‘We are the The Jazz you know,’ announced Mike Garrick as he introduced an evening of poetry and jazz at the Guildhall School Jazz Festival on 22nd March. ‘Perhaps you’d dig a few odd poems?Maybe some of Wifred’s: maybe some of me Owens ... So let’s see how the evening goes, for jazz is poetry; never prose!’
Under his direction, the Guildhall Jazz Ensemble brought the concept of Poetry & Jazz In Concert [which Garrick pioneered in the 1960s] bang-up-date and more than adequately demonstrated the originality and timeless quality of the words and music on offer.
The session began with a blistering arrangement of ‘Dusk Fire’, followed by Henry Gilbert’s reading of Jeremy Robson’s ‘Cascade’, a delicate piece with a tricky metre that Gilbert handled with great confidence. Marene Van Holk perfectly captured the calm sensitivity of Thomas Blackburn’s ‘Morning’, while in complete contrast, Garrick took on the goonish mantle of Spike Milligan with ‘Bongaloo’, complete with brass-bandish effects from the Ensemble. Jeremy Robson’s ‘Sketches of Israel’, read by Henry Gilbert, opened with Garrick at the piano, supported by Peter Hutchison bass and Dan Paton drums, gently emphasising the poem’s mournful lyricism; a switch in tempo and the introduction of a gorgeous combination of sound from the flutes/flugel-horns of the Ensemble, transformed the piece into the joyful samba rhythms of ‘Galilee’. To complete the carnival atmosphere, Harriet Syndecombe-Court took to the floor with Andrew Linhan for a spirited dance routine. Marene Van Holk clearly relished her role as the Grim Reaper in the ‘Leaping Dance of Death’, the first in a series of poems by John Smith. ‘Jazz For Five’, featured in turn George Stevenson piano, Jason Simpson bass, Dan Paton drums, Marek Tomaszewski soprano sax, and David Orchant flugel-horn, in duo with the speakers conjured vivid images of Garrick’s original Quintet for whom John Smith devised each piece.
Garrick is also a great mimic. His reading of ‘Underwear’, in the fractured, hill-billy style of poet Lawrence Ferlingetti, accompanied by improvised backing from the Ensemble, brought the first half of the concert to an hilarious close.
Scott Stroman’s moving reading of ‘Song For A Season’ leading into ‘Voices’, set a more sombre tone as an introduction to the second half. Harriet-Syndecombe-Court adding an ethereal quality to the arrangement as her voice blended beautifully with the horns as part of the Ensemble’s front line. Reaching the depths of her vocal range, she negotiated the sensuous lines of ‘Black Hair’ with ease and displayed equal confidence with the light-hearted ‘Promises’ and later in the programme, ‘Laughing Song’; another opportunity for dance – this time the ‘Astaire-like’ tap-dancing skills of Andrew Linhan.
Vernon Scannell’s five poems that constitute ‘Epithets of War’ are as relevant today as when he committed them to paper forty or more years ago. The sparse musical settings created an effective background to the words, brilliantly read by Henry Gilbert and Marene Van Holk, as they related the phoney bravura, heroics, occasional good humour and utter, senseless devastation that is war. ‘Casualties’ - ‘They were printed daily in the newspapers’, was especially moving, vividly bringing to mind the young lives cut short in Afghanistan, and the countless other conflicts that blight our planet and mock our so-called humanity.
It was appropriate that such a deeply moving piece should be followed by ‘Thanksgiving for The Air We Breathe’, words by John Smith, music by Michael Garrick; all the solo contributions caught the pastoral atmosphere of the piece and the sheer joy of being alive. Equally so, ‘Home Stretch Blues’, Garrick’s evocation of the late-night homeward motorway journey from a distant gig. Full of unexpected twists and turns, conductor Scott Stroman goaded the audience to guess exactly when the end was going to arrive and caught them out when it finally did.
An excellent evening ‘crossing artistic boundaries’ as Scott Stroman observed and, one might add, the generations. The combination of Garrick’s experience, humour and the students' skills and youthful exuberance proved irresistible. And it's worth remembering ALL the music was his.
- Trevor Bannister