Bobby Wellins - The past's not a foreign country

The idea of creating great jazz from literature has produced some sublime music down the years. Duke Elllington famously spun gold from Shakespeare’s works and over here, the great pianist Stan Tracey drew directly on Dylan Thomas’s words and speech rhythms for his classic Under Milk Wood suite in 1965.

Bobby Wellins, whose immediately recognisable saxophone tone and masterfully succinct improvising helped to make Under Milk Wood such a landmark album for British jazz, has also ventured successfully into the jazz-literature arena. His Culloden Moor Suite actually predates Tracey’s masterpiece by a year and is one of these pieces that tends to stay with all those who hear it, even just in terms of its atmosphere. Indeed, the lack of a formal release on disc of this music must rank as one of the great omissions in jazz.


“It was something that came to me after reading John Prebble’s book about the Battle of Culloden and the way he described events leading up to it and the dreadful aftermath,” says Wellins, whose saxophone playing reached a whole new audience when the BBC’s Jazz Brittania documentary series featured Starless and Bible Black from Under Milk Wood as its theme tune and linking music. “I wanted to capture, not just the terrible sadness that must have resulted from what was a pretty horrific event, but also the sense of expectancy and celebration, even if it turned out to be misplaced, in the gathering of the Jacobite army.”


As an exiled Scot himself – he was born in Glasgow but moved to London in his teens to join the RAF in 1950 – Wellins read Prebble’s books about Scottish history with a kind of guilty fascination. Despite never having been north of the highland line, he felt he was able to go there and gain a sense of place through Prebble’s ability to put believable flesh on the bare historical facts of the Clearances, the massacre of Glencoe and, of course, Culloden. He’s in good company in finding Prebble inspiring. Another of Prebble’s books, The High Girders, which brilliantly describes the Tay Bridge Disaster, inspired singer-songwriter Michael Marra to write his classic General Grant’s Visit to Dundee.


Years after he wrote his suite, Wellins visited Culloden with his late, long-serving pianist, Peter Jacobsen – who is forever fondly remembered as Southend Pierre – at the invitation of Jim Love, the much-missed jazz advocate who did so much to promote the music in Inverness, and he was able to sense that his composition might have done what he set out to do.


“Peter had played on the suite when it had a little revival during the 1970s, thanks to Charles Fox’s support at Radio 3, and Peter wasn’t a man given to drama or getting things out of proportion,” says Wellins. “So while we were there, soaking in the atmosphere of the place, I asked him how he felt and he turned to me and said, ‘The hairs on the back of my neck are standing up.’ I felt then that maybe I should be getting the music out to an audience again but the original piece was written for the New Departures Quartet, which was Stan [Tracey], Jeff Clyne on bass and Laurie Morgan on drums, and a fourteen piece orchestra, and it’s always expensive to work with that number of people.”


Scottish National Jazz Orchestra director, saxophonist Tommy Smith felt that Culloden Moor had been neglected also. Long an admirer of Wellins, Smith set about having the suite rearranged for SNJO by the German pianist and composer Florian Ross and to create a concert programme that gives Wellins his rightful place in the spotlight, he decided to add pieces that Wellins had written from another literary source, the Ayrshire author James Barke’s series of biographical novels about Robert Burns.


“I absolutely loved those books,” says Wellins, “and I’ve since re-read them because James Barke’s son, Alastair gave me a complete set when I told him I wanted to pay tribute to his father. What fascinated me wasn’t so much Burns himself, although obviously his is a great story, but his father, who actually came from the Montrose area and was originally called Burness.”


As a child during the Second World War, Wellins had been evacuated from Glasgow to Montrose, where he had family, and he knew people then called Burness. It wouldn’t have occurred to him to ask at the time but he has often wondered if this was the same Burness family that William Burns, the poet’s father, kept in close written contact with during the early stages of Barke’s books.


“It was maybe a tenuous link that I might have known descendants of this cousin that Burns’ father was always writing to,” says Wellins. “But I did find myself admiring the way the father made sure his boys got a good education by bringing in a teacher to the house when he probably couldn’t afford to and how he struggled to try and make something of that horrible, unforgiving farm land he was diddled into taking. As with John Prebble, Barke described it all brilliantly and there’s almost something musical about it. It certainly lends itself to creating music.”


As he did with Culloden Moor, Tommy Smith commissioned new arrangements of Wellins’ original impressions of Barke’s writing and as we spoke, Wellins had been receiving regular updates by email and computer programme at his home in Bognor Regis, where he’s lived since escaping the temptations of the London jazz life that interrupted his career in the 1960s.


“I’ve only heard the music in its computer-generated state at the moment,” he says. “But even with the limited sound quality you get with these recordings, it’s clear that there’s a lot of fantastic writing and orchestration involved. When we first talked about doing this, Tommy assured me that I wouldn’t have to sight read complicated parts and that I’d be free to be myself. And that’s great because I’ve listened to the orchestra’s CDs and I just think, how can you fail to sound good playing with this lot? I’ll be doing my homework to make sure I’m on top of everything but I’m really looking forward to playing these gigs and hearing how we sound together.”


From The Herald, October 20, 2011.

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