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A blast of sax in the glens
Composer Sally Beamish and jazz legend Branford Marsalis talk to Hilary Whitney about their groundbreaking collaboration.
She was an acclaimed classical composer living in rural Scotland; he was the hip king of saxophone from Louisiana. In theory, their paths should never have crossed. But, in a chance encounter, the rarefied worlds of jazz and classical collided, and the meeting gave birth to a beautiful new musical direction for both of them that will be premiered this month.
In the summer of 2006, award-winning composer Sally Beamish was struggling to finish a commission for violinist Lawrence Power and the Scottish Ensemble. "The starting point was a poem, 'Lullaby of the Snow', which was supposed to have been sung by a mother to her child fleeing the massacre at Glencoe, but despite my excitement at for the story, something was missing."
So, when she discovered that world-renowned saxophonist Branford Marsalis was to perform her concerto The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, she seized the opportunity to put her work on hold and went tosee Marsalis play. "I was intrigued," she says, "that this classical work of mine, inspired by Orkney and traditional Swedish herding calls, should have been picked up by an American jazz musician I´d never worked with."
Beamish arrived at the festival while Marsalis was rehearsing. "It was astonishing to sit at the back of this vast auditorium and listen to Branford´s reading of a piece that had been played only by classical soloists. Branford´s sound was warm, rich and expressive, with its own keening speech-like freedom."
Beamish admits to being nervous about the actual performance of her work in this alien environment. "I was worried about how it would go down with a jazz audience. The atmosphere at a jazz festival is completely different from a classical music event. People hang around to get a taste of a concert before moving on to listen to something else, and I wondered whether the audience would stick around long enough to 'get' it. But people didn´t walk out. They stayed and listened.
"Branford´s performance was a revelation. When he plays classical music, he plays in a classical way, and, while his improvisation was jazz-infused, he didn´t turn it into a jazz piece."
After the concert, Beamish and Marsalis talked for hours, and when Beamish returned home and resumed work on her commission, she realised that her encounter with Marsalis had opened her mind to new possibilities for the piece. "The material which had been sitting dully on the page, came to life, and a strong jazz element suddenly began to emerge," she says. "It all flowed quite naturally; I didn´t have to use any of the techniques of note manipulation that I often use."
The result, a concerto for viola and strings entitled Under the Wing of the Rock - a line from the lullaby - was premiered in October 2006. Shortly afterwards, Beamish rescored a new version for saxophone, which she dedicated to Marsalis although she balked at sending it to him: "I just couldn´t see when he´d ever get to play it."
Then, in autumn 2008, Beamish was asked if she would write something for Celtic Connections, the annual festival held in Glasgow to celebrate traditional Scottish music and its connections with cultures across the globe. Beamish realised this would be the perfect platform for the saxophone version of Under the Wing, a Celtic-inspired piece by a classical composer, performed by an American jazz musician.
To Beamish´s delight, marsalis agreed to perform Under the Wing at the festival on the 250th anniversary of Robert Burn´s birth. She was keen for Marsalis to make the piece his own. "I told him that I didn´t want him to change the orchestral parts, but, if there was a place where he wanted to put them on hold and do his own thing, he could. He replied that he didn´t want to do that because it´s all in the music already. I think that´s probably because it´s so inspired by him."
That maybe the case, but, as Marsalis points out: "People in symphonic circles love the idea of improvisation because it´s such a mystery to them. But it´s Sally´s piece, and my job is to interpret it.
"Improvisation in classical music comes from tone, timbre and tempo. There are lots of things you can do within the structure of the piece without suddenly stopping and doing a solo."
Marsalis is a huge fan of the original version but has been careful not to listen to it too often. "It´s beautiful, but there are things you can do on the viola that you can´t do on the sax and vice verse, and, as I´ve only got one shot at playing it, I really need to play the piece myself and start hearing it in my head."
Their collaboration won´t end with the festival - Beamish is currently writing some original string scoring for Marsalis´s jazz quartet. "Not backing music," she says, "but something he and his colleagues can bounce off, creating a new dynamic," However, she is adamant she´s not about to change direction musically. "There have always been a lot of jazz inflections and harmonies in my music, but I´d be very hesitant to go too far down that road. I think the reason that Branford is interested in working with me is because I´m not a jazz musician - there´s so much interest and stimulation we can bring to each other´s worlds.
"I don´t know when I´ve looked forward to a premiere with more anticipation and excitement."
'Homecoming Scotland Suite', featuring the Royal Scottish National Orchestra with Branford Marsalis and guests, is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Jan 25, Tickets: 0141 353 8000 or www.celticconnections.com