PREVIEW: Grand Union Orchestra at the Vortex (May to August 2018)

A montage of photos of Grand Union Orchestra's Trading Roots
Photo supplied by GUO 

"My admiration for the work of the Grand Union Orchestra and its leader Tony Haynes continues to grow," writes Duncan Heining. "I can think of few other ensembles with its sheer range, versatility and sense of the dramatic." 

The good news for Londoners is that a slimmed-down GUO can be heard at the Vortex on the first Friday through May to August. In addition, the collective will be running daytime workshops on the Saturdays after the gig and of that more later, as they say. Duncan, for LondonJazz News, caught up with Tony Haynes before looks like a healthily busy summer for the Orchestra.

This isn’t the first time GUO have played the Vortex, though inevitably it has been with smaller bands than the mighty 29-piece ensemble, as Tony explains,

“Since the London premiere there about 12 years ago of Can’t Chain Up Me Mind, commemorating the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, we’ve played there often with smaller group shows. Can’t Chain Up Me Mind was a touring show with a 10-piece largely African and Caribbean band. We’ve done a number of themed shows, largely instrumental but usually with single singer, quite informal and free but always with an eclectic mix of other GUO musicians. Like, for example, we’ve performed Bengal Tiger, Shanghai Dragon with South Asian and Chinese performers and Rag Tal and Gypsy Music with Bengali and East European performers.”

Anyone who has seen Grand Union at the Hackney Empire or Wilton’s Music Hall will associate them with large-scale, almost operatic projects. So, what are the challenges involved in working on a smaller stage?

“These cabaret-scale shows contrast very nicely with what you might call the ‘operatic’ style of the big shows for which we’re probably best known,” Tony says. “I guess, these in a sense are my forte. I made my reputation from writing powerful music for theatre. But my strongest suit is probably a lyrical gift, writing songs for a variety of singers and vocal ensembles in different languages. And, as a jazz musician, I relish the challenge of making musical decisions on the hoof and the same goes for all the other GUO musicians, all seasoned improvisers, whatever their cultural background.”

And there are advantages for the orchestra in doing these more ‘cabaret-style’ performances. They present an opportunity to focus on essentials without losing dramatic, musical or indeed political impact. These shows allow Haynes and his cohorts to experiment, to recruit and collaborate with new performers, providing compositional test-beds for future larger-scale shows.

I wondered how the Saturday workshops at the Vortex relate to the performances and to the work of the orchestra as a catalyst for young musicians. As Tony points out, this has always been a crucial part of Grand Union’s work.

“I don’t want to call it ‘music education’,” he says, “because its impulse is artistic rather than pedagogic – and, therefore potentially ‘dangerous’ or ‘subversive’! I prefer to see it as growing out of – and reflecting directly – the creative purpose of the professional orchestra, its musicians and my own compositional techniques.”

As Tony says, the orchestra and its most powerful message lies in the way it, perhaps uniquely, aims to reflect Britain's and London’s music cultures and histories. Many of GUO’s core musicians, and most of those involved in the Vortex residency, are first generation migrants.

“That has great significance socially, of course, in the present circumstances of the UK,” Tony explains, “but it also means they have unique skills to pass on to young musicians. This may resonate with their family or cultural background and it may provide them with role models. But it certainly has the capacity to inspire in them a fresh attitude towards creativity, towards their own musical development. Sadly, that isn’t something provided by, or even often understood by, most of our musical institutions and educators.”

The aim is for the Saturday morning workshops to complement the Friday night performances, to ‘demystify’, as Tony puts it, the techniques these seasoned, professional musicians use, to show how they develop the collective ensemble and their improvisations within it.

Throughout its three and a half decade history, GUO has drawn upon a wealth of musical talent in London’s East End. It does so much more than make a statement. It makes for music that is celebratory and which ignores genre boundaries. And yet, few British jazz musicians and groups seem willing to follow this fertile path.

“I have always argued that jazz is not a genre or style of music,” Tony says, “but an attitude or approach to making music. Jazz performance has the capacity to absorb, blend and put to creative use an infinite variety of styles or techniques; it allows the expression of the musical personality of the individual musicians who perform it; and it depends absolutely on improvisation, whether solo or collective. Jazz needs constantly to reinvent itself and one immediate way is to draw on the whole range of music and musicians that surround us. It’s not just the East End that provides this but London and Britain as whole – largely because of the successive waves of immigrants since the end of the Second World War. For me, this is in itself inspiring and, of course, I’m also very interested in migration itself and the history and forces behind it.”

If Grand Union did not exist – in this world of UKIPs, Brexits, a growing far-right and little Englanders crawling out of the woodwork everywhere – it would be necessary to invent it. Fortunately, Tony Haynes et al have already done that for us. It is about joy and anger, freedom and a sense of shared responsibility for our world and, most of all, about beauty and the capacity to be moved by music in our minds, souls and bodies. Despite so much in the news that depresses the spirits, Grand Union will give London much to celebrate over the next 12 months.

“In July we have What the River Brings, a participatory show bringing together performers from across the whole of East London,” Tony tells me. “Its theme is how great port cities around the world reflect the rise and fall of empires. That’s followed by our annual residential Summer School, where expert musicians from different global traditions share their skills and techniques with young people. Then in the autumn, we are devising a performance and education project across East London to complement a timely exhibition at the Hackney Museum on 'British Black Music in Hackney' – which will obviously have a strong ‘jazz’ component!”

2019 looks just as full of promise for the orchestra and its fans, many of whom are drawn from beyond the narrow confines of the usual jazz audience. There is a major project involving hundreds of children in Croydon and Merton – at the Albert Hall, no less! GUO are already planning a spring/summer programme that will take in more regional venues and festivals. And for those who, like me, delight in those grand, almost operatic shows, there is good news, as Tony explains:

“For Autumn 2019, we are planning a new large-scale participatory show – which is what really gives me the greatest pleasure as a creative artist, and which I believe Grand Union is uniquely good at producing!”

Can I get an ‘Amen’? Till then, there’s the Vortex shows. See you there!

LINKS: GUO's dates at the Vortex
 A kind of recent manifesto, explainig GUO's mission - also has sensational video clips
Latest blog post from Tony Haynes, musing on empire (re: What the River Brings)
Latest GUO Newsletter

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