Most of the interesting new big-band music these days tends to be of the experimental variety, from Darcy James Argue to Ingrid Laubrock. Too much is the kind of warmed-over bombast you get from people steeped in the tradition of Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich and the University of North Texas Lab Band. So it’s always welcome to come across someone using the established language to say new things, as Mark Lockheart does with great success in Days on Earth, a large-scale work for sextet and orchestra premiered at Milton Court in London last night.
Lockheart (above), the saxophonist and composer who first attracted attention with Loose Tubes 30 years ago and has since played with Polar Bear, Perfect Houseplants and others, was leading the distinguished core group, which included John Parricelli (guitar), Liam Noble (piano), Tom Herbert (bass), Seb Rochford (drums). John Ashton Thomas conducted the 33-piece Guildhall Studio Orchestra: 14 violins, four violas, three cellos, harp, four woodwind, six brass and percussion.
Normally I don’t like doing that jazz-critic thing of describing a piece of music by triangulating it with a couple of other things it resembles, but I don’t see the harm in mentioning here that Lockheart, whether he meant to or not, has drawn together aspects of Eddie Sauter’s work behind Stan Getz on Focus with Gil Evans’s setting for Wayne Shorter on “The Barbara Song”. Which is not to suggest that Lockheart’s seven-part suite is a concerto for tenor saxophone and orchestra, which it is not, or that it reflects the early 1960s, the time when those works were made. The infectious grooves alone — and there are many of them scattered throughout Days on Earth — are definitely contemporary.
The use of his resources to create new textures, however, would do credit to Sauter or Evans. I heard some imaginative groupings; two examples would be bass clarinet and double bass repeating a staccato motif as an undercurrent, and a clarinet against harp and plucked cellos . The big ensemble passages were perfectly integrated and, thanks as much to the skill and enthusiasm of the students in the orchestra as much as the pros in the rhythm section, swung like mad. That wouldn’t have happened half a century ago.
Days on Earth was conceived as a big statement: “a defining moment for me,” the composer says, “not just in the scale of the instrumental forces but also the culmination of many musical (and life) journeys.” Without burdening the listener, in both live and recorded forms it feels like a thoughtful outpouring of human emotions, choosing to deploy beauty as a response to confusion, carefully channeled through great artistry. Lockheart’s own tenor solos were exquisitely formed and perfectly flighted — it’s no news that he has a singularly beautiful tone — and some of the students, including the violinist Nicole Petrus Barracks and the harpist Lise Vandersmissen, made striking individual contributions.
Before the interval, Lockheart led nine other student musicians through five of his earlier pieces, showcasing the powerful bass of Joe Lee and the alto of Asha Parkinson, whose quietly intense closing solo — a moment of wonderfully understated drama — reminded me of how impressive she was in the Guildhall School’s concert presentation of Donald Fagen’s Nightfly a couple of years ago.
Pretty much a five-star evening, then, which really deserves to be repeated. And in its CD form, recorded at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove studio and released next week on the Edition label, Days on Earth is definitely a five-star album, demanding a place at the forefront of Britain’s extremely active contemporary jazz scene.