Sounds of the Lace Market
Bernard Siegel left Poland for England as a young man after the Second World War. Settling in Nottingham, he studied textile and hosiery manufacturing before entering the lace industry, of which the city was then a centre. Before long he had started his own business, with offices in the old Lace Market, some of whose handsome Victorian red-brick buildings are still standing. His family included a son, Julian, who grew up to be a musician.
Julian Siegel’s Tales from the Jacquard begins with the busy, shuttling sound of the sort of machines that made lace at his father’s factory in designs transferred from drawings to sets of punched cards, known as Jacquard cards. An album featuring the 30-minute three-movement suite for big band, recorded at Lakeside Arts in Nottingham, was released two years ago; last night it was performed at Ronnie Scott’s Club at the end of a short UK tour which acted as a pandemic-delayed launch.
Jacquard cards are the descendants of a system devised for French silk weavers by a man named Basil Bouchon in Lyon in 1725 and developed in the early 1800s by Jean-Marie Jacquard, who used it to control a mechanically operated loom. I had a bit of an a priori interest in Siegel’s project because Nottingham is my home town and my sister studied lace design at the local art college, going on to work for a short time in an industry that was already in the throes of a rapid decline and contraction. But the work of Bouchon and Jacquard was not lost: in 1830 it had inspired an English mathematician named Charles Babbage to create his Analytical Engine, the ancestor of the modern computer.
Based on the composer’s detailed study of the intricate punched-hole patterns, Tales from the Jacquard is a stimulating and absorbing piece of writing, the sort of thing you might expect if you crossed conventional modern big-band writing with the systems music explored by Steve Reich in “Music for 18 Musicians”. That, as it happens, is the size of Siegel’s ensemble, whose members negotiated the warp and weft of overlapping lines with panache, under the baton of Nick Smart.
Based around Siegel’s regular quartet, with Liam Noble on piano, Oli Hayhurst on double bass and Gene Calderazzo on drums, the band featured such fine soloists as Percy Pursglove on flugelhorn, Stan Sulzmann on tenor saxophone, Harry Brown on trombone, Mike Outram on guitar, Tori Freestone on flute, Mike Chillingworth and Paul Booth on altos, and Claus Stötter on trumpet — and, of course, Siegel himself, typically eloquent in his glancing way on soprano and tenor. Tom Walsh was the powerful lead trumpeter and Gemma Moore’s baritone saxophone anchored the ensembles. Pursglove and Stötter arrived for the tour from Hamburg, where they are colleagues in the redoubtable NDR big band.
Henry Lowther and Jason Yarde were featured on the recording; both would have been on the tour, had circumstances not intervened. A recent bout of Covid-19 put Lowther on the sidelines — literally so at Ronnie’s, where he was joined among the capacity audience by Yarde, who is continuing his recovery from the stroke he suffered while on stage in Toulouse last October. If Siegel’s impressive music provided one reason to be cheerful, that very welcome sight was another.
* Julian Siegel’s Tales from the Jacquard, commissioned by Derby Jazz and first broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now, is on the Whirlwind label.