Picture the scene: Gustav Holst has collaborated with Duke Ellington and the resulting composition is being performed by a 16-piece orchestra underneath a seven-metre wide model of the Moon, with the audience walking around them. Too tough for you to imagine? Us too!
So we let Peter Long explain…
Peter Long is the musical director of the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra and leader of The Echoes of Ellington Orchestra. For the last thirty years he has been researching and re-creating the music of Duke Ellington. But why did he rescore what is probably one of the best-known and best-loved classical suites of music?
“While driving in the car last year, “Venus” from the Planets Suite by Holst came on the radio. It suddenly struck me how Ellingtonian the curves of the melody were, and how Holst’s warped, flowing harmonic symmetry was so redolent of that of Ellington’s composing partner, Billy Strayhorn. It was a long car journey, and by the time I’d reached my destination, the broad idea of re-orchestrating the whole suite for an Ellington-style orchestra had coalesced.”
An unusual quest surely? “Actually, Ellington playing the classics is not without precedent. In 1960, he had success with his recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Peer Gynt by Greig, so I had a template.”
“I didn’t realise when I embarked on the project that it would coincide with the centenary of the original Planet Suite performance in 1918. It’s got to be a sign! From the planets, in fact!”
“The first stage of the operation was to go through the score with the recording to fix how Holst’s melodies were going to receive a jazz treatment. In the classical setting, embellishment is in the orchestration. In the jazz orchestra, this work is often done by the improvisations of the musicians.”
“The next task was to produce a song copy style leadsheet with the themes contracted or expanded to fit the template. This is the process Billy Strayhorn used in many parts of the Nutcracker. I quickly learned that Holst was speaking the same harmonic language as the cutting edge jazz artists of the mid-1960s, but in 1918!”
“The next phase was to take these leadsheets out onto small band jazz gigs and play them as if they were ordinary jazz standards. This enabled me to see how these tunes sat in a jazz context and make adjustments as necessary. Secondly, I was able to gauge public reaction and, after eight months’ work, I was delighted that the reception was universally warm and enthusiastic.”
“The last stage was to produce the Ellingtonian arrangements. As well as incorporating many of his compositional devices, I re-cycled some pre-existing material. Therefore, Duke Ellington’s planets begins with the title track from his 1958 album ‘Blues In Orbit’, as orbit seems a perfectly logical place from which to start a journey around the solar system.”
Why is it "Duke Ellington's planets" and not just generic "jazz planets"? “A fair question. Both composers use a very high degree of sophisticated harmony and rhythm, which is infused with humanity. It's this, and the extra magic ingredient of 'genius' that hooks the listener in. The Planets has been a massive public favourite since its first performance in 1918. Ellington has a history of taking classical music and having it adapted to his orchestra, so he is well equipped to stand at the junction between the two worlds of Classical and Jazz.”
The Echoes Of Ellington Orchestra was first formed in 1994 to celebrate the Duke’s music and bring it to a modern audience by live performance. Today, the orchestra is in its finest incarnation yet, with highly specialised virtuoso players. Pete explains, “the musicians have been selected on the basis that they are the most capable artists in the field of re-creating the sounds of their corresponding player in the original Ellington orchestra.”
Peter is happy to take away the elitism and snobbery that can surround both genres of music. Instead he declares that “this has been great fun. It has revealed an enormous amount about both Ellington and Holst, and I hope that the result is exciting, illuminating and humorous in equal parts. It seems to me that people are always amused hearing these famous classical melodies in fancy dress, as it were.”
Their concert will take place in The Apex, with the band performing underneath a stunning art installation 'Museum of the Moon'. Measuring 7m in diameter, Luke Jerram’s Moon uses detailed NASA imagery of the lunar surface to make each centimetre of the internally-lit sculpture represent 5km of the moon’s surface.
Part of the Suffolk Science Festival, the Moon will be hanging in The Apex auditorium from 19th to 23rd February, giving visitors an up-close, surreal experience, with its nearness heightening the feeling of gazing at a full moon.
Pete has celebrated this unique concert setting by penning a new movement, Luna. “Although not in the original suite, and not, in fact, a planet anyway, Luna has been written to reflect the majesty of the installation. It also enables us to use the wonderful voice of soprano Milly Forrest, who features in the climax of the whole show.”
“As an extra facet of this performance only, the orchestra will be sat in an inward facing widely spaced circle under the perimeter of the moon. The audience is invited to walk amongst the musicians during the concert, to experience a unique opportunity to vary the spatial blends of the instrumentation. There will be short intervals in between the movements, where conversation with the individual musicians is invited. You can ask them anything!”
Pete Long and the Echoes of Ellington Orchestra perform Jazz Planets at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds on Tuesday 19 February. Ring the box office on 01284 758000 or see www.theapex.co.uk for more information.