The Mike Gibbs Jazz Composition & Arranging Prize at Birmingham Conservatoire

I was honoured to be invited to be on the panel judging the nine compositions submitted for the Mike Gibbs Jazz Composition & Arranging Prize, the concert for which took place yesterday in the Eastside Jazz Club at the Conservatoire. The prize went to a delighted Ben Partridge for his composition Hopeful Despair, an attractive piece full of interesting textures.

It would be unprofessional to describe the other pieces as this could reveal something of the panel’s discussion, but one particular feature of the evening was very pleasing, and worthy of comment. This was that of the nine compositions submitted and performed five came from students on the jazz course and four from students of classical music in the Composition Department. It was very interesting to hear how the composers from that department brought in different influences, and how they adapted these to suit the instrumentation and musical approach of a 16-piece big band.

It is often said that contemporary jazz and contemporary classical music have become increasingly close and draw on each other’s approaches and philosophy. While this is probably true, I am not aware of many examples of composers from the contemporary classical field writing for a jazz big band. One famous example is Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto written for the Woody Herman Big Band in 1945. It seems Stravinsky had been impressed by jazz players such as Charlie Parker, Art Tatum and Charlie Christian, as well as the Herman band itself, and was enthusiastic about the commission. However, the piece was not well received by the Herman band, and Herman himself felt that the music written was ‘pure Stravinsky’ and not well suited to a jazz big band.

A more recent example is a commission for Anna Meredith to write for the Mike Fletcher Jazz Orchestra in Birmingham. Anna Meredith’s music is generally defined as uncategorisable drawing as it does on contemporary classical, electronic and rock music, . The piece with the title Studies for Big Band was premiered in 2016, and the commission and its performance were analysed in a very perceptive review by Peter Bacon on his Jazz Breakfast website:

The tightly controlled melodic and harmonic content had me thinking of Philip Glass, but again the mood was more flexible and more inviting. The internal rhythms created had a deep “groove”and a marvellously controlled swell and fade, all with the visceral familarity of a blood pulse.

A very clear sound picture emerged of Anna Meredith’s delight in the sound of the jazz big band expressed through the technique and sensibility of contemporary classical composition.  The band played it superbly, I thought, showing – or rather confirming – just how skilled and adaptible are our young Conservatoire-trained musicians.

I am not aware that this piece has been played again, which is a shame.  I would like to see composers from different genres seizing the opportunities provided by the sound and instrumentation of a jazz big band.  In the same way, it was great to hear the five jazz composers also presenting work at this event that extended the language of the big band. Ben Partridge’s prize-winning composition was an excellent example of this.

Finally, the nine compositions were beautifully played by the Conservatoire Jazz Orchestra, and the whole event including the liaison between the Jazz and Compositions departments was expertly run by Ed Puddick, now a full time member of the Jazz Department.  And it was great to see Mike Gibbs back in Birmingham, still fit and well in his 80s.

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