Jazz is mostly a city based music with lively scenes in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Southampton and Sheffield. So it came as a wonderful surprise to be involved in a contemporary jazz event at a small arts centre in a small town in England, just a few miles from the Welsh border. This was a concert with the Mike Fletcher Jazz Orchestra at the Hermon Chapel Arts Centre in Oswestry.
The Hermon Chapel is a beautiful building that has been lovingly recreated as a small arts centre with a stage, comfortable padded pews and a bar serving a range of beers and wines. It is privately owned, but run by two local organisers, Barry Edwards and Claudia Lis. They have created a very warm and friendly atmosphere and, on the evidence of last night, have built up a loyal and curious audience that is ready to try something different in the area of contemporary jazz/music. They have created a niche for this area of music within a programme that also takes in folk music, comedy and opportunities to join various musical activities, including the Oswestry Jazz Orchestra, and ukulele and percussion workshops.
The Hermon Chapel itself was a nonconformist church built in 1862 and its architect was the Rev. Thomas Thomas, a leading Welsh architect and carpenter. Apparently, Oswestry had in the Victorian period a large Welsh speaking nonconformist community and the chapel was built to serve that community. It became an arts centre in 2009 when it was bought by Duncan Kerr, a councillor in Oswestry.
The concert with the Mike Fletcher Jazz Orchestra went down well with the audience. They played one straight-through set with Mike’s reworking of his solo saxophone piece Picasso(s) for a 12-piece ensemble. The work arises from Mike’s PhD work in which he developed an approach to improvisation based initially on his fascination with Picasso’s series of 58 variations on Velazquez’s iconic Las Meninas painting. This led him to devise a similar approach in which he improvised a series of variations on Coleman Hawkins’ solo saxophone piece that fits very well into the project as it has the name Picasso. Mike’s solo improvisation transformed the original piece which was just 3 mins in length into an extended improvisation of about 45 mins.
With the large ensemble Mike has developed a four movement piece based on the original Hawkins’ recording and on Mike’s original solo set. The result is a fascinating and challenging set of music based on a relatively straightforward number of structures that create the framework for collective improvisation. The concert also included two pieces from Mike’s Different Trane commission in which he created a series of pieces inspired by Steve Reich’s minimalism and John Coltrane’s Africa Brass recording.
The concert was introduced by Mike in an interview with myself in which he explained the concept of the music, how the approach was developed from his fascination with Picasso’s Las Meninas and his transcription of Coleman Hawkins’ Picasso, and how he is attempting to create a balance between composition and improvisation for the large ensemble. The interview included an explanation and demonstration of the conduction method in which the band leader guides the improvisation through a set of gestures.
Both Mike and I believe strongly in the importance of talking about the music in ways that demystify it for the audience. I think (and hope) that this initial discussion did prepare the audience for what they were about to hear. Certainly the response to the music was very positive at the end.