Jazz continues to evolve, as it always has, through a process of emulation and transformation, whether gradual or radical. Take Loose Tubes, the British big band whose youthful spirit and eclectic wit caused a stir almost 30 years ago, and whose successful reunion at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival and Ronnie Scott’s in the last few days has been widely celebrated (here’s John Fordham’s review of the festival gig). Their origins go back to a rehearsal band formed in the early ’80s by the composer Graham Collier, whose generosity in allowing his protégés to bring in their own compositions eventually led to the decision to strike out as a co-operative venture. Since then the members of the band have become mentors and exemplars in their own right. Django Bates, to name the most obvious, has spent much of the last decade teaching at a conservatory in Copenhagen.
Collier died in 2011, aged 74, having played a key role in the phase of British jazz that followed the bebop era. He and Mike Westbrook were the two young composer-leaders who, in the 1960s, nurtured a generation of fine improvisers, including Harry Beckett and John Surman. Now his memory is well served by a 2CD set of two extended pieces that he left behind, now recorded by a fine 15-piece band and issued as Luminosity: The Last Suites on the Jazz Continuum label.
The first piece, The Blue Suite, is explicitly inspired by Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue: the titles of the individual movements include “Kind of So What”, “Kind of Freddie”, “Kind of Sketchy”… you get the idea. But these are impressions, not borrowings. The writing is spare, reflective, full of life and light, free of bombast, offering extensive opportunities to a group of fine soloists, including the tenorist Art Themen, the guitarist Ed Speight and the trumpeter Steve Waterman, urged on by the bassist Roy Babbington and the drummer John Marshall, both once regular Collier sidemen. If I don’t find the second work, Luminosity, quite so invigorating, then that’s because its companion piece sets such a high standard. But the set as a whole makes a good bookend to a Collier collection that starts with his recording debut, the classic Deep Dark Blue Centre album from 1967.
Django Bates’s students in Copenhagen have included Marius Neset, the brilliant young saxophonist whose new album with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, Lion (ACT), shows us another aspect of his musical character. These medium-length pieces are written for a 12-piece ensemble, including accordion and tuba, and demonstrate a wide range of resource and an avoidance of anything resembling big-band clichés. Even when the writing is at its most detailed and demanding, there’s never a sense of showing-off. Individually, the inventiveness of Neset’s own playing is matched by that of his colleagues, particularly the bassist Peter Eldh and whichever of the two trumpeters, Eivind Lonning and Erik Eilertsen, takes the solos (unfortunately they aren’t identified). This is music whose innate discipline never conflicts with its powerful sense of exhilaration.
I’m sure Collier would have been thrilled to see the progress made by the members of his old workshop band. And I’ll bet he’d have been equally proud of his role, albeit at one step removed, in Neset’s burgeoning career. In jazz, that’s how it’s supposed to happen. And it still does.
* The photograph of Graham Collier is from the Luminosity package and was taken by Karlijne Pietersma.