Mark Lockheart ‘Days on Earth’ – a Jazz In Reading / Bracknell Jazz presentation

Wilde Theatre, Bracknell, Friday 27 September

Mark Lockheart tenor saxophone, Alice Leggett alto, Laura Jurd trumpet & flugelhorn, Rowland Sutherland flute & piccolo, Sam Rapley clarinet & bass clarinet, Liam Noble piano, Mike Outram guitar, Tom Herbert bass, Sebastian Rochford drums, Jim Rattigan, Anna Drysdale French horns, Emma Smith, Phil Granell, Richard Jones violins, Sergio Serra cello

Finding a performance  outlet for any new music, albeit jazz or classical, is notoriously difficult; staging something of the scale and ambition of Mark Lockheart’s ‘Days on Earth’ comprising seven movements, a jazz ensemble,  plus a 30-piece orchestra, which first began to take shape in his imagination in 2016, must at times have seemed nigh on impossible. By December 2017, when Lockheart took ‘Days on Earth’ into Mark Knopfler’s British Grove Studio to be recorded in its entirety under the baton of John Ashton Thomas, the project was gaining in momentum. It reached fruition on 9 January 2019 with the launch of the album and a live performance at London’s Milton Court Concert Hall with the Guildhall Studio Orchestra. There remained just one more thing to complete the project … to take ‘Days on Earth’ on the road.

At this moment providence played its hand. Jazz in Reading and Bracknell Jazz had already decided to combine their resources to present a ‘magnum opus’ at the Wilde Theatre, Bracknell; something which would stand apart from the usual gigs they promoted in their respective towns. What better choice than ‘Days on Earth’! But these things are never straightforward.  Now faced with the daunting challenge of reducing the size of his orchestra to suit a smaller venue and a reduced budget, would Lockheart succeed in retaining the aural splendour and emotional impact of his original work? We would have to wait until the second half of the concert for that question to be answered.

Meanwhile, as a foretaste to ‘Days on Earth’, Lockheart presented five original numbers with his octet, opening with the intriguing ‘Surfacing’. The first ever performance of ‘Flourescences’ perfectly mirrored the subtle variations in colour and quality of light as it reflects on cut glass, the sharp edges of Liam Noble’s crystalline piano, Rowland Sutherland’s flute and Laura Jurd’s trumpet, contrasting beautifully with the dark shadows cast by Tom Herbert’s bass.

One was simply bowled over by the purity of the sound, especially from the lyrical alto of Alice Leggett, on  the John Zorn inspired ‘Dreamers’; another composition making its public debut.

Wraith-like, violinist Emma Smith and bass clarinetist Sam Rapley appeared on stage to augment the octet for ‘Beautiful Man’, inspired by Geoff Dyer’s book about jazz and jazz musicians, ‘But Beautiful’ and the first of two pieces dedicated to Duke Ellington. One could picture Duke and Harry Carney on a road-trip in the depths of the night travelling across America between gigs; Carney at the wheel and Duke lost in thought with a pencil and manuscript paper at hand. Emma Smith’s exquisite violin and the resonant tones of Rapley’s bass clarinet evoked Ellington at his most reflective.  ‘My Caravan’, eschewed the hell-for-leather fury of many arrangements  for a subtle and gentle re-working of this Juan Tizol classic, much more in keeping with the original recording by the pre-war Ellington orchestra. However, the juxtaposition of old and new interpretations made for a thrilling climax to the first set.

The long-awaited presentation of ‘Days on Earth’ in the second half did not disappoint. I was not alone in declaring that it was an absolute musical triumph, rich in colour, texture, emotional depth and the vitality of the human spirit. Surely, Mark Lockheart now warrants a place in the Pantheon of British jazz composers alongside great figures such as Sir John Dankworth,  Graham Collier, the Mikes’ Gibbs, Garrick and Westbrook, Kenny Wheeler and Stan Tracey. This remarkably open and free-flowing piece presented contemporary music at its very finest. It  held one’s attention so completely that the 60 minutes of its duration seemed to flash by in the blink of an eyelid.

Lockheart used the addition of clarinet, strings and French horns to generate even more power to the already formidable ensemble, and to weave an ever more intricate tapestry of beautifully blended sounds and rhythms to support individual solo voices, amongst which, Mark Lockheart’s own contributions on tenor sax were outstanding. It was a joyous, and often deeply moving, melting pot of different styles and influences with the metallic blues-soaked guitar of Mike Outram sitting comfortably with the formality of Sam Rapley’s clarinet and the wonderfully inventive rhythmic patterns laid down by Messrs. Noble, Herbert and Rochford. The sound of Laura Jurd’s trumpet briefly muted with her hand, was alone worth the price of the admission ticket.

Lockheart gave away few verbal clues as to what inspired him to write ‘Days on Earth’, but as the titles unfolded, seemingly to emerge spontaneously from one another, we began to form some idea of his motivation –  ‘A View from Above’, ‘Brave World’, ‘This Much is True’, ‘Party Animal’, ‘Believers’, ‘Triana’, and ‘Long Way Gone’. In other words, to borrow a sentence from Lockheart’s album sleeve notes, ‘Music is intrinsically linked to life, love, joy, frustration, acceptance and peace and all those feelings are here in this music for me.’

‘Long Way Gone’ stands out for me above all the other movements in ‘Days on Earth’. Born from the pages of Ishmail Beah’s harrowing account of his life as a child soldier in the civil war of Sierra Leone, its joyful optimism left one with the belief that even in the bleakest of moments there is a reason to find hope and to seek peace and reconciliation. Magnificent!

All praise to the technical team at the Wilde Theatre for the excellent quality of sound and lighting and to Jazz in Reading and Bracknell Jazz whose imaginative enterprise made possible this outstanding and unique performance of Mark Lockheart’s ‘Days on Earth’.

The album recording of ‘Days on Earth’ is available on Edition EDN 1120. For more information visit www.editionrecords.com