Friday, 21 July 2017

Iain Hamilton: Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and orchestra (1958)

One of my recent discoveries is the splendid Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and orchestra by the Scottish composer Iain Hamilton (1922-2000).
Fellow Scottish writer, Maurice Lindsay (1918-2009) has outlined some of the musical achievements made during 1958. He considered that is was ‘scarcely [a] significant [year] for new music…’ He then goes on to enumerate a couple of works that have gained considerable traction over the last 60 years. His list includes Michael Tippett’s opera King Priam (not performed until May 1962), Benjamin Britten’s dream-like Nocturne for tenor, seven obligato instruments and strings, Witold Lutolawski’s Funeral Music. Other works that made a first appearance were Luciano Berio’s ‘Differences’ for five instruments and tape, Ligeti’s Artikulation for tape and Thea Musgrave’s Obliques as well as the present work by Iain Hamilton. None of these appear to have maintained the listeners interest. The most significant event in British music was the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose long career ended on 26 August 1958. His powerful Symphony No. 9 in E minor was heard on 2 April 1958 some three months before the composer’s death.

Iain Hamilton’s usual musical style is usually deemed to be ‘progressive’, initially utilising serial techniques, before adapting to a more romantic style in his later career. On the other hand, Hamilton was no stranger to light music. In 1956, he had composed a delightful set of Scottish Dances, which included moments more suitable to smoke-filled New York jazz venues than the Highland ceilidh. Other lighter fare included the Overture: 1912 (1958) and the Overture: Bartholomew Fair (1952). The ‘Dances’ and the ‘1912’ have been issued on White Line CD. However, these have been deleted from the catalogues.

The Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and orchestra was commissioned by the BBC for the 1958 Festival of Light Music. The composer was clearly paying homage to the great jazz trumpeters of the of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. However, only one is acknowledged explicitly: Ray Robinson. This occurs when the soloist is required to use a ‘Robinson cup-mute’ in the second movement. This now obsolete mute was designed by Robinson and gives a unique sound.
The work is composed in four well-balanced movements, although the first and second are played without a break. The opening of the concerto begins with a ‘medium blues’ section, before segueing into an ‘allegro: quick bounce.’  The third movement is played ‘lento’ and features a delicious slow blues theme. The finale is a vibrant ‘allegro’ however, there is a short reprise of the blues music just before the coda.
The work was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall on 21 June 1958 the soloist was George Swift, who at that time was billed as Britain’s answer to Harry James, with the BBC Concerto Orchestra conducted by Vilem Tausky.

I was unable to locate a review of this 1958 concert in any of the main broadsheets or contemporary music journals. However, I did discover a relatively recent performance of the work give at Glasgow’s City Hall on Saturday 25 June 2011. The soloist was the Norwegian trumpet player Tine Thing Helseth and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was conducted by their associate guest conductor, Andrew Manze. 
Michael Tumelty reviewed this concert for the Glasgow Herald (27 June 2011). He considered that ‘clarity was not enough to deliver Iain Hamilton's Concerto with any conviction, despite the outstanding playing of Tine Thing Helseth.’ He believed that ‘it is simply neither a jazz nor a swing piece; moreover, it needs to be freed from the printed note and given to a jazz trumpeter to make it viable in any form.’ I disagree with this suggestion: the work is perfectly satisfactory as a concerto utilising the ‘swing’ and ‘blues’ style in this pastiche manner. There is no need to include improvisation as Hamilton’s instrumentation ably creates the desired effect. 

Kenneth Walton (The Scotsman 27 June 2011) dutifully reported that ‘[the concerto] by the late Scots composer Iain Hamilton …was surprisingly worlds away from the austere modernism we generally associate with his music.’ I accept his view that the ‘Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and Orchestra was clearly a bit of fun on his part, laced freely with big band harmonies and a solo line that Harry James would have died for.’ Yet, Hamilton did take his light music works seriously They are never patronising. Walton concluded: ‘Helseth played it subtly (a little underplayed at times) and with an aptly free and easy swing.’

In 2006, trumpet player John Wallace with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Wright issued a recording of Hamilton’s Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and orchestra on White Line CD (WHL2159).  Other works on this CD include John Carmichael’s (b.1930) Trumpet Concerto (1972), Rutland Boughton’s (1878-1960) Trumpet Concerto (1943) and Tony Hewitt-Jones’s (1926-88) Concerto for trumpet and strings (1986).

Reviews of this impressive CD were full of praise. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (The Gramophone, September 2006), considered that the CD presented ‘real performances - not without blemish, but positive, fun, carefree and bright-eyed.’ Like virtually every other reviewer, including myself, Attwood feels that ‘Iain Hamilton's Concerto for Jazz Trumpet is …the pick of the crop where Wallace and the resourceful BBC Scottish SO switch effortlessly into the groove of late 1950s blues.’
Jonathan Woolf (MusicWeb International, 6 March 2006) in an extensive review of the work initially wondered why the work was called a Concerto for Jazz Trumpet; ‘What’s that?’ he mischievously asks: -
‘Is it shaped like Dizzy Gillespie’s? Well, I think we know what he means. There are four brief movements. In the first we get some blowsy Harry James vibrato getting down with ‘Stormy Weather’, a tune that runs like a spine throughout, and this is followed by an allegro with big band drumming, hints of Ziggy Elman, and chances for the soloist to stick in a [Robinson] mute to add colour and different timbres to the brew. The slow movement has a fine string cushion and legato trumpet, stretching out, but also undercurrents of unease. The finale gives us some show band, tempo halving, back beat and a reprise of Stormy Weather (some kind of ‘in’ joke for the hard-working soloist, one wonders?).’

Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, 06 January 2006) finds the Hamilton comes as ‘a ragingly strange gear-change from fifties [style] light suave (Carmichael’s Trumpet Concerto) straight into four movements of jazzy scorch, smooch and swoon. John Wallace and the orchestra do the honours in the Iain Hamilton concerto with breath-taking abandon. This is [the] renowned controversialist Hamilton slumming it with death-defying style. There is not a hint of the 1960s and 1970s Manchester School…Here however Hamilton carries off the act without an arched eyebrow or a wink. He plays it serious and for me the piece works resoundingly well. He vies with Gershwin and Bernstein in evocation of hot summers and the jitteriest of jitter-bugs.’

Finally, Paul Snook reviewing the CD in Fanfare (July 2006) insisted that, for him ‘…the highlight of this program is Iain Hamilton's rambunctiously sleazy concerto for jazz trumpet…’ and ‘thus may very well be the most distinctive and likable ‘pop’ concerto of its kind in the trumpet repertoire.’ 
I have not heard a better example of a ‘pop’ concerto. It is unbelievable that it is not regularly heard on Classic FM and in the concert hall.

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