Jacky Naylor grew up in Skipton, North Yorkshire, studied piano, and won a scholarship to study at Birmingham Conservatoire’s jazz course, from which he graduated with first class honours. While at the Conservatoire he developed his interest in composition and in writing for a large ensemble. His suite Rough Boundaries is the result. It has been recorded by Birmingham Jazz Orchestra and the album is launched later this month on the stage of Symphony Hall.
Q How did you team up with the Birmingham Jazz Orchestra?
A I remember depping in a rehearsal for Sean Gibbs’ Burns project, and I was amazed by the quality of his music, and the sound of the band. He was in the year above me at the Conservatoire, and his album and project were a real inspiration to me.
I thought of the idea of the suite first, and asked Sean about using Birmingham Jazz Orchestra later (I think this was at The Spotted Dog big band day in 2015!). He agreed, and it went from there really. Throughout the entire project, Sean has been incredibly helpful, answering any questions I’ve had and helping with any problems I’ve encountered.
Q And how did your Rough Boundaries suite come about?
A From a young age I have loved playing in big bands, and when the third year big band arranging and composition module came about at the Conservatoire I was excited to learn more about it. In that year, I wrote an arrangement of Rhythm-a-ning which won the Big Band Composing and Arranging prize at the Conservatoire, and this gave me some real confidence in terms of pursuing large ensemble composition. As a pianist, I’m obsessed with chords and the different ways you can “describe” sounds, and a big band is effectively a big piano with a lot more power!
During your fourth year at the Conservatoire, you take on a “major project”, which is designed to push you out of your comfort zone. There is an amazing culture surrounding the major project in the jazz department. Everyone takes on mammoth projects, and tries to match the phenomenal projects that have happened in years previous.
A big band has so many possibilities, and I would have really struggled to just write a piece for a band. That sounds like a cliché but I think it is valid. We assume a composer is a total nomad who is carving their own creative path, when really I think it is a little less glamorous than this. I like to think of myself as a describer instead. It is far easier to describe than invent. Therefore, my idea of basing the album on different places was born. I wanted a real resource which would also act as a “limiting factor” if that makes sense. You ultimately have to be truthful to the place you have visited.
For example, when I visited Bilbao, there was a clear divide in the city – an older, less affluent town, with narrow, cobbled, disorientating streets, and a wealthy new town with wide open boulevards and the Guggenheim museum. Instantly, the piece has some form of structure. There has to be two different sections to sum up the city, and within each section I described each town. The old town has three melodies happening between sections, all within close proximity to each other and quite dissonant, a description of the narrow cobbled streets. In comparison, the new town is almost an accompaniment to a bass and left hand piano figure, with the brass soaring above. The range of that part is far wider – just like the wide boulevards of new town Bilbao. It sounds clichéd, but there is a genuine meaning behind every part of every piece. If you want to know the others, come to the gig!
Q Have you always favoured the large canvas for your compositions?
A My composing background is not very substantial at all. I became interested in it during the A-Level music course, when I composed a big band piece using the “rules” of sonata form, which hopefully won’t surface anytime soon! When I came to the Conservatoire in 2012, the main focus was my own playing, and the course very much addresses this in detail in the first two years. In the senior years, you become a band leader which gives you complete freedom in terms of personnel and material to play. Naturally people tend to compose more in these years.
I guess my real passion for composition emerged from the music Hans Koller and other tutors at the Conservatoire introduced me to. Bob Brookmeyer’s Standards album, or anything from that school, if you will, and also Vince Mendoza, in particular his Metropole projects. The writing on this is so inspiring and creative that I couldn’t stop listening to it. This was the real source of inspiration.
I’m delighted with the end product of the suite itself; it really stretched and challenged me. From May 2015 through to Christmas I spent a lot of time analysing scores of pieces that really interested me, and transcribing “the goodies” (as Hans would say) from other charts. This really helped, there really is no other substitute for working things out yourself, as your own learning process is completely individual. After doing this, the writing in general seemed to flow quite comfortably. But I can still tell you the parts that took days and weeks to become what I wanted.
Q What pleases you most about the BJO performance of your suite?
A What really pleases me about BJO is that it seems unique as a band. Whilst with most ensembles or writing, the focus is on blending as a section and the overall sound. And whilst I grant you having this is vital, the improvising talents and voices are equally important. I confirmed the personnel for the project before I had written any of the music, as this again was like a “limiting factor” and it gave me real inspiration. The suite is written entirely for that set of musicians, even down to the parts. I think of Tom Syson’s trumpet solo at the start of Reykjavik – all I wrote on the parts was “A Storm”, and left him and his bag of tricks to it. Or someone like Ben Lee who is such a brilliant improviser – I tried to give him the chords to as much of the music as possible, so that if he heard something that he deemed appropriate to add to the music, then be my guest.
The musicians brought the music to life and it became so much more than I had imagined. Their own musical personalities are so strong and blend together so well.
I have gained equal pleasure from the professionalism and friendliness of the whole band. All members are either final year students at Birmingham Conservatoire or self-employed jazz musicians. They were willing to give up their time for a project that they originally knew nothing about. They all came to three three-hour rehearsals and the two-day recording session with such a positive attitude. I was very lucky to have strong leaders in the band: Richard Foote, Jonathan Silk and John Fleming, who helped get information out of me that the band needed and I hadn’t explained. Those guys have been there before and got several T-shirts so their input was invaluable.
Q What next for you and your music?
A I have truly loved this project and I have learnt a lot about music and what I’d like to explore next. For now I am taking some time out of writing and reinstating a practice routine. The next thing I want to pursue is a quintet with two horns, where I can write music specifically for the musicians that I have – it would be more realistic to tour a band like that, and I could push it after learning all the lessons I have from this album/project.
Further down the line, I would like to do another large ensemble project, maybe something similar to The Metropole, or involving a choir, but for the time-being a need a break from pestering large groups of musicians, begging for their time, as it is doing my conscience no good at all!
- Jacky Naylor’s Rough Boundaries, played by Birmingham Jazz Orchestra conducted by the composer, is already available via Bandcamp – go to Jacky’s website HERE.
- The album is launched on the Symphony Hall stage in Birmingham on Wednesday 21 September at 8pm. For more details and to book for this Jazzlines concert, go HERE.