No dividing lines in music: Sandy Evans and Testimony
Interview by Phil Sandford
First conceived in 1995, Testimony, the musical poem tribute to Charlie Parker, has finally appeared as a book and two CDs, and the relief and pride are evident for composer Sandy Evans.
‘Several ideas guided my creative process in this project: to interpret Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry, to pay tribute to Charlie Parker, and to do this in my own way in the context of the vibrant Sydney jazz scene of the 1990s.’ Evans says. ‘I’m very proud of this work and thrilled that, in some small way, it is a vehicle for the voices of some very fine Australian musicians, and their embodiment of Parker’s influence, to be heard internationally.’
The CDs were recorded and broadcast in 1999 for ABC FM’s Soundstage, but have been unavailable until now.
Evans is generous in her praise for everyone involved in the project, stressing that ‘the production is very much a collective effort, from Yusef, producer Christopher Williams, music producer Tony Gorman and recording engineer Russell Stapleton, to the singers, spoken word performer and musicians. It also involves the staff at Wesleyan University in the US, who spent eight years or more to bring the project to fruition.’
‘One of the things I listened to while preparing the score was a tribute to Charles Mingus called Weird Nightmare; Meditations on Mingus by producer Hal Willner,’ Evans says. ‘He creates a sort of meta-text for Mingus’s compositions using a colourful and almost mystical palette largely constructed from Harry Partch instruments, and featuring a diverse cast of jazz and rock musicians.’
Weird Nightmare has different vocalists and ensembles, uses a variety of styles, and has some vocal, some spoken and some instrumental tracks, elements also to be found in Testimony. But while Willner employs Mingus compositions, Evans has written the bulk of Testimony score. Only ‘Ko-Ko’, ‘Moose the Mooche’ and fragments of the overture are written by Parker.
Evans recalls ‘I listened to other jazz and spoken word pieces, but probably listening to a lot of Parker recordings, and to the singers I was writing for were more important in the creative development process.’
‘When I’m composing it’s important for me to know who I’m writing for,’ Evans says. ‘Each poem suggested particular vocalists and musicians to me, many of whom I had worked with in the Sydney scene. The personality, style and character of each of the singers was integral to the conception of the music. The variety of ways the individual singers connect with the jazz tradition is truly wonderful, people like Kristen Cornwell, Kate Swadling, Joe Lane, Lily Dior, Tanya Sparke, Toni Allayialis, Pamela Knowles: they are musicians with tremendous musical intelligence, sense of swing, depth of feeling and technical accomplishment. It was also important to me to have musicians like Bernie McGann, Chuck Yates and Warwick Alder whose playing reflects not just a long and deep engagement with Parker’s music and bebop, but also their own voice in this genre. There are so many dimensions to the work and the performers who made it possible. All the players contributed a huge amount to interpret my music, which is not always easy to do. We could spend months talking about each one and still be finding more and more.’
Evans uses eight female vocalists and three male vocalists, together with six tracks spoken by Michael Edward-Stevens. ‘The rhythm of the poem was a big factor in deciding whether to treat it as a song or have it spoken,’ she says.
Evans feels that the history of jazz would read very differently if the contribution of singers were given greater importance. Evans is keen to celebrate the rich and diverse history of women in jazz. She founded the Young Women’s Jazz Workshops with the Sydney Improvised Music Association (SIMA) to assist young women interested in playing jazz to build their knowledge, skills and confidence.
Evans credits her work for the Martenitsa Choir as helping her write for singers and with her composing in general: ‘There’s something about a choir that is like a saxophone section blending.’
Among her compositional influences, Evans cites Duke Ellington and Gil Evans. She studied George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept with bassist and composer Bruce Cale and studied harmony with Paul McNamara and Roger Frampton. She also learnt a lot from other members of Ten Part Invention, particularly composer and trumpet player Miroslav Bukovsky. Her co-leaders in Clarion Fracture Zone, saxophonist Tony Gorman and pianist Alister Spence have been among her biggest influences. Lloyd Swanton, Paul Grabowsky, Roger Dean, Judy Bailey, Andrew Robson, Andrea Keller, John Rodgers and Gai Bryant are some of the other composers whose work has been influential on her development.
In terms of saxophone playing, she says: ‘John Coltrane is probably my biggest influence, but a host of Australian players have in their own ways been very significant. On tenor, Mark Simmonds and Dale Barlow were great inspirations to me, especially when I was first getting serious about playing. On soprano I would say John Surman has been an influence, but there are many, many others. My interests are quite eclectic. I have studied avant garde players and more mainstream players from different periods of jazz history. They have all made their way into my musical imagination.’
Evans became interested in Indian music partly through the Australian Art Orchestra (AAO)’s 16-year collaboration with South Indian (Carnatic) mridangam vitruoso Guru Kaaraikkudi Mani. She credits AAO bass trombonist Adrian Sherriff as one of the main inspirations for her continued interest in this field. She is currently undertaking practice-based PhD research into Carnatic jazz intercultural music.
There are many musical genres embodied in the Testimony score and Evans says, ‘I don’t see any dividing lines in music.’
Of the soul-soaked ‘Cain and Abel’ Evans says, ‘You could write anything and Jackie Orszaczky and Tina Harrod would make it sound great,’ Evans says. But her modesty belies the time she has put in with the r&b bands such as Tam White and the Dexters while she was living in Scotland in 1987, and the many years playing with Lloyd Swanton’s groove-based The catholics.
Evans says that ‘A Soft Touch for Strings’ comments on the way twentieth century modernism intersected with bebop, free improvised music, and Western classical music. Although not a classical musician herself, Evans did study Western classical flute when she was growing up, and cites Alban Berg as one of her favourite composers from her teenage years. ‘Charlie Parker’s recording with strings have sometimes been criticised for being too sacharine, or somehow light, watering down the intensity of bebop,’ Evans says. ‘Among other things, Yusef’s poem brings out the tension between Parker’s music and his desire to be accepted as a “serious” musician. The performances of Michele Morgan, John Rodgers, Simon Barker and Steve Elphick are incredible on this track.’
Evans said that writing Testimony gave her a deep appreciation, almost a hunger, to feel and express the potency and beauty of marrying words with music. ‘Instrumentalists often learn the lyrics of standard songs to better express the feeling of the song, even when they might be commenting on the lyrics in an ironic way,’ she says. ‘There are of course, other idioms that are purely instrumental, and for many players, myself included, lyrics don’t tend to be at the front of our thinking with that instrumental repertoire. Then there is the extraordinary art of vocalese where composers, often the singers themselves, add lyrics to pre-existing instrumental solos.’
Evans adds: ‘Kurt Elling is a great exponent of vocalese and I listened to his music quite a lot when I was writing Testimony. I didn’t know I would be lucky enough to have him sing ‘A Day Like Today’ when I composed it, but I can see why it might sound like a vocal version of an improvised solo, as you suggest.’
Australian Art Orchestra
When the 19-piece Australian Art Orchestra performed Testimony in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide (2002-2003), Evans took the opportunity to rework some sections of the score: ‘For example, ‘Moose the Mooche’, is played by a small group on the ABC recording. I took the opportunity to arrange it for larger forces with the AAO, to harness that group’s phenomenal power and energy, and to explore a range of ideas I hoped would suit the AAO players, things like extended techniques and different instrumental combinations. I’m very grateful to Paul Grabowsky and the AAO for the chance of presenting the work, together with the incredible set design and direction of Nigel Jamieson and his team.’
An added dimension
Since Testimony was first recorded and performed, four of the musicians involved have died, giving the project’s launch now an added dimension: Jackie Orszaczky, vocal and piccolo bass; Joe Lane, vocals; Bernie McGann, alto; and, from the AAO’s live version, Gary Costello, bass.
According to Evans, ‘When I went to Wesleyan University in September for the launch of the book and CDs I was getting daily emails about Bernie’s health, sometimes saying he would pull through and sometimes more negative. This was a very emotional time for me, and it made playing Bernie’s sound to the extremely appreciative audience there particularly special.’
Evans gave a moving performance of McGann’s ‘Spirit Song’ at his funeral in October and is currently preparing to compose a musical tribute to him. ‘I haven’t decided how I will approach this yet. Of course it will be different to Testimony. I hope to find my own small way to honour Bernie’s extraordinary life and sound.’
Sandy Evans on the web www.sandyevans.com.au
Purchase Testimony on Amazon.com