It explores the intersection between the worlds of classical music and jazz featuring sections underpinned by jazz grooves and improvisation but woven into a tight thematically developed classical structure. It was written for the acclaimed jazz musicians Tim Garland (soprano/tenor sax and bass clarinet) who performs as the principal soloist with Jason Rebello on piano and Jonny Mansfield on vibraphone.
In the spring of 2018, I was casting around for a theme for a hybrid jazz/classical album that I had been wanting to write for renowned saxophonist, Tim Garland, and was finally poised to begin. I can’t quite remember the ‘eureka’ moment when I stumbled across ‘Seven Ages of Man’, but I was immediately struck by the universality of the theme and the idea of a structural framework that could provide a really clear conceptual arch to the album, with each stage of life inspiring a contrasting yet unified self-contained movement within the whole work.
As a starting point, I chose to keep to the same characters (Infant, Schoolboy, Lover, Soldier, Judge, Pantaloon, Old Age) that Shakespeare depicts with such a biting, jaundiced world view in the ‘All the World’s a Stage’ speech in ‘As You Like It’.That said, I definitely felt at liberty to modify the musical characterisation of each ‘age of man’ to encompass my own personal reflections. It also seemed fitting that featuring the soprano and tenor saxophone (and bass clarinet in Pantaloon) would give a sense of personal voice to the individual travelling through the ‘Seven Ages of Man’.
It was very clear to me pretty early on that I wanted to include two introductory prologue movements (Origins and Gestation) which explore the beginning of life itself: both in the conception and growth of an embryo which emerges from a cluster of cells, and more philosophical musings on the evolution of life on our planet which echoes this journey. The big questions concerning the enigma of human existence have always fascinated me and this felt like the perfect platform to write music which engages with them. It also seemed like a necessary precursor, both musically and conceptually before focusing in on the specifics of the actual ‘Seven Ages of Man’ with the 3rd piece Infant, even though a work suggesting seven movements now ended up with nine!
A quick walk through the movements of ‘Seven Ages of Man’
Starting off the album is Origins. Emulating the emergence of life ‘out of nothing’, a simple unaccompanied soprano saxophone gradually builds and is joined by first the rhythm section, and finally, in a momentous harmonic shift, This is a movement of contemplation, evoking the wonder of the process by which inorganic matter gave rise to organic life, ultimately resulting in something as profound and complex as a human being.
This sense of wonder continues in the second movement Gestation. Although the growth and development from infancy to old age is quite an evolution, this is nothing in comparison to the progression from the DNA of a single fertilised cell to a new-born baby. Unsurprisingly, growth is again a big feature of the music but this time in a more active, high energy movement which ends in a state of triumphant excitement at the moment of birth.
After the intensity and energy of Gestation, Infant is deliberately more reflective. It takes the form of a lullaby, turning away from Shakespeare’s infant, ‘mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms’ to a softer more sympathetic take. Emotionally, it exists from the standpoint of the parent, concentrating on the tender love felt for this new, precious, delicate being. It’s a rose-tinted view certainly, though tinged with a parent’s anguish too. There’s a simple ‘lifelong’ theme that makes an appearance after the vibraphone solo and this melody is reprised and developed in some of the later movements.
Schoolboy, which is led by the soprano sax in the form of a Scherzo, is a positive, joyful and energetic take on that responsibility-free period of our lives. Evoking the playful, mischievous side of childhood, the more classical and rhythmically irregular tutti outer sections contrast with the joyous groove-based soloing of the sextet in the movement’s central section.
This movement is about adolescence, a time of emotional growth and imagination, but with a good measure of angst. It starts with a dreamy, romantic theme in the strings moving into a febrile, mercurial section in which the soprano takes the theme, later followed by solos from vibraphone and piano. Moving into a kind of coda the sax takes the lead again, but symbolically underlining the transition from adolescence to adulthood, now in the tenor instead of the soprano. Here the romantic theme returns but changed, undertaking a more troubled guise which builds before reaching an affirmative resolution when the theme re-emerges in the cellos and the energy dissipates as the music draws to a close.
The focus of Soldier is the challenge of now finding one’s way in the adult world as we move past the adolescence of Lover. It’s fast paced, tense and more hard-edged than any of the music that has preceded it. Programmed elements infuse the acoustic textures in the extended tension-building introduction before the tenor sax drives the music into the groove of the main section with soloing contributions from both piano and vibraphone.
In the life portrayed in my ‘Seven Ages’, the middle age in Judge is a time of relative ease and contentment. The earlier challenges of the adult world that were experienced in Soldier have been surmounted, and what is left is an appreciation of the good things in life and the life-changing experience of parenthood. The ‘lifelong’ theme from Infant re-occurs and is given a more expansive treatment here as we hit the highwater mark of life’s arch form and the work’s structure.
As we move into Pantaloon the ease of Judge is unfortunately left behind. This movement is perhaps the closest to the spirit of the Shakespeare. It’s a ternary form piece in which the utterances of the bass clarinet in the outer sections attempt to convey some of the semi-humorous irritation associated with the realisation of one’s declining physicality. However, as we move into the middle section, we experience the individual’s dawning awareness of their own mortality with a heartfelt lyrical theme in the tenor sax as they come to terms with this new reality.
The final movement: The anguish of the Pantaloon is now gone and has been replaced with both a feeling of resolution and a childlike simplicity. Past memories come and go with the emergence of thematic fragments from earlier ‘ages’ (Schoolboy, Infant and finally briefly Pantaloon) until we ultimately transition to a final statement of the ‘lifelong’ theme in the piano and tenor sax. After the energy of a last extended coda, the movement gradually subsides and life through the music gradually ebbs away.