NYOS Jazz Orchestra - Scottish jazz's next wave


The composer is briefing the musicians on the next piece to be played. “I want you to stick together,” says Iain Ballamy, “like a flock of starlings - if that makes any sense.”


Ballamy, an internationally regarded saxophonist whose work has appeared on prestigious record labels including leading European company ECM and whose compositions have been featured by maverick London jazz big band Loose Tubes and prog-rock drum hero Bill Bruford’s Earthworks as well as on his own extensive catalogue, qualifies his instructions with “if that makes any sense” often.


He’s quietly spoken and his music echoes his personality and saxophone playing style: gentle, sometimes whimsical but also forthright and with a core of steel and he’s getting his message across all right.


Back in his youth, some thirty years ago, Ballamy was chosen by the London-based company Jazz Services to participate in its national touring programme. These tours were much coveted and it was suggested to Ballamy that his young group’s drawing power might benefit from having a bigger name as a guest. Ballamy wasn’t impressed. He held firm and as the tour progressed he was shown to be absolutely correct: his quartet had its own strong sound and any addition would have been a distraction.


This detail possibly wasn’t known to the people who foster the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland Jazz Orchestra before they asked Ballamy to work with their young charges but it – as well as the results produced, of course – emphasises why the Somerset-based saxophonist was such a good choice to participate in the recording that they’ve been laying down in Castlesound Studio in the East Lothian village of Pencaitland.


“We wanted to give the musicians in the orchestra the true experience of being a professional musician in a state of the art facility,” says Andrew Bain who forms an artistic director partnership with Malcolm Edmonstone. Both are still youthful but deeply seasoned professionals themselves, a drummer and pianist-keyboards player respectively, and they know that the three days that have gone into the recording immediately following the New Year holiday, on top of the tour of Scotland the orchestra undertook with Ballamy last summer, represent the sort of work the youngsters can expect once they pass through music college, as most of the players will.


It’s been an intense three days out at Castlesound – noon to seven on day one, ten to six on day two and ten to five on day three, as orchestra manager Corrina Gregory confirms – and the musicians have had to maintain high concentration levels. Ballamy introduces his piece Floater, a folk song-like tone poem in the tradition of John Coltrane’s After the Rain, and notes that it’s the sort of piece that they can only play once or twice. Otherwise it might lose its buoyancy. Nonetheless, he has them going through it a time or three more, making sure to give avuncular encouragement to produce the level of performance he’s after.


The ages of the musicians range from fifteen to twenty-two and the youngest, drummer Tom Potter from Glasgow, confirms that the experience of working with Ballamy and with the orchestra in general has been exciting and hugely valuable. Next month he will participate in the final of the UK Drummer of the Year competition and it’s not difficult to hear why he’s impressed the judges so far.


When Ballamy, rearranging a piece on the fly, calls for a drum intro to bring the orchestra in together, young Tom nails it first time. Ballamy grins his approval. Bill Bruford aside, he’s worked with some of the best drummers in the business, so his response speaks volumes. A playback of another piece, which Ballamy composed from a chant he heard in India and whose groove and arrangement confirms that he’s made no concessions in choosing his material for the band, elicits smiles all round and applause for solos in the spacious sound booth where the whole band can be accommodated to hear their work. The sessions are clearly going well.


Once completed, the tracks will be assembled into a CD, which Bain and Edmonstone are reasonably confident that a record label will take on and release. Then their work moves on, as Bain points out. This being the band of 2015, although certain players will remain, a new intake will pick up the baton – recruitment is by audition – and carry the orchestra and the music forward.


Already the summer tour 2016 is in place, with a residential course at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s superb facilities on Skye preceding a concert there, followed by concerts in Glasgow, at Wiltshire Music Centre in Bradford on Avon – handy for Ballamy’s homebase – and in London. The London venue is being kept secret for now but based on the results Bain, Edmonstone and Ballamy have produced with this team, the CD and the concerts will be well worth hearing.


From The Herald, January 12, 2016

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