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Paul Towndrow - doublin' up big bands

 

When Paul Towndrow took up the position of musical director with the newly formed Byres Road Big Band in 2009 he knew he was accepting a challenge. The saxophonist, who has led his own trio, quartet and sextet and who is one quarter of the acclaimed horn ensemble Brass Jaw, had played in jazz orchestras since the age of fifteen and has featured as a star soloist and arranger with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.

 

Standing in front of sixteen musicians and being responsible for producing the repertoire that will enable them to appear in public was still quite a step, however. Yet it’s as nothing compared to the task that Towndrow has set himself with Pro-Am, the suite of music he’s been commissioned to write as part of Creative Scotland’s 20 for 14 series, which forms part of the cultural supporting programme to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

 

Pro-Am is effectively twice the challenge of leading the Byres Road Big Band, although it may actually be greater, in that it involves composing music for both the Byres Road Big Band (the “Am” since the band is comprised of amateur players) and the Ryan Quigley Big Band, which represents the “Pro” part of the title, being a band of top professional musicians led by Towndrow’s Brass Jaw colleague, Glasgow-born trumpeter Ryan Quigley whose recent work has included tours with Robbie Williams and George Michael and dates with Holland’s prestigious Metropole Orkest.

 

“It’s a fantastic opportunity,” says Towndrow. “Having two big bands onstage together isn’t something that happens very often and of course it’s a challenge to write for two jazz orchestras, especially writing for two rhythm sections - having to come up with parts for two bass players has actually been one of the most taxing aspects. But I’m really interested in exploring the nature of professional and amateur endeavour and how these two units become cogs in the same machine, working together, because the stage is a great leveller, as I’d imagine the sports field would be. Once you’re out there your background and training become irrelevant. The only thing that exists is the person and it’s about what he or she can do in that moment.”

 

Pro-Am may denote teamwork between these two bands with very different ranges of experience but it also might be interpreted as being ‘for the amateur’, as Towndrow explains.

 

“The commonly held impression is that an amateur is someone who does something not very well for no money,” he says. “But if you look at the root of the word it comes from old French and means ‘playing for love’ and for me that’s a much better starting point. It doesn’t preclude quality or commitment and it’s been great to watch the thrill that musicians in the Byres Road Big Band get when they’ve worked on something and taken it out in front of an audience. As a professional musician, you can take that sort of experience for granted because you’re doing it all the time, although you never lose the buzz of live performance.”

 

Quality and commitment were two factors that Towndrow noticed recurring when he began his research into athletes to see if he could take something from their stories as inspiration for the Pro-Am suite. One of his favourite examples is Scottish boxer Ken Buchanan, who was the ABA Featherweight Champion before turning professional and becoming the undisputed World Lightweight Champion. He’s also credited as one of the pioneers of using Scotland the Brave as a national anthem at sports events and although Towndrow won’t be quoting from that tune, he does have something anthemic lined up for the Buchanan sequence.

 

Just as Towndrow began putting his thoughts together on Pro-Am it was announced that Robert Di Niro is to star in a film that captures one of the less glorious moments of Buchanan’s career, in which he lost a fight as the result of what’s euphemistically referred to as a ‘low blow’ from Panamanian Roberto Durán at Madison Square Garden in New York.

 

Another of Towndrow’s inspirations was also to prove topical, but in an unfortunately more tragic way. The Canadian athlete Olga Kotelko didn’t take up track and field events until she was seventy-seven. A former teacher, she had hardly any sports experience, beyond playing baseball in her youth, when she retired in 1984.

 

She began to play slow pitch softball and having developed running and throwing skills, she decided to take them further, got a trainer and began competing in long jump, triple jump, high jump, shot put, discus, javelin, the 100-metres, 200-metres, 400-metres and 4 x 100-metre relay sprints. Not just competing, in fact, but winning: she amassed seven hundred and fifty gold medals and held thirty world records in her age range, and her physiology and muscle tissue became subjects of studies by some of Canada’s finest medical brains.

 

Sadly, Kotelko died, aged ninety-five, last month and on hearing this news Towndrow abandoned the piece he was writing for her, which he had struggled with and felt didn’t do her justice, and he has now written a new section of the suite dedicated to her memory. He has been in touch with her family and has received positive feedback from her daughter Lynda.

 

“When I started working on the suite I wanted each of the movements to be inspired by a sporting story or a sporting character who embodies our idea of greatness, yet is perhaps less well known in the public consciousness,” says Towndrow. “Ken Buchanan’s still a boxing hero in Scotland and his story would still be inspiring, with or without the Robert Di Niro angle, just in terms of what he achieved. But although Olga Kotelko carried the torch at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010, she’s maybe not that well known over here and she absolutely fits the idea that behind the public face and actions of athletes and sportspersons there’s another layer, a deeper narrative. I found it remarkable that she achieved so much – she’s now regarded as one of the greatest athletes of all time – but the more you look at it, the less relevant this notion of greatness becomes to the effort of human endeavour. They just get out there and do it.”

 

From a practical viewpoint, Pro-Am has given Towndrow decisions to make, such as how to line up two jazz orchestras on stage. His ideal is to have one band creating the mirror image of the other with the lower-voiced horns on the wings and the rhythm sections occupying the middle ground but that may change once the stage is set.

 

“I think all along the way there’s been an element of having to do it to find out how it’s done,” he says. “With the music there was the question of should I take the raw components and see how they might sit with a single big band then expand them or try a different way? But I can now hear in my head what it’s going to sound like and that’s made it easier to score the parts.”

 

Opportunities to repeat the exercise are likely to be thin on the ground, although Olga Kotelko achieved some of her biggest triumphs at the World Association of Veteran Athletes World Championships in Gateshead and it hosts one of the UK’s most forward-looking, most ambitious jazz festivals. For the moment, however, Towndrow is looking no further than the premiere and the chance for his Byres Road Big Band charges to play on a major concert platform.

 

“It’s been interesting watching the band develop because there are musicians with different ambitions involved,” he says. “Some of the older players have had successful careers outside of music and are doing it for the love of it; others might well follow our two former members, Corrie Dick and Pete Johnstone, who went on to become Young Scottish Jazz Musicians of the Year and now working in the professional music world. But it’s great for them to be part of something like this, something so unusual, and that’s the value, for me, of the 20 for 14 project: it’s giving musicians and composers the opportunity to think big and create music that could make a lasting impression as part of this big sporting occasion.”

 

From The Herald, July 19, 2014

 

Paul Towndrow - the multitasking jazz musician

 

Paul Towndrow is describing the hectic run-up to his sextet’s new album release and tour when he adds, possibly, a new term to the jazz lexicon: multitasking.

 

Time was, for a jazz musician, multitasking might have been defined as ‘moaning about the lack of gigs while waiting for someone else to get a round in.’

 

Unlike the pop and rock business, where the machinery exists to organise every aspect of stars’ careers, jazz musicians have had, by and large, to rely on wives and partners to do work – such as chasing gigs, recording deals and press coverage – that they might regard with distaste or even fear.

 

Some lucky ones have found managers. Towndrow would be delighted if someone came along and let him concentrate on being a saxophonist and composer. For now, however, he’s wearing different hats including website editor, record company executive, agent and tour coordinator.

 

"You have to step outside yourself and see yourself as a product," he says. "That means having good photos and other things that a lot of people might see as superficial. But promoters respond to a good package that they can sell to the public and while what I do is make music and I have to keep focusing on that, there’s more to being a musician than having it all together musically."

 

Towndrow’s approach is paying off. He’s currently on a tour with the assistance of the Scottish Arts Council’s Tune-up programme, that finds him playing more dates consecutively on home turf than ever before. His CD, Six by Six, was released to coincide with the tour, the sort of tie-in that, again, is by no means automatic in jazz.

 

If the level of organisation recalls another Scottish saxophonist, Tommy Smith (who could never be accused of slacking), it’s no surprise since Smith has been an inspiration since Towndrow took up saxophone at the age of eleven at Airdrie Academy.

 

"I’d played recorder for a few years before that and somehow managed to teach myself to play it with my hands the wrong way round," he says. "So once I got that sorted out, I was able to get around the alto reasonably quickly with the help of a teacher who really beat me into shape. She was great and really encouraging, although the school generally encouraged us to take up instruments."

 

When his mother arrived home with a Tommy Smith album, Peeping Tom, Towndrow became even more motivated.

 

"I was fascinated by the fact that this guy had come from Scotland and had become successful – he was signed to Blue Note Records at the time - and not only that, was an incredible player," he says. "A couple of years after that, Tommy started Saturday morning workshops in Edinburgh. So I went to those and to be honest, it all went way over my head. But I loved the idea of learning all this stuff and I just kept at it."

 

By this time he was playing in a band with the guitar tutor from school, getting an introduction to the Lanarkshire and West Lothian social club scene, playing pop music but managing to slip in a few jazz solos. As preparation for being a musician playing onstage, this was priceless experience to get so early on, he acknowledges.

 

Further and more appropriate experience came when he joined the Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra at sixteen. He went on to study at the National Jazz Institute, took his Bachelor of Music degree at Strathclyde University and spent a year at Berklee Music School in Boston on a scholarship.

 

Possibly the most important stepping stone in his career, though, came when he reached the last four in the World Saxophone Competition at Montreux Jazz Festival in 2003. Although he didn’t win, he had the opportunity of playing with a top flight trio led by American pianist Geri Allen, which at the very least, looks good on the CV.

 

"A lot of people don’t like the idea of formal competition in music, especially in jazz, and it can be such an ordeal," he says. "I was very nervous beforehand and remember thinking, If I can get through this, I can play any gig and not feel worried. But since I hadn’t expected to get so far, I felt fairly relaxed once we started to play and the experience really pushed me on as a player as well as being a confidence boost."

 

Towndrow’s sextet adds saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski and trumpeter Tom MacNiven to the quartet that recorded his first two albums and offers the chance to write for more personalities as well as instruments. This is something that he is also exploring with his arrangement Resolution for the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s John Coltrane Legacy concert at Glasgow Jazz Festival later this month.

 

"I’m really keen to develop as an arranger as well as a composer, so the SNJO experience is valuable, if a bit daunting," he says. "But I’m also really excited to see what happens with the sextet on quite a long tour because we’ll have a chance to play together a lot and it’ll be interesting to see how the music develops."

 

From The Herald, Thursday, May 31, 2007

 

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