosaur - (From THRAK)
Two Hands - (From Beat)
The Great Deceiver - (From Starless & Bible Black)

The idea evolved from a few 'threads'…we were trying to come up with a theme/story rather than just Quartet No.1 Opus 1 .. I'd given Gwilym some of our albums from our previous recordings so he could get an idea of our sound world, but I didn't want him to feel pressured into trying to fit his musical ideas into our past work. I wanted him to feel free to take this project where he wanted too.  

What seemed to resonate with him was a link with what his father had listened too, re- a variety of Prog Rock Music (he'd enjoyed our Soft Machine Inspired recording for Moonjune Records (2007) 'Dedicated to you…but you weren't listening') & his work with Bill Bruford's Earthworks. Crimson was born... the '!' followed a month later.

The icing on the Crimson! cake was when Gwilym also said he'd like to compose the work for saxophone quartet & piano and create a project which was a whole 'set' or in classical terms 'a half' of a concert. Talking to Gwilym last week at the UK Premiere in Guildford, he said he'd listened to ALL of King Crimson's output and had a marker/highlight system for what he'd thought might work for the quartet. Red (no chance), Yellow (with caution) & Green (all systems go).

LJN:  What moods are evoked in each the different movements?

CC:That's a great question, and do you mean for the individual performer or the listener? The lovely thing about working with Gwilym is that he's such a craftsman in the way he puts his music together. You can hear this in the way he builds and shapes a solo. This is also the case with how he's presented the various material in Crimson!  The work starts with an overture of approx 10' which is an original composition by Gwilym called 'A Kind of Red'  It really covers so many different aspects of what's going to come later, beautiful melody, uplifting harmonies, soaring solo's and some of the most tricky 'ensemble' saxophone writing I've had to get to grips with (woodshed!). Gwilym also has added the opportunity to use loop pedals and harmonisers as part of the whole texture, taking what was a classical saxophone quartet into a whole new realm of electronic (Luddite) fears and fascinations. At times it's what I'd call a 'white knuckle ride' but God, is it exhilarating.

LJN:  What is the saxophone writing like / easy difficult?

CC:Gwilym has been great here, he's said, oh if that's not going to work I can change it, but you know what, we've always loved the challenge and excitement which new music always brings to the performer, and I know in this case to the listener too (if Milan and Guildford are anything to go by). So it's sort of easily difficult and difficultly easy too. Don't you just love how the mind works!

LJN:  You've already performed it twice - the premiere in Italy sounds amazing 

Gwilym Simcock (third from left) with the Delta Saxophone Quartet

CC:The World Premiere was totally a dream. The Artistic Director Gianni Gualberto is a brilliant man and has been a great supporter of the quartet over many years. He brought our Soft Machine Project with Hugh Hopper to Catania (Etnafest) in January of 2007. The Italians always have style, and the Teatro Manzoni was 900 plus filled with the style guru's of Milan on 30th November 2014. But, how they can rock! The performance received amazing reviews and a fabulous response from the audience. As for the hospitality before, during and after, delicious, just like a Gwilym solo!

LJN:  What does the future hold for Crimson! 

CC:The sad reality of the culture around new works/music is they are only as good as their first performance. For some reason anything that happens after that isn't news/note worthy. Gwilym has created something here which will always be new/unique. This is the joy of having a work which also has 'improvisation' as part of its DNA. What's then funny is people then ask what it sounds like rather than taking the plunge and go and find out for themselves.  Obviously we hope to be able to share this brilliant set both in the UK and further afield, so any promoters, festival directors out there do get in touch. We are currently in the process of recording Crimson!  for a release later in 2015.


LJN:  How and where did the quartet get going in the first place?

CC:We started out as undergrads at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 1983. We've had changes to the soprano and tenor chairs since then but Pete Whyman on the alto chair and Chris Caldwell (me!) on the baritone sax chair have been involved from the start.

LJN:  30 years must mean you all get on well - and share similar interests outside music? 

CC:We've had lots of moments…mostly brilliant and very funny but we've also had some difficult times too. I think that's called the 'gravy of life'. Our current line up really can have fun outside of our music making, Graeme Blevins has rejoined the group this year, Tim Holmes has been with us since 2006 and often depped for us before that.

LJN:  And commissioning work has been an important activity? 

CC:This has been one of the main reasons for our existence. It's special thanks to Arts Council England (ACE), PRSF (Performing Rights Society Foundation) and Richard Heason (SJSS) & Stephen Goss (Surrey University) that we could raise the funds to support this work too.

LJN:  What was the association with the late Steve Martland?

CC:Tim, Pete & I are the saxophone section for the Steve Martland Band. I had the pleasure of working in this band from 1997 and many years spent as his manager. He's very much missed by all of us.

LJN:  Graeme Blevins the newest quartet member is a great improviser will he get his moment to stretch out? 

CC:Try stopping him! Blev is a brilliant musician, he was in the quartet in 2006/07 and we only lost him to a Kyle Minogue World tour, I ask you! Great to have him back for this.

LJN:  What will you be playing in the first half of the concert? 

CC:Excerpts from our Dedicated to You set inspired by Soft Machine and solo piano improvisations by Gwilym. The perfect aperitif.

St John's Smith Square Tickets for 1st May

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