Life & Times (of a Perfect Stranger)
for jazz/rock band — 1974
Fusion • Prog • Third Stream
This was written for the band I intended to call — and have now definitively called — Perfect Stranger, which you can read about in detail here (and it predates Billy Cobham’s album Life & Times by two years, so no, I didn’t nick it and it isn’t a deliberate tribute).
The work has four movements, of which the original band only got as far as rehearsing the first, Formative Years, 12 minutes long. I deliberately set out to follow textbook classical sonata form for this, but with a series of improvised solos where the development section would otherwise be. I had recently read about Bartók basing the proportions of his music on the golden section, so I took this to an extreme, and there are, with regard to time, 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 (or 3/4, or occasionally 5/4) 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 7¾/4 (you can see 3¾/4 in the snapshot of my scruffy pencil score above, before I reorganised the barring). 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 Jacobsen, to whose memory the first movement is retrospectively dedicated.
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 some idea of 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 of Formative Years you can read about and hear below (the only complete recorded performance by humans on this site).
The other three movements, which we never got round to working on seriously, are less tightly structured than the first, with more extended solos for the excellent musicians I had at my disposal — such a shame we never heard them … but that’s all changed! In fact I — and others — have now heard all the other three movements, along with some other pieces, played by humans, and it’s sounding amazing! (Of those other pieces, some were written for the original band and some are more recent arrangements. Oh, and there are a couple of tiny Zappa pieces too.) The titles of these movements are not necessarily final:
- The slow movement: Ankle Deep in Dust, a slow jazz waltz with interludes of craziness and solos for flugelhorn, piano and bass clarinet.
- The scherzo: Midlife Crisis, a hectic piece, much of it over an inversion of the main bass riff of Formative Years, but in 29/4 (9x3 + 2), with solos for alto sax, guitar, piano and trombone.
- The finale: “It’s weird being the same age as old people”, a fantasia which eventually harks back to that same main bass riff, a drum solo and a kind of hymn before leaving us where we came into the entire work. With solos for tenor sax, trumpet, trombone, piano, alto sax and guitar. I stole the title from a t-shirt... because for me this is absolutely true!
I made my own MIDI recording of all four movements for demo and learning purposes (but not for public consumption here) — half an hour of music altogether — along with a new score in Finale, from which you’re invited to download an extract here, though I’ve kept the snapshot above of my original pencil mess, which you also see in the YouTube video below. And no, I’ve no idea now what the coloured numbers mean! (And I’ve since added blue ones...)
- soprano & alto sax, flute [bass clarinet in other movements]: Chris Biscoe — now Adam Bishop
- soprano, tenor & baritone sax, flute: Mark Hutchings — now Mick Foster
- trumpet & flugelhorn: Dick Pearce — now Shanti Jayasinha
- trombone: Paul Nieman — now Tom Green
- vibraphone & percussion: Clifton Prior — now Rob Millett
- pianos: Pete Jacobsen — now Alcyona Mick
- guitars: Chris Sansom — now Eddy White
- bass guitar: Andy Crawford — now Paul Michael or Dave Manington
- drums: Paul Cartwright — now Jonas Golland
- now conductor: Chris Sansom
Performances / broadcasts / recordings
- 1974, a rehearsal studio in a railway arch somewhere in London: a crude recording of the first movement, Formative Years, using a borrowed Revox tape recorder and a stereo pair of microphones — and one of the musicians forced to stand too close to the mics (you know who you are). My friend Roger Jeffs and I then spent most of the night editing the many takes — over 50 edits in a 12-minute piece — and marvelling at how from one take to another, not only did the tempo and level change, but the acoustic, even though everyone, and the mics, stayed in the same spot! (Try the beginning of Dick Pearce’s flugelhorn solo at 5:19)
- ...and see the Gigs section on this page!
This is the identical recording twice, the choice being offered in case of technical hiccups on either of the ‘mother ships’. Note: these two players will run simultaneously, so unless you fancy a double dose (out of sync) of my ‘spiritual output’, I recommend that you take care to avoid this happening!
...with a sneak preview of the score
Or just in case YouTube isn’t co-operating today...