A Barrel Organ far from Home

This was my first recording under my own steam back in 1997(on the Babel Label), and now that its available to listen or download here, I thought I’d share some of the inspirations behind it.

Here’s the starting point – a bleak photograph by John Topham that I happened to come across in a book on Britain between the wars.

Here’s some perfectly put info on Topham from www.TopFoto.co.uk

JOHN TOPHAM (1908-1992)

“Topham belongs right in the centre of a long tradition in British photography, a documentary tradition that combined a certain hard-headed practicality with the depiction of a broad spectrum of contemporary reality. Topham was unusually concerned with documenting certain aspects of British experience (both urban and rural workers, for instance) and the fact that he was able to do so while remaining commercially viable says a lot about how the market has changed.”
Rob Powell, British Journal of Photography

John Topham’s legacy, the founding collection of TopFoto image library, is over 120,000 negatives of superb social history capturing the disappearance of rural life as the South East of England began to disappear under a swathe of concrete. The Arts Council of England funded a touring exhibition of his work, Memory Lane, curated by the Impressions Gallery in York, and his work is significant to the Imperial War Museum and the Museum of Rural Life, amongst others. Topham began as a policeman in the East End of London in the 1920s. When he sold his first picture for the equivalent of a week’s wage, he quit the Force and from 1931-1973 he photographed, as he put it, the “little things of life – the way it really was”.

Something about the Barrel Organ image immediately grabbed me. Maybe the hopelessness  of busking in the middle of nowhere (apparently its the Guildford bypass soon after it was built!) or that connection with  universal plight of the itenerant performer- but I decided to set about writing a piece based on it.

Here’s the result (and Title track):     Barrel organ far From Home

Probably the first thing you notice is the instrumentation – not really your average jazz nine piece – but this was also part of the inspiration from the photographs – using Steve Buckley’s whistle and Pete Whymans C clarinet as a kind of orchestral sound. I also used this piece to experiment with some form(al) devices that I hadn’t used before. For instance, the first section is repeated retrograde in a mirror form (the central point is where the drums enter) and this also happens in the harmony of the second section. Hopefully no one actually hears this kind of stuff though! Steve Arguelles (who now lives in Paris) deserves a special mention for his contributions to the entire record. Never happy with playing anything purely for the sake of it, Steve’s approach was typically minimal, and often based on a sound (frequency) basis. For instance, his decision making could be based on something like “what  drum sound would work well with the strings in this section?”. Having listened to the recording some 15 years later I have to say that his judgement was almost perfect for the music.

Joining me in the  line up were my  collaborators from Perfect Houseplants,

Mark Lockheart (tenor and soprano) and Dudley Phillips (bass) and a string trio of Sonia Slany (violin) Maria Lamburn (viola) and Ben Davis (cello). As a part time cellist, I’d always felt comfortable writing for strings, and this was always an integral and important part of the soundworld that I wanted to create.

The other pieces in the suite were:

Whistling Rufus,

A well known street musician of his day. Too tempting to make it a warped irish/township track and feature Steve Buckley! Check out Steve Arguelles Bull Horn and Spoons contributions as well. Contemporary street music.This tune had quite a lot of life in future incarnations (eg with Maria Pia de Vito  on Dialektos, and with Peter Herbert on Everything we Love and More) Listen to the original here.

The Knocker Up,

who was the local alarm call in Limehouse with her pea shooter!!

The music was influenced by some freeish  ICP stuff I was exploring at the time…

Listen here.

The other photos were the war time austerity of  “Don’t ask for Bread if you don’t really need it” and the beautiful pastoral “Bicyles and Bluebells” taken in the Kent countryside. I’ll try and scan them in and have them available for a future post…

Incidentally, all the titles were taken directly from the captions (something I’ve done on a lot of other projects…Creative titling? no, they already there)

The other pieces that make up the record include an interlude (2 versions) that also has cropped up on later projects. Interlude 2 has a guest appearance from Christine Tobin’s bike (Arthur!) and a piece taken originally from a project with baroque violinist Andrew Manse based on some 17th century division playing (published by playford) Earthing Up.

I actually miscopied the  original melody, which is why it sounds a little more modern! Always believe in creative mistakes, so it stayed in….

Clatter is a fantasy piece about the sleepy mid wales village that I used to drive through on a regular basis. For such  a great name,  I don’t think I ever saw anything happening there,or even a person untill 2007! In my version,the whole village is out getting drunk, swearing fighting………poetic licence or what?

The remaining pieces are a trio with drums and clarinet Augie March, named after the book by Saul Bellow and a couple of remixed piano fragments (one mixed by Steve Arguelles, Gardening(Paris) and one by myself, Gardening (at Night)

I think the sleeve notes said that this was something I’d not yet tried…..

All in all, I guess,not your typical Jazz record; but something that I loved every minute of thinking, writing, performing and producing.Thanks should also go to Oliver Weindling at Babel for his faith in making this record happen in the first place!

Parc (2)

Ysgol Parc 2011 (photo copyright David Woodfall)

Last night was the first public meeting of the Parc Project in Ysgol Parc, Bala, Gwynedd. The community was introduced to the three artists (David Woodfall, Greg Byatt and myself) and after a brief introduction from David (where he showed some pictures from a Bangladesh village lost to floods from climate change) we all watched the 1949 film “Noson Lawen” shot and based in Parc. Amazing to see many of the current landmarks of the village, such as the bridge, school and chapel almost completely unchanged.

Here’s a still from the film:

Maybe a little idealistic and sentimental at times this is still a great film, with some interesting imagery. The real message of the film (presumably shot in fairly harsh post war times economically) comes up in the final frame with the logo of the film’s sponsors National Savings Bank! Also, even watching it in 2012, you get a real sense of the strength of the community that it documents; something that we are hoping to mirror in our project.

This was followed by a short ‘work in progress@ film made by Greg Byatt from material he has already gathered in Parc.This  included the school Christmas concert, a traditional toffee making session and all superimposed over a stirring soundtrack from the collectibve carol at the end of the Plygain last december.

plygain (picture copyright (David Woodfall)

Again really interesting to see that many of the contemporary images from Greg’s film could also with a few subtle changes (such as fashion or vehicles) could be from the 1940’s or older. A great response from all present to both the Noson Lawen film and the  new film….

David before the meeting

I then talked a little about my interest in music and “place”, and played a couple of short pieces including playing to a slide show of some of David’s photographs….

Greg working his magic for people!

All in all, we were made to feel so welcome here, it really is a special community. Not only was this a chance for us to try out a mini version of how the project might work in its finished version it was also an opprtunity to engage in a two way dialogue with the community inviting their contributions. Within a very short period of time we were soon aware that we will probably have too much information as opposed to not enough!

David also made it clear to all that all parts of the project (but especially photos and videos) will be available free to local people, as part of us also giving something back to the community that we are documenting.

More details in the next blog, but I was lucky enough to meet a man who had been a POW in the nearby camp in Frongoch and had never gone home. With a wicked sense of humour he told me that his reading and writing were so bad at first that they had only recently told him that the war had finished. Priceless.

I hope to not only document the process of the project here but also offer the blog as a forum and collecting point for contributions from anyone re Parc.

Please feel free to email me if you have any contributions warrenhuw@gmail.com

Here’s a link on the BBC website…. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-north-west-wales-16106958

I look forward to the next phase of this project!

photo copyright David Woodfall

2011 – A year in music

Fashionably late as usual….

Gigs, here  there and everywhere – from Llanberis to Hanoi.

Just looking back over my last 12 months of music making (not something I’ve ever thought about doing before!) here are some of my personal favourites…..

In no particular order –

Iain Ballamy, Huw Warren, Steve Berry and Zoot Warren

Ucheldre Centre, Holyhead, Anglesey June 2011. Just a great night of music in a beautiful venue, fab steinway…What more can I say? Luckily it was also filmed by Greg Byatt. www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQLV4dn2lPc


Future Jazz, Bristol. Feb 2011.Intimate trio gig with Dudley Phillips and Martin France to a smallish crowd that had some great interactive playing.

Huw Warren Paula Gardiner Duo

Christchurch, Rochester,NY  June 2011 as part of the Rochester International Jazz Festival.Another church and another special atmosphere!

3 Voices Project (Norma Winstone Maria Pia de Vito David Linx Huw Warren)

Pizza Express, London April 2011.A lot of work on this gig for me – but amazing to work with three singers like this!

Perfect Houseplants

Kingfisher Way Festival Roxton Church, Bedfordshire. June 2011.A lovely night for our reunion (well partial reunion!). Also kickstarted us into planning some more Houseplants activity and new music for 2012.

Silent Movie Night

Petes Eats, Llanberis, Gwynedd.May 2011. Classic silent movies with live improvisation in a miniature Hi Def cinema in a back room of this well known cafe. Unlikely, but a stunningly intense experience.

Huw Warren Iain Ballamy Duo

Kings Place, London Oct 2011. Loved this venue, and some beautiful music with Iain.

Purcell Relayed

Dora Stoutzker Hall, RWCMD Cardiff. May 2011.A speaial project for the opening of the new building and a great chance to play in the new hall.It didn’t disapoint! We deconstructed and reassembled some of Purcell’s music with myself, Martin France, Greg Cordez and students from the historical performance course at RWCMD

Maria Pia de Vito + Ramamani (from Naples to Bangalore)

L’espal le Mans, France, Oct 2011.A steep learning curve but an amazing opportunity to work on this project with incredible vocalist  Ramamani and a great band including Mr TS Mani and Carlo Rizzo.


Greg Lyons London Project

Kuala Lumpur Contemporary Music Festival November 2011. Another reunuon, this time with saxophonist Lyons, who I played with a lot during the late 80’s. All in all a great trip- see my earlier posts about the food!!

John Parricelli Huw Warren Duo

National Centre for Early Music, York November 2011. Another great chuch venue, and a lovely afternoon concert with John;who always plays so beautifully.

Dialektos , Far East Tour

Some really great concerts with Maria Pia de Vito in Indonesia, Vietnam and China.

Some new commissions in 2011 as well – I wrote “Gladrags” for Alton College Big Band at Farnham Festival in April (video here), “Tilt” for New Perspectives in July and also a brand new arrangement of my piece “Is it August Yet?” for saxophonist Lara James with string quartet and rhythm section for her new CD to be released soon. Also was involved with a fascinating arts/science project at ACES in Aberdeen which resulted in a concert of new solo piano music at the Lemon Tree Arts Centre in August (video here).

Finally, should mention the latest record with Maria Pia de Vito and Ralph Towner “O Pata Pata” which came out this year http://www.auditorium.com/pdm_records/5005391.Such a pleasure to work on these songs (including 3 of my compositions) and to play and hang with Ralph.

Onwards to 2012!

Happy New Year…….