Guildhall Jazz Open Day

13 July 2023, Milton Court Concert Hall, London

Almost forty years ago, a remarkable piece of music was performed at the Falkoner Centre in Copenhagen, Denmark. The music, Aura, was a suite written as a tribute to Miles Davis, and Miles would later describe it as a: ‘masterpiece.’

Yet despite Aura being critically well received, and the recorded version winning two Grammy awards, Aura was never performed live again – until now.

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama deserve kudos for their bold and imaginative decision to bring Auraback to the concert hall, and from the audience’s reaction on the night, it has been more than worth the wait.Aura’s origins go back to 1984, when Miles Davis was awarded the prestigious Léonie Sonning Music Prize, also known as the Sonning Music Award.

This Danish award is given annually to a musician who has made a significant contribution to music – past winners include Stravinsky, Bernstein and Shostakovich. Miles was the first jazz musician to win the award (Keith Jarrett won it in 2004).

Danish musician Palle Mikkelborg was commissioned to write some music for the award ceremony, and as part of the acceptance process, Miles agreed to play on part of it. Mikkelborg is a trumpeter/composer/arranger who has led his own bands and worked with artists such as Bill Evans, Gil Evans, George Russell and Dexter Gordon.

His musical influences include Gil Evans and the French composer Olivier Messiaen. The inspiration for this piece was Miles’s musical and personal aura.

Mikkelborg assigned a chromatic note to each letter of the alphabet, and used the ten letters that make up Miles’s first name and surname to create a theme. Aura was originally a suite composed of seven movements each named after a colour – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

The piece combines orchestral, big band and electronic elements – there are woodwind and percussion sections, as well as parts for oboe, harp and cor anglais; horns and trombones; acoustic bass and electric bass, piano and synthesisers, plus electric guitar.

The Guildhall Jazz Orchestra for this performance consisted of 35 musicians, including the excellent seven-piece Guildhall Jazz Singers – Nel Begley, Anni Delger, Sam Gale, Roza Herwig, Amy Hollingsworth, Will Inscoe and Alex Moss . The seven movements cover a wide range of music genres that includes jazz, classical, rock, electronic, funk, blues and reggae.

Aura was performed in Copenhagen on 14 December 1984 with the Danish Radio Big Band. An audio recording of concert is available here:

Miles was only expected to play on the final section – ‘Violet’ – but was so enthused by the experience that he stayed on for two encores, playing ‘Jean-Pierre’ and ‘Time After Time’ (his guitarist John Scofield joining him on these pieces).

With the awards ceremony over, Mikkelborg thought that his work was done, but in mid-January 1985, he received a call in the middle of the night from Miles, who told him that he was returning to Denmark in two weeks to make a recording of Aura!

Somehow, Mikkelborg managed to book a studio, assemble the musicians and have the music prepared before Miles arrived. Recording took place over five days in late January/early February 1985. It’s important to note that the recorded version of Aura is not the same as that performed at the Falconer Centre or in this concert.

In the studio, Miles reshaped the music, tweaking things here and there, paring certain elements and even inspiring Mikkelborg to compose an additional movement, ‘White,’ which was specially created for the album version.

The music world always seems to be catching up with Aura. Although the album was recorded in 1985, Miles’s record company at the time – Columbia Records – did not release it until1989, much to Miles’s displeasure (he cited this as one of the reasons why he left Columbia records for Warner Brothers in the summer of 1985).

Now, here we are four decades on, hearing it played live again for the first time since its debut performance.

The driving force behind this new performance is Scott Stroman, director of the London Jazz Orchestra and founder of the Guildhall Jazz Orchestra. Stroman is a big fan of the music of Miles Davis and Gil Evans, and the Guildhall Jazz Orchestra has performed orchestral collaborations like Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess.

He’s also a massive fan of Aura, stating: “I know of no other piece quite like Aura. Of course, on first hearing, it is the unmistakable voice of Miles which catches the ear, but there is something about the setting, the larger piece, which stands it apart from any other Davis recording since the 1960s.

It is the voice of another musician, one who seems to know how to draw out the best in Miles in a large palate; one who somehow, from a distance, shares his world. I know of only one other, Gil Evans, who could do that. Palle Mikkelborg walks in his footsteps.”

Stroman has been trying to get this latest project off the ground for 25 years and it was only after the original score was found in the Danish Radio library that things started moving. The project has the blessing of Mikkelborg, who provided assistance during the planning stage. He also agreed to be interviewed on film by Stroman, who met Mikkelborg in Copenhagen.

The excellent digital programme which accompanies this concert and includes a transcript of the full interview can be accessed here.  At the start of the concert filmed excerpts from the interview were shown. Mikkelborg is a quietly-spoken, modest man, with a good sense of humour, and he is obviously delighted to see Aura being performed onstage again.

There were also extracts from a Danish TV documentary on the making of Aura, with scenes of Miles interacting with Mikkelborg and other musicians in the studio. The documentary can be seen here:

Sadly, health issues meant that Mikkelborg couldn’t travel to London to see the performance, but the event was live-streamed to him back in Denmark.

Filling the massive shoes of Miles Davis was trumpeter Robbie Robson, who has worked with the likes of John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, Jamie Cullen, Bill Frisell, Steve Swallow and the London Jazz Orchestra. Robson proved to be more than up to the task, playing fluently with open horn and using electronics to create effects such as mute and reverb.

His tone, range, feeling and control were highly impressive. Stroman conducted the orchestra and his enthusiasm was clear to see – at times, he seemed to be dancing along to the music. It was a joy to watch him and listen to this music.

The contrast between the recorded version of Aura and the original live version is soon apparent. On record, the music begins with a long, slow, creeping synth line and John McLaughlin playing the ten-note theme on guitar. Less than two minutes in, the music explodes to life.

But the live performance has a more atmospheric beginning, as electronic sounds and ghostly vocals mingle with the delicate sound of the oboe (beautifully played by Charis Lai). It’s like fine mist floating gently across a barren landscape. No wonder a friend described the event as being like: ‘Let into a mysterious, beautiful secret.’

At around the ten-minute mark there’s a dramatic switch in sound, with a cascade of horns heralding the arrival of a heavy percussive beat (heads-up to drummers Anmol Mohara Darji and Tom Blunt, and percussionist Jake Rees, who played a bewildering range of time signatures throughout the night and never dropped time).

It’s easy to see why Miles was so enthralled by Aura, because he loved dynamics, and there’s plenty of that in this music. Take the movement ‘Yellow,’ which starts off as a gentle duet between Charis Lai’s oboe and Alicja Cetnar’s harp, before there’s a huge detonation of sound – it’s an exhilarating switch in dynamics. On the movement ‘Green’ (dedicated to Gil Evans), double bassist Olly Meredith played a long and supple solo.

My favourite piece, ‘Blue’ is in 7/8 time and has a lovely reggae feel. Bassists Matthew May and Nigel Feldman, along with guitarists Jakub Klimiuk and André Marques Moreira laid down a strong groove that had my feet tapping.

Throughout the evening, keyboardists Cody Moss and Miles Lavelle Golding created rich textures and layers of sounds, with the acoustic piano showcased on ‘Indigo’. The woodwind, trumpet and trombone sections also deserve a special mention. The night finished with ‘Violet’, a bluesy piece inspired by two organ chords from Messian’s book My Musical Language.

Little wonder that the audience erupted with applause at the conclusion: it was a night to remember, and one felt that the spirits of Miles and Gil Evans were in the hall.

The standard of musicianship of the Guildhall’s students shows that there is much to be optimistic about the future of music in this country. One hopes that others will now be encouraged to perform Aura, and that copyright issues can be resolved so that even more people can hear a recording of this night’s superb performance.

I contacted Palle Mikkelborg after the concert and he said: “I am very, very pleased by the performance with those great young musicians, and I think Scott brought the piece into the future. Extremely touching!” Nothing more needs to be added.