snapshot of score of Formative Years

Formative Years

for jazz/rock band — 1974

After leaving university I wanted to explore the idea of composing based on ‘classical’ (awful word!) principles but using the musical vocabulary and sounds of jazz and rock music. I therefore set about forming a band. The details of how I found some of the musicians are lost in the mists of time, but some came from the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, others through word of mouth and I met the bass (and flute) player, Andy Crawford, in the queue for a Frank Zappa concert. After one or two changes of personnel, I ended up with a fine group of players, nine including myself (on not so fine guitar), which I intended to call Perfect Stranger.

Some of these musicians went on to become highly respected players on the London jazz circuit, most notably Chris Biscoe (saxes), Dick Pearce (trumpet and flugelhorn), Paul Nieman (trombone) and the late Pete Jacobsen (electric piano), a truly extraordinary musician, about whom I’ve written my own reminiscence. The percussionist, Clifton Prior, has flourished in the classical percussion world in Wales, and the aforementioned Andy Crawford has returned musically to his first love, the baroque flute, as well as become a leading maker of decorative boxes. Another established jazz musician who was in the band initially was the drummer Dave Barry (who put me onto Pete), but after a while he decided it wasn’t for him and was replaced by Paul Cartwright. I have been unable to trace Paul or Mark Hutchings (saxes), so if you know either of them and can put me in touch I would be grateful.

I wrote a four movement work for this band, called Life & Times (of a Perfect Stranger), but we only got as far as rehearsing the 12-minute first movement, Formative Years. I deliberately set out to follow textbook classical sonata form, but with a series of improvised solos where the development section would otherwise be. I had recently read about Bartók using the golden section to work out the proportions of his music, so I took this to an extreme, and there are golden sections within golden sections within golden sections. At the same time I tried not to make all this glaringly apparent and produce what I hoped was an exciting piece of music. It was also an extremely complex piece of music, especially for jazzers who are used to playing in 4/4 throughout, with repeated choruses consisting of 8-bar phrases. Not only did my piece have no such repetition, being through-composed, it also had frequently changing time signatures (every bar in large chunks of it), including 3¾/4 (you can see this in the snapshot of my scruffy pencil score above). As a result, the players’ eyes came out on stalks the first time they saw their parts, but we did manage to pull something together in the end. Despite (or possibly because of) being blind, the one who learned it all by far the fastest was Pete.

Sadly, it all proved too impractical to continue. No-one was being paid for any of this, and it was unreasonable to expect jobbing musicians to turn up to a rehearsal if there was paid work elsewhere. As far as I recall, we only had all nine members together on four occasions, but we did enough work in smaller groups for the band members to get their heads round the music. Eventually, I decided to call it a day, but we managed to get everyone together for one last rehearsal, where we made the recording you can read about and hear below.

Stop press: Chris Biscoe, being an inveterate archivist, has brought to my attention that apart from Life and Times I composed and arranged a bunch of other pieces for this band — all of which I’d completely forgotten about, but Chris still has the parts I wrote out for him! At a guess, there’s at least enough material for an album.

Please note: the score extract you’re invited to download below is very large (22.2 MB). This is because the only score I have is my tatty old pencil job (now rather fragile), which I had to scan page by page, so the PDF consists entirely of very large graphics. And no, I’ve no idea now what all those coloured numbers mean!

Score extract (PDF)


Performances / broadcasts / recordings

Listen (12:13)