Back in 2018, I took the first steps along the path to composing ‘Seven Ages of Man’. I had long held an ambition to write a long form piece for Tim Garland which I had never quite got round to realising. Since meeting Tim back in the 80s, I had been struck by the brilliance and creativity of his improvisation and compositions and knew we shared a common interest in how elements of classical music could successfully combine with Jazz. Having been in fairly regular contact with him over the years and been so happy to see him achieve such success on the international stage as jazz musician and composer, I broached the idea of the ‘Seven Ages’ album project in early 2018, and with his blessing, began some tentative sketching.
The idea of an extended musical prologue that prepared the way for the ‘Infant’ movement was therefore there right from the start.
Although I always knew that the core of the work would be centred around the seven characters (stages of life) that are featured in the speech from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’, it’s interesting that the only movement I initially worked on was in fact ‘Gestation’. The idea of an extended musical prologue that prepared the way for the ‘Infant’ movement was therefore there right from the start. In my mind, this was a necessary part of the form to allow the ‘Infant’ movement to inhabit the kind of simplicity of mood and sound world I was after. I think I also wanted to experiment with the nature of the instrumentation behind the album and this seemed easier to do with a movement that was slightly more free-standing.
The first sketches wrestled with the extent to which there should be a full rhythm section in in addition to the solo saxophone and string orchestra. In the end, it became clear to me that over the course of such a long work it was going to be beneficial to allow other instruments (piano and vibraphone) to improvise jazz solos and that using Kit and upright bass would allow the jazz combo to operate completely independently of the strings as required. Being reminded of the pianistic brilliance of Jason Rebello, who I heard playing in Tim’s band at a live gig in September 2018 was a further push towards the desire to expand the role of the piano in the finished work.
So, having drafted Gestation, discussed the issues of instrumentation with Tim, and then reworked the whole thing in early 2019, I finally ended up with more clarity about where I was heading with the whole project as we came to the close of that year. From that point on, the project picked up a little more momentum and, having sketched a few melodic fragments earlier in the year, I began steadily working chronologically from Infant onwards as we headed into 2020. And then Covid happened… If I’m honest, it was something of a blessing in disguise compositionally as it slowed up a number of production music projects I was working on and encouraged me to focus more fully on ‘Seven Ages’. By the autumn, everything was there at least in first draft. Finally getting back to Tim with demos and discussing how we would go about recording the project really took it out of the abstract for me and added a further sense of urgency. At that stage, there were still quite a few Covid limitations regarding live recording, and in any case, there were some good arguments for starting with recording the principal solo line; this would allow me to assess and re-evaluate once it became clearer how the improvised sections would work within the whole structure.
At this point it’s probably worth discussing the relationship between what is notated and what is improvised within ‘Seven Ages’. As I was composing, I would write ‘quasi’ improvisational soloistic lines within many sections of the piece for the key melodic instruments of the sextet, namely saxophone, piano and vibraphone. I found this useful, partly because it wasn’t always clear to what extent certain sections would ultimately be improvised, but also because it gave a much better sense of the flow of the whole piece and allowed a lot more scope for experimentation and fine tuning of the structure. What proved fascinating was how the recording process helped to define what would remain notated and what felt better and more fluid when improvised or loosened from the original. It felt like something of a voyage of discovery, almost like a form of archaeology, on an already existing musical organism. For example, I approached the opening movement Origins with a completely open mind as to how free Tim’s part might end up being, but in the end, it’s played almost entirely as notated and in fact it’s in the piano where there’s much more loosening from the notated semi-minimalist patterns that were written in the part. It’s exciting to contemplate that a live performance of the work would almost certainly shift the improvised/notated equilibrium to a new resting point.
What proved fascinating was how the recording process helped to define what would remain notated and what felt better and more fluid when improvised or loosened from the original.
A particular challenge for the soloists was the issue of how improvised solos ended to fit within a dynamic form. Often in Jazz, a solo is not pre-defined to a certain length and when the soloist is ready to finish there is a comfortable landing (ending) zone for the solo as the music doesn’t immediately move into a new section. There’s a kind of marking time or pause in proceedings (almost like a musical breadth if you like) before the music moves into the next section, be it another improvised solo or the return of the initial melody. In ‘Seven Ages’ however, the long-term flow of the structure required the solos to dovetail more precisely into the following section in order to preserve the sense of momentum. The improvised solos almost always move the music linearly from A to B rather than returning the music back to its initial starting point. A particularly dramatic example of this is in the 2nd saxophone solo of Schoolboy. It’s a high energy solo in Db that builds and, in its final throes, modulates and lands spectacularly on the down beat of the next section, thus launching a recap of the main theme in the strings in the new key (F). It’s a little bit akin to how a cadenza works in a classical concerto except with the added complexity of having to improvise it within a groove with the rest of the sextet. It’s a high trapeze-like manoeuvre with a spectacular catch at the end.
With Tim having brilliantly recorded most of his part with just the right blend of improvisation to notated line, the baton then passed to the supremely talented Jason Rebello as we recorded the piano part. It’s a pivotal instrument to the whole piece given that it has important roles both as soloist in a horizontal sense but also as the heart of the rhythm section. It also serves as a powerful harmonic agent in the way the piano works with the string arrangement. The last soloist to record was the young and acclaimed vibraphonist (and composer) Jonny Mansfield, whom Tim had suggested for the project both as an amazing player and also as someone who would be able to tap into the hybrid stylistic nature of the project with ease. This proved correct on both counts. The vibraphone crucially extends the coloristic range of the sextet throughout and at crucial points adds an exciting new melodic voice to the proceedings such as in its solos in Infant, Schoolboy and Soldier.
By the late spring/ early summer of 2021 all three solo parts were finalised. As far as this recording goes, putting saxophone, piano and the vibraphone down first and making decisions on those elements of the piece at that point allowed me to finalise the rest of the score and approach the recording of the strings and the remaining instruments of the rhythm section with more certainty and confidence that everything would work as intended when brought together. Thus in July of that year, we recorded the strings over two days in the wonderful acoustic of Abbey Road Studio 1 with a stellar orchestra lead by John Mills (Leader of the Tippett String Quartet) assembled by Jenny Goshawk for orchestral contractor Isobel Griffiths. Abbey Road has come to feel like a bit of second home for me in recording terms as most of my orchestral production music albums have been recorded there. The more recent ones have been with orchestral line ups put together by Isobel Griffiths who is comfortably the best-known orchestral contractor in the London music session world and has credits on a huge proportion of the big feature films that have been recorded in the UK over the last 30 plus years.
The final elements of the work to be recorded were the remainder of the Jazz Sextet, namely drums (Ralph Salmins), upright bass (Misha Mullov-Abbado) and percussion (Paul Clarvis). We recorded all three at Ralph’s studio, ‘The Bunker’, in Hertfordshire with Rob Kelly engineering. I have worked with Rob for many years, and he had a huge role to come in the project with mixing the entire album bringing out the breadth and richness of the strings against the tightness and dynamism of the Jazz Sextet. As with the recording of the rest of the saxophone, piano and vibraphone, we worked together in these rhythm section sessions to get the right balance between the written line and the improvisational fluidity needed in responding ‘in the moment’ to the soloists.
‘Seven Ages’ has been a unique voyage of musical discovery for me. Usually, my scores are finalised to the last detail in perfect isolation and only then does the recording take place, normally in the matter of a day or so, in a process typical of classical music. With this album however, the compositional process continued right through the recording, and I truly believe has added to the richness of the final result. It’s been a privilege to have been able to work with such an amazing group of musicians and I’m delighted that the project has finally been brought to fruition.