“Seven Ages of Man” is an astonishing accomplishment and a perfect combination of orchestrally scored music and improvisation.
Ubuntu Music UBU0140
For Jazz Sextet & String Orchestra:
Tim Garland (soprano & tenor saxophone, bass clarinet); Jason Rebello (piano); Jonny Mansfield (vibraphone); Ralph Salmins (drums); Misha Mullov-Abbado (double bass); Paul Clarvis (percussion) with The London Studio Orchestra
There was a time not so long ago when the notion of combining jazz and classical work was met with disapproval, or at least a frown. Not from the composers of such ambitious works or the musicians, but from the audiences they were hoping to write and present the music to.
John Lewis and Gunther Schuller met with much dissent when presenting their ideas more than sixty years ago, and we should be grateful that persistence from all concerned broke down many of the barriers.
Nowadays, we are informed that these barriers barely exist, and for those happy to embrace the rich and varied music that the composer and musicians hear without thought to genre or easy classification, there is an abundance of excellent music to be discovered.
One such album is “Seven Ages of Man,” composed by Paul Mottram for a Jazz Sextet and String Orchestra. Not just any jazz sextet, but one that has been carefully assembled with musicians equally at home playing both improvised music and more formally composed works, and, importantly, that also have a unique voice on their respective instruments.
In this respect, it appears that Mottram had picked his principal soloist some considerable time before any music had been written. The composer had met saxophonist Tim Garland in 1986, and being bowled over by Garland’s improvisational prowess, the seeds were sown for a future collaboration.
Another musician who also made an impact on Mottram at around the same time was pianist Jason Rebello. Garland and Rebello, in the intervening years, have worked together on numerous occasions, and the decision to pair them for this project was a logical one.
The wild card soloist comes in with the young vibraphone player Jonny Mansfield, who has steadily been building a solid reputation as a player to watch out for and an individual voice on his instrument.
The music was in gestation for some time, and it was not until 2018 that Mottram started to write in earnest for the project.
Having decided to take as his theme the seven ages of man, and keep the same characters of Infant, Schoolboy, Lover, Soldier, Judge, Pantaloon, and Old Age as depicted in the famous words in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” Mottram made the decision to incorporate two additional sections as prologues in Origin and Gestation. This exploration of the beginning of life through conception and the embryonic stage of development.
The finished suite in nine movements is an astonishing piece of work that defies categorization, and inspirational writing and playing from all mark this album out as something special.
The writing for strings is exquisite, and Mottram has found the perfect balance between the elements of structured composition and passages for the soloists. Even when improvising over the string section, there is a feeling that the music is moving organically as one.
The beauty and purity of tone of Garland’s soprano saxophone in the opening “Origins” is jaw-dropping, and the delicacy of the theme gradually builds into a wondrous and uplifting climax. And this is true of all the movements, from the miracle that is life as if from nothing in “Origin” and “Gestation” to the wonder that is the experience of living life through each of its stages.
The innocence of childhood is captured in the gentle “Infant,” with Mansfield’s vibraphone solo particularly poignant and well-placed. Mansfield is also heard to fine effect in the playfulness of “Schoolboy,” along with the soprano saxophone’s dancing motifs.
“Lover” is as tender as one would expect, with Tim Garland taking the main theme before solos from the vibraphone and piano continue the romance of the piece. As if to shatter the perfect moment, the theme is taken up by Garland again, this time on tenor saxophone, stirring up the emotions in a more turbulent and boisterous manner.
This turbulent and uncertain path continues in the music through “Soldier.” The edgier tone of the music has some excellent playing from Jason Rebello as he conjures up a variety of emotions from the keyboard with some dramatic writing for the strings.
Garland’s impassioned tenor battles through admirably, and again there are fine solos from Mansfield and Rebello.
As the music eases into “Judge,” we move into calmer waters once again. Garland’s tenor is full-toned and lyrical, with his phrases rising and falling to emphasize this phase of life where the good things can be enjoyed, and the theme from “Infant” is reprised and inspected at closer quarters.
Having had its say, the tenor gives way to Rebello’s piano solo before the soprano once again enters with a wonderful solo that builds in intensity before the strings slow things down to a suitably lyrical and reflective closing statement from Garland.
The final two parts or movements deal with the latter stages of life as “Pantaloon” with the ominous-sounding bass clarinet, almost as if grumpy at the advancement of age and looking back at the years prior when better physical health was almost taken for granted.
The concluding “Old Age” almost takes one back to childhood when life was simpler, and in this latter stage, Mottram allows fragments from earlier movements, “Schoolboy,” “Infant,” and “Pantaloon,” to pass through as if memories from the past.
“Seven Ages of Man” is an astonishing accomplishment and a perfect combination of orchestrally scored music and improvisation. Mottram’s arrangements ebb and flow organically, and Tim Garland, Jason Rebello, and Jonny Mansfield show their mastery in their improvised solos throughout an album that is a rich and rewarding listen.