Photograph by Julian Hubbard
Composer Paul Mottram is best known for his work in television and films, and all who watch the big screen or the TV at home will have heard his music at one time or another. From The Great British Bake Off, Downtown Abbey, Antiques Roadshow and The One Show, he has contributed music.
Also, much in demand as a classical composer, Mottram’s music is far ranging with a keen interest in not just fully scored composition but also improvisation.
Last month saw the release of his album, “Seven Ages of Man” written for jazz sextet and string orchestra. Featuring the talents of saxophonist Tim Garland and Jason Rebello on piano, this must be considered as one of Mottram’s major works, and the depth and beauty of the music is breathtaking.
It was therefore a pleasure to talk to Paul about his composition and the recording process to bring the project to fruition.
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your new album “Seven Ages of Man” and the connection to Shakespeare’s famous monologue from “As You Like It.” How did this classical reference influence your creative process for the music, and what led you to choose this thematic concept?
Having sounded Tim out about creating and recording a major new work written specifically for him, it was important to me to find a concept and structure to base the whole album on rather than it being a random collection of tracks. I remembered the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ from the Shakespeare and was struck by the universality of the idea and how it lent itself so well to writing movements of different emotional character and with a tremendous sense of narrative flow and overall structure. The Shakespearian characterisation of the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ directly gives rise to movements of the same name within my album (Infant, Schoolboy, Lover (adolescent), Soldier (young man), Judge (middle age), Pantaloon (early old age) and Old Age (extreme old age) and hopefully there’s a sense of them forming a soundtrack to that progression through life. I took the Shakespearian view as a starting point but definitely felt at liberty to modify the musical characterisation of each ‘age of man’ to encompass my own reflections on the stages of life. You’ve probably noticed my work actually has nine movements! I felt that for long form narrative and musical reasons I wanted to include two introductory prologue movements (Origins and Gestation) which explore the precursors to a human life and indeed in Origins, the whole of human existence.
Written for jazz sextet and string orchestra “Seven Ages of Man” features a collaboration with acclaimed musicians saxophonist Tim Garland, pianist Jason Rebello, and Jonny Mansfield on vibraphone. Can you tell us about the decision to work with these specific artists and what they brought to the project?
The initial impetus for the project stemmed from the desire to write a piece for Tim Garland who has been a friend since we met at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the 80s. Once I decided I wanted to give the Piano a major soloing role, it was a natural step for me to work with Jason, a pianist I’ve always hugely admired and also met at Guildhall, and with whom Tim works all the time. It was Tim who suggested Jonny when I mentioned I was looking for a Vibraphonist equally adept as a great reader and improviser. They all brought a huge boost of creativity to the work through their soloing but also a willingness to allow me to explore what would remain notated and what would be loosened through improvisation in the score.
Tim Garland is known for his versatility and ability as improvising saxophonist so how would you say his contributions shape the musical landscape of the album, and what was it like working with him on this project?
In a sense the structure and flow of the compositions was relatively rigid, but Tim is fantastic at working creatively within those tight parameters (for instance building solos to take us naturally and without hiatus into the next notated section of the music) and has great sensitivity as to the emotional direction of the music and a deep compositional understanding of what’s going on. It was fascinating to work with him; although I knew from the outset certain sections would be completely improvised, there were many others which were notated but with the idea that there was some latitude as to whether they could be improvised instead or simply loosened from the notated original.
He recorded his parts in his own studio, incidentally the first thing on the album to be recorded, and it was so interesting to see how he decided what to improvise and what to keep as notated. It was very rare that I felt anything he sent me was out of keeping with my compositional aims, which suggests an unusually close musical empathy with what I was striving to achieve.
Another unique voice is pianist Jason Rebello, and of course he is a frequent collaborator with Tim, how did you manage to create so much space within the score for Jason to play with so much freedom?
I think it’s more often Jason that is creating the impression there is a lot of freedom by being creative yet sensitive to the textures and musical detail in the strings and elsewhere! Obviously, the scoring I use behind a featured solo must allow the soloist space, but it’s often in the comping textures that Jason conjures up behind other’s solos or otherwise notated sections that give the music an extra spark.
And talking of having a unique voice and the ability to improvise freely we must also mention the young vibraphone player Jonny Mansfield who makes such an impact on the recording. Jonny’s vibraphone playing has a distinctive sound so what inspired you to include vibraphone in the sextet and how did his presence contribute to the album’s overall sonic texture?
I felt the need for a completely different tonal colour within the work which would contribute to its’ cinematic quality and sense of scale. The vibraphone was a great draw for these reasons, but also because like the piano, the vibraphone could be used both melodically and in a harmonic textural context. It’s interesting to me, that of the many instrumental formations that feature in Tim’s extensive discography, one of my favourites is ‘Storms/Nocturnes’ which features just Saxophone, Piano and Vibraphone. As well as being a wonderful player, Jonny, like Tim is also an accomplished composer and was up for the kind of notated vs improvised experimentation that I was after in the album.
Collaboration can often lead to creative synergy. Can you describe any memorable moments or improvisational elements that arose during the recording process with these three master soloists?
The received wisdom would be that creative synergy between soloists would happen best when they are in the same room and in real time. I think this album shows that it can equally apply with one soloist responding to another after the first soloist has already laid down their part. So, Jason was bouncing of Tim’s part and then Jonny was keying off both Tim and Jason thereafter. In a sense, you might potentially get the best of both worlds, in that this way the response is in real time but there is a partial familiarity in what the previous soloist has already recorded. I think a wonderful example of this is the middle section of Infant, where the Sextet play alone, with Tim the principal soloist but there are lots of melodic resonances in the way Jason and Jonny support that solo.
The interaction between musicians is a key element in jazz and instrumental music. How did the dynamics between you and the jazz sextet influence the direction and evolution of the album?
Under the bonnet, the album is really quite classical in the way the music is structured, so the jazz sextet had to work within that. In my opinion the narrative flow of the album wouldn’t work as well if a couple of extra choruses of solo were thrown into the mix in any given track! However, as I’ve already described, the degree of experimentation that was possible with the jazz sextet (as to the improvised/notated balance of things) meant that the work continued to evolve creatively throughout the recording process like a gradual unveiling of the finished article. This is the first work I’ve written where this has happened to that degree.
“Seven Ages of Man” is a conceptually themed album. How did the individual contributions of Tim, Jason, and Jonny align with or enrich the themes and emotions explored in the music?
I think the compositions within the album set up the intended emotional direction of the music quite clearly but with really great players such as Tim, Jason and Jonny they can just run with that and heighten and enrich those themes with a super charged additional layer of creativity. It’s about sensitivity and the ability to respond imaginatively within tight musical parameters. Take the penultimate section of Old Age, it’s the last throw of the dice from the Jazz Sextet alone where the three soloists all make sparing improvised contributions trading off each other over a chorale like groove. The music needs to build yet within a calm, resigned feel as it’s the final section before the musical portrayal of life’s final ebbing away. In my opinion they absolutely hit the right balance keeping the creativity controlled within the emotional narrative demands of the music. Impressive.
How did you approach and overcome the challenge of writing composed music for a classical string orchestra with an improvising sextet?
As I have probably alluded to earlier, the nature of the structure of the music is that the sextet is improvising within a fairly tightly controlled often quite classical framework where at times the music is improvisatory in character rather than improvised. Also, the Sextet do improvise around the string lines when they are of high musical importance, so we maintain clarity of detail. Where the soloing needs to come to the fore, I pared the string writing back to allow the space for Tim, Jason and Jonny to come through.
Once the music was composed, there was the additional problem of recording the orchestra and sextet separately and then bringing the two together in post-production. This must have been no easy feat where the musicians are improvising and perhaps reinventing your written score as they perform each piece?
Yes, the whole order of the recording process was interesting (The soloists recorded their parts before the strings but the rhythm section was recorded after them) but because the instrumentalists of the Sextet could always hear a mock-up of the strings even if they weren’t recorded yet they always had the opportunity to play/improvise taking the string lines into account! Also, I had a lot of granular control over each element of the Sextet and with ‘takes’ experimenting with different approaches to the notated material I was able to knit it all together post-recording in a way which hopefully makes everything sit right as a whole. There was a very considerable amount of post-production and Rob Kelly, who mixed the album, had a big part to play in achieving the sense of scale and clarity I was after with those forces.
And what next. Are there plans to perform the music live?
I would love to perform the music live! Hopefully we will be able to realise this at some point but given the scale of the piece (it was recorded with 28 string players in addition to the sextet) it’s not the simplest undertaking. I also think the work might work well with dance or with some sort of audio-visual element. So, it’s a question of watch this space…..!
For more information visit paulmottram.com
Click here to read our review of Seven Ages of Man