The conversation on the Amazon classical music threads somehow turned to Francis Bacon and thence, via Three Screaming Popes, to Mark Anthony Turnage. The only Turnage I had heard before was his opera, Greek, rather a long while ago, and all I remember of it is some dodgy East-End accents. Nonetheless, I checked what Turnage was available through Amazon, and came up with this being offered rather cheaply. A collaboration with jazz guitarist, John Scofield. I am a fan of jazz guitar, but not particularly of John Scofield. I remember admiring what he did when he first showed up with Miles Davis. However, having tried his collaboration with Pat Metheny, I came to the conclusion that, though he was obviously very talented and had a highly original approach, somehow his style of quirkily angular funk was too much to take for a whole album. So, all in all, feeling as I did about both parties, I have no idea what possessed me to actually order this, but I'm glad I did because it's fantastic. It's grown on me over the course of several months, and lately I can't get enough of it.
I could try and give a blow by blow account of how the album unfolds, but there is just so much that I won't. Suffice to say that we get a very detailed spectrum of music here, from rigorous and highly absorbing contemporary orchestral flavours, across the divide to jazz of numerous styles and idioms, smooth, funky, big, band. It's an album of well balanced halves. Scofield features for about half the album. Jazz features for about half the album. Some of the jazz is big band in styles reminiscent of the British avant-garde like Neil Ardley or Mike Westbrook. All the jazz is lifted out of the ordinary by the underlay of highly original orchestral sonorities. The more overtly contemporary orchestral parts hark back to Britten and Tippett in their more accessible guises, being neither particularly challenging nor overtly experimental. There remains throughout a complete absence of cliché and a breezily confident tightrope walk of impeccable good taste. Some of the most interesting and skilful music is to be heard in the handling of the transitions between these various idioms. Scofield's contribution is imbued with a formidable intelligence. Much of what he plays is composed music, while his improvisations are concise and unerringly tasteful, with a highly lyrical approach that seldom lets his fingers get too blurry. One area of his talent I have come to appreciate through the album is his tremendous facility with chord fragments, which shows a deep and innovative harmonic grasp.
So, this is a really difficult album to sum up, which is actually a measure of just how successful a collaboration it is. It has jazz elements, and it will certainly appeal to aficionados of modern big band jazz and jazz guitar. But at the end of the day however, it is not a jazz album. It is, all in all, a brave and admirably intelligent classically oriented melting pot that sign-posts the way to a genuinely new and vital musical high ground. Lately I have found myself sufficiently taken with it as to take the plunge and order another disc of Turnage's orchestral music. If I enjoy it even half as much as I'm enjoying this one then my pennies will have been well spent indeed.