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!


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