REVIEW: Eddie Parker’s Debussy Mirrored Ensemble at the Purcell Room (2018 EFG LJF)

Eddie Parker (bass flute)
directing the Debussy Mirrored Ensemble in Cheltenham
Photo credit: andy squiff

Eddie Parker’s Debussy Mirrored Ensemble
(Purcell Room, The Southbank Centre, EFG London Jazz Festival, November 20 2018. Review by Gail Tasker)

The stage in the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room was a wonderful sight to behold even before the musicians had taken their places. A grand piano in one corner, a harp in the other, a synth on a stand at the front, a gong and a vibraphone at the back. What promised to be a unique and memorable gig turned out to be just that.

As evidenced by the reams of scores on each stand and the genre-bending nature of the music, this style of playing wasn’t for the faint-hearted player. Yet the 12-piece band comprised of an array of experienced and talented musicians, and in this case the performance allowed them to stretch and showcase their abilities. The strong rhythm section included Steve Watts on double bass, Martin France on drums, Simon Limbrick on percussion and pianist Alcyona Mick, whose virtuosity allowed her to hammer out the most dissonant Debussy harmonies as well as improvise a spine-tingling jazz solo. The youngest of the group, harpist Imogen Ridge, more than stood her ground, as did James Allsopp on clarinet and bass clarinet. There was a rare but surprisingly complimentary contrast of the two singers, jazz-trained Brigitte Beraha and classical-oriented James Gilchrist. The personal highlight for me was the four-member flute section, containing some of the top flautists on the international jazz scene: Rowland Sutherland, Gareth Lockrane, Eddie Parker, and Jan Hendrickse. Each individual proved that they weren’t limited to one instrument, with Lockrane performing a magnificent piccolo solo, Hendrickse featuring the Arabic ney amongst other wooden flutes, and Parker playing synth sporadically throughout the night.

All of the pieces played were original compositions by Eddie Parker based on Debussy’s work. In this sense, the group was more of a “mirror” in spirit, perhaps even an alternate universe. For example, a composition based on Debussy’s ballet La boîte à joujoux began with an almighty free bass clarinet improvisation from Allsopp reminiscent of Albert Ayler, and finished with a classic rock beat played by France on the drums. At one point in the piece Syrinx, the rest of the band dropped out as the four flutes performed an extraordinary tutti section using harmonics, which had the ambient feel of modern electronic music. However, it was the harmony throughout the performance that truly showcased jazz’s debt to Debussy’s music. This came through especially in Lockrane’s soloing as he performed a series of bebop enclosures at high speed over the chord sequences, as well as Watts’ walking basslines and France’s almost continuous jazz drumming.

Recordings of this group are hard to come by – since its debut at Cheltenham Music Festival earlier this year (link to review below), the musicians have only performed together a few times and have had no releases thus far. It’s understandable for a line-up of this size, made up of highly-talented yet busy musicians, playing such a niche style of music. However, for anyone who feels enticed, Tuesday’s performance was recorded by the BBC and will be broadcast this Friday on BBC Radio 3 at 7.30pm. Parker also mentioned between tunes that the group have set up a Kickstarter campaign. They’re halfway already to raising £5,000 and if successful, will be recording and releasing an album. Donate and you could have the luxury of listening to Parker’s Debussyan jazz from the comfort of your living room sofa.

LINKS: Debussy Mirrored Kickstarter
Jon Turney's review of the work's premiere at Cheltenham
BBC Broadcast

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