Out of the Woods (nearly)

The final recording sessions for ‘Into the Woods’ took place this week, with Milo Fell and Richard Horne adding the last bits of percussion to the tracks and Imogen Ryall contributing to the vocal mix on three tunes and adding a splendid shaker to ‘Sea and Sky’.

Mike Saunders and I edited a brass ‘comprovisation’ by Raul D’Oliveira, Martijn Van Galen, Mike Hext, Ellen Campbell and Peter Thompson to create a new piece called ‘Out of the Blue’. We also did some editing and mixing at the end of each day, but the real business of mixing and mastering the album as a whole is our next job.

As with all projects, it’s good to see the end in sight, but a little sad to think that the journey is over.

Mike Guest has finished work on a third video, and this track, a compositional collaboration between Mark Edwards and myself, will be released soon on Trees’s YouTube channel. The piece is called ‘S/Pulse’.

Voices in the woods

Another wonderful couple of days at The Playroom, recording piano, voices and brass on ‘Sea and Sky’ and ‘The Cedars’, and comprovising a new brass piece while doing so.

On Wednesday 21st and Thursday 22nd August, I was joined by vocalists Rachel Myer, Annie Lightly and Debby Tyndall, trombonists Mike Hext, Ellen Campbell and Peter Thompson, flugelhornists Raul D’Oliveira and Steve Lawless, trumpeter Martijn van Galen and pianist Tom Phelan in the studio to work on what I thought were the two remaining pieces to be included on the new album.

In addition to singing and playing the written parts beautifully, these wonderful musicians also added many great improvisations to the tracks, including the comprovisation of a new piece.

Our next session will be in a couple of weeks.

A Copse of Clarinets

Our first session at The Playroom for a few weeks saw the recording of the woodwind parts on two new tunes, Sea and Sky (a minimalist piece in 5/4) and The Cedars (a slow 4/4 ballad with a 12/8 middle section).

We began with a quartet consisting of Andy Pickett, Beccy Rork and Julian Nicholas on tenor saxophones and Linda Atkinson on Bass Clarinet, followed by a saxophone quartet of two altos, played by Linda and Jo Luckman, with Beccy and Julian on sopranos. Next we recorded four flutes, played by Lucy Pickering, Jo, Andy and Linda. After that came more clarinets, with Linda and Beccy on Bb, Julian on Eb alto and Andy on bass.

While writing and arranging this material I knew that I wanted these new recordings to feature more clarinets, and the talents of the members of the group who double on the instruments, so I wrote parts for two Bb instruments, an Eb alto clarinet and two bass clarinets on each tune. During the session recorded a few months ago, various clarinet parts were played by Beccy, Linda, Julian and Andy, and by Kate Hogg, Charlotte Glasson and Phil Paton, so that the music has a lovely, dark woody sound.

During yesterday’s session, Andy Pickett suggested recording a free improvisation by the four clarinettists present, and we ended the session by doing just that. The result was lovely, and this new piece will be the album’s title track, ‘Into The Woods’.

Supreme Love in the Playroom

My last trip to The Playroom was on 24th June to add basses to The Cedars and Sea and Sky, the final tracks intended for inclusion on the new album. These now have real piano, drums and basses, and it was a lot of fun recording my parts along with the inspirational playing of Tom Phelan and Dave Cottrell, who have added so much to the sound of this record. While at The Playroom, Mike Saunders and I spun in some African percussion from my old friend Simon Webster, who had recorded the parts at his studio in Morocco and sent us the files.

After 24th June, my attention then turned to the band's appearance (in its Bonsai version) at Love Supreme Festival on Sunday 7th July. This was Trees' third time at the festival, and we had a lovely time as usual. It was at the first Love Supreme Festival in 2013 that I performed early versions of 'El Pueblo Unido' and 'The Holy Well' with a proto version of Trees. The line up included drummer Dave Trigwell, pianist Joss Peach, trombonist Tarik Mecci, trumpeter Chris Coull and saxophonists Simon d'Souza, Paul Greenwood and Josie Peach. My idea was to create a 'composers' collective': a loose affiliation of players who also wrote music who would come together occasionally to workshop ideas and perform when the opportunity arose. The eventual result was Trees.

With my attention returned to the album, I am currently preparing the parts for the next recording sessions, which will be in August, and will add woodwind, voices and brass to the new tunes.

Drumming up Support

Dave Cottrell was in the studio early to record a track, so we got him to play on Sea and Sky and The Cedars (with wonderful results!). Photos courtesy of Mike Guest.


Mixing it up

The last couple of sessions at The Playroom have focused on balancing and mixing Dakar and No Wind. Mike Guest has created videos of the recording of both pieces, and the next part of the process is to match the final mixes to these.

Mike Saunders and I also worked on Muito Obrigado, and were joined by Tom Phelan to work on a new piece called Sea and Sky, which will complete the album. Tom played piano on the tune and created a new section based on my ostinato string arrangement.

The next session will be to record drums on the new piece, and continue balancing and mixing the other tracks.

Double Double Reed

The latest stage in the completion of Into the Woods was the recording of the Oboe and Cor Anglais of my old friend, Tony Freer. Tony and I have known each other since he became a member of The Enid in 1978, and we recorded three albums together before I left the band in May 1979. 

Tony played on Heart of Oak, and I wanted him to be a part of the new album. He is a wonderful player and creates a special sound. He recorded the written parts to six tunes in about four hours, with many first takes, all of them sight reading the music. I even persuaded him to improvise a little during the session. 

As usual, Mike Guest was there to film the session, and I hope to be able to share a few clips soon. 

The Wind in the Willows

Last week, on 9th and 11th April, we recorded the remaining brass and flutes on the current project. Many thanks to Martijn Van Galen, Gabriel Garrick, Martin Bradley, Steve Lawless, Ellen Campbell, Jon Harwood, Anne Whiteside, Jo Luckman, Kate Hogg and Andy Pickett. There is not much left to record. We have Tony Freer coming down to add Oboe and Cor Anglais on 24th April and I'll be sharing the tracks with Mark Edwards and Enrico Pinna to add whatever they fancy. More soon.

Oh Lucky Man!

The recording of 'Into The Woods' is nearing completion, and I'm surrounded by sheets of music: I'm busy creating, checking, amending and printing parts for two upcoming sessions at The Playroom. 

On Tuesday 9th April, we will be recording the flutes of Anne Whiteside, Kate Hogg, Jo Luckman, Martin Passauer and Andy Pickett on two tunes: Muito Obrigado and S/Pulse. We will also record the trumpets and flugelhorns of Martijn Van Galen, Gabriel Garrick, Martin Bradley and Steve Lawless on S/Pulse. On Thursday 11th, we are going to record the trombones of Ellen Campbell, the French Horn of Jonathan Harwood and Steve Lawless on Tenor Horn! We might also be treated to the sounds of Gabriel Garrick on Bb Serpent and Mike Saunders on Eb Helicon!

There is still some editing to do on some of the tracks, but most of the music has been recorded now, and everything sounds great, with wonderful ensemble playing and marvellous improvising on all the new tunes. I'm looking forward to next week, and to hearing the tracks with the missing brass and woodwind.

I sometimes fret about the precarious nature of my life as a musician, but I love the variety. Last week, I spent a few days in the Orchestra pit in Leatherhead with Andy Bassett, Duncan Lamont Jr. and eight more fine musicians performing Legally Blonde. On Sunday evening, I was with Andy Panayi at The Dolphin in Eastbourne. Tonight (Friday 5th April), I’m at Chichester Jazz Club with Christian and Gabriel Garrick, and on Sunday I’m playing with Liane Carroll at the White Rock Theatre in Hastings as part of Beatles Day, an annual fundraiser for MacMillan Cancer. 

Next week, it’s back to Trees, with a rehearsal on Monday and sessions on Tuesday and Thursday. I think I’m very lucky.

Percussion Discussion

The latest addition to ‘Into the Woods’ featured Richard Horne on tympani and mallet percussion. We spent a happy day at The Playroom with Richard taking up both the live room and the control room with instruments. The tympani had to go in the control room because they are too wide to go through the door to the live room (which was jammed full of other percussion instruments in any case).

Richard is a wonderful player and a great reader, so I was pleased that he found the music challenging, though I might streamline my mallet parts a little in future!

I’m looking forward to editing the new percussion and fitting it all into the overall sound on Monday 1st April.

Trees on Safari

I spent an enjoyable two hours today (Friday 15th March) in the company of Sam Carelse and Alex Bondonno, firstly at The Verdict in Kemp Town, Brighton and then at Sam's flat in Queen's Park, Brighton, recording an interview for their Jazz Safari podcast. It was interesting for me to reflect on how Trees began, at The Verdict, on 15th April 2015, with just two arrangements (Scarborough Fair and The Holy Well), and how far the group has come in the last four years. We talked about Trees first album, Heart of Oak, and how we are progressing on our second album, Into the Woods, and I gave Sam and Alex a bounce of a new tune, Muito Obrigado, to play. The track is not complete, but it gives an idea of the sound of the new record.

I'll be back in the studio next Wednesday (20th March) to record the orchestral percussion for Into the Woods.

Voices in the Woods

Another lovely day in the recording studio with friends. Mike Saunders and I started the day reviewing and editing the percussion session we recorded last week with Milo Fell. We were joined by fellow Trees, Greg Maddocks and Mike Guest; the former to listen and help with the editing, and the latter to film the afternoon sessions.

At about 1pm, we were joined by vocalists Annie Lightly, Debby Tyndall, Lucy Pickering and Rachel Myer, who recorded all five numbers in about 3 hours.

The last part of the day was dedicated to Kate Hogg, who added wonderful improvisations on flute and bansuri to Greg’s tune, ‘No Wind’, and on alto saxophone to my piece, ‘Palimpsest’. Another really productive day.

Our next session will be to record orchestral percussion, and I have asked virtual Trees, Enrico Pinna, Tony Freer and Mark Edwards to add, respectively, guitars, oboe and cor Anglais and keyboards, accordion and hamster choir.

A new friend at Berklee

A few days ago, I was minding my own business, working on an arrangement, when I received a message from my friend and great supporter of Trees, Howard Jackson. Howard had introduced the First Trees album ‘Heart of Oak’ to his friend Daniel Smith, a very fine reeds player and Professor of Music at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Howard wanted to share Daniel’s reaction with me. Here it is:

“Howard!!!! This is brilliant! I can’t begin to thank you enough for sharing this with me. You just made my day. Really beautiful sounds. What impresses me the most is not just how beautiful the music is and the size of the ensemble, but how much everyone is enjoying themselves. And there is much joy in the music they play as well.”

I have since been in touch with Daniel and sent him a copy of Heart of Oak. We have also discussed the possibility of his coming to England to play together.

Woods and Woodwind

We were back in the studio for the woodwind sessions on 8th and 15th February.

The players were Andy Pickett (tenor sax and bass clarinet), Anne Whiteside (flute), Beccy Perez-Rork (soprano sax and clarinet), Charlotte Glasson (tenor sax, flute and bass clarinet), Greg Maddocks (flute and alto flute), Jo Luckman (alto sax and flute), Julian Nicholas (tenor sax, baritone sax and alto clarinet), Kate Hogg (alto sax, flute and clarinet), Linda Atkinson (alto sax, clarinet and bass clarinet), Phil Paton (baritone sax, clarinet and bass clarinet) and Philippe Guyard (soprano and tenor saxes).

The results are marvellous, with beautiful ensemble playing and wonderful improvisations. Mike and I spent a few hours yesterday (Wednesday 27th February) editing the tracks and preparing for the next recording session, which will feature Milo Fell on percussion.


Back into the Woods

We had a long break over Christmas, resuming recording with two days of drums at The Playroom on 14th and 15th January. Dave Cottrell played beautifully on the five tracks, transforming the sequenced drum tracks with his wonderful, creative playing.

DC was my first choice to play drums with Trees, and had been at the first couple of rehearsals back in 2015, but has been in constant demand since then. We met before Christmas, and he expressed his wish to play on this set of tunes. He had two free days between tours, so I booked the studio.
His playing on the tracks was transformative. His time, feel, energy and sound have brought the music even more to life. On 23rd January, I spent half a day replacing the programmed bass parts with my fretted and fretless Ibanez electrics, and my Paul Bryant acoustics, both pizzicato and arco, which meant that the rhythm section was entirely live at last.

Mike Saunders and I spent the rest of the day editing and preparing the tracks for the woodwind sessions on 8th and 15th February.

Yesterday (23rd January), I spent a day recording bass parts: electric on ‘Dakar’ and acoustic on the other four tracks. It was a long day: 10:00 till 18:00, and I was really tired at the end, but it was a very productive day.

The tracks now have human basses, drums, keyboards and brass. We have two sessions booked to record reeds and flutes, and then it will be percussion, guitars and voices.


A Winter Wonderland in the Woods

On 20th November 2018, Mike Saunders, Mike Guest and I spent a day recording brass on four of the five tunes destined to become Into The Woods.

On trumpets and flugelhorns, we had Chris Coull, Gabriel Garrick, Jack Kendon and Steve Lawless. On trombones, Charlie Keen, Paul Nieman and Tarik Mecci. The results were wonderful, with beautiful ensemble playing and some lovely collective improvisation from all the musicians.

Reflections on the story so far....

I'm listening to the tracks as they sound after five sessions at Playroom Studio. Most of the work so far has centred around preparing the template tracks and adding Tom Phelan's keyboards. The results are really positive, with Tom adding so much to the arrangements, including both great solos and a lot of new music improvised from the existing material.

A few months ago, I organised an exploratory gig at The Verdict in Brighton whose purpose was to 'comprovise' new music from key themes and fragments from the Trees repertoire. The players on this gig were Trees regulars Milo Fell on drums and percussion, Tom Phelan on piano, Paul Nieman on trombone, Beccy Rork on saxophones and myself on bass. The music that came out of this 'Roots and Branches' session encouraged me to integrate this approach into this round of recording sessions, with the inclusion of open sections in each piece allowing for such 'comprovisation'. Tom is a master at this, and has added wonderful new sections to each piece.

Rather than recording the whole group live in a large space, then editing and repairing the results, and overdubbing new material as we did for Heart of Oak, I decided that this project should be a studio recording, done in the way in which I worked on studio albums with The Enid years ago, and as I recorded 'Palimpsest' ten years ago. The Cloggz album 'Sawdust and Spangles' was also created this way, with rhythm tracks recorded first and the other parts overdubbed. The process is equally creative, albeit in a different way, with the arrangements gaining a degree of flexibility and malleability that recording the whole group together, as we did with Heart of Oak, does not allow in quite the same way.   

Further into the Woods

It has been nearly two years since Trees recorded the second live session for the album Heart of Oak at Hawthbush Farm. In that time, I have written a lot of new music, some of which has been rehearsed and/or performed at gigs, but has not yet been recorded. New music has also been written by Paul Nieman and Greg Maddocks. 

Among these new pieces are 'Dakar', ' No Wind', 'Muito Obrigado' and 'S/Pulse/S'. I have also reworked an older piece called 'Palimpsest', which was the title track of an album I recorded in 2009 with Mark Edwards, Enzo Zirilli, Bobby Wellins, James McMillan and other friends.

'Dakar' is a tune inspired by music I heard during a trip to Senegal a few years ago. This is a very simple piece in terms of its harmony and remains in one key throughout. It is a heavy 12/8 groove, driven by a number of interlocking riffs in the bass, guitar, keys and horns, with a 'call and answer' motif as its melodic content. It has a long open section at its heart in which the musicians are free to explore possibilities based on the groove and other rhythmic, melodic and harmonic content.

'No Wind' is a piece written by Greg Maddocks, arranged by Greg and myself and orchestrated by me. It's based on a quirky drum pattern in 3/4 (6/8?) that came to Greg as he was sitting on the beach waiting for enough wind to go windsurfing. The pice changes key a number of times, starting in D minor, it changes to Eb in the middle for another long open improvised section and goes through D major, F major and E major during its second half.

'Muito Obrigado' is based on a 5/4 bass riff using the sound of E Phrygian (the 3rd mode of the C major scale) and was inspired by the music of Letieres Leite and his wonderful Orchestra Rumpilezza from Bahia in Northern Brasil. The bass riff is played in unison by the fretless electric bass and the bass trombone, and these are joined at times by the tuba, the other trombones, the acoustic bass, the baritone saxophone, the bass clarinet and the left hand of the piano. The first melody is a very simple counterpoint to the bass line, but uses the sound of F major instead of C major, creating some harmonic tension. 

The second section begins with a fairly rapid exchange between by the woodwind sections, piano and mallet percussion before the opening theme is recapitulated in the brass, and the bass riff returns, leading the band to the first improvised section. This is open again for the percussionists (and others) to explore the material freely. The third section is a contrapuntal exchange between the reeds and strings, and then the whole band, leading to another open section for improvisation, which is followed by a piano solo based on the chord sequence of an older piece called 'Sette Sorelle' which was recorded on the album 'Sawdust and Spangles' by The Cloggz a couple of years ago. The piano solo is followed by a reworking of the 'Sette Sorelle' theme in 5/4 for unison trombone and flugelhorn and the rest of the band. The finale is a recap of the first two themes. 

'S/Pulse/S' is a medley of two older pieces: 'S' by Mark Edwards and my tune 'Pulse'. Mark's piece is based on a tone row in 3/4 and a dark, slow moving melody which is full of harmonic tension and which refuses to settle in any one key. This theme is played twice by the ensemble before dissolving into 'Pulse': a slow 4/4 bass riff in D minor overlaid with another dark melody played by the soprano saxophone. It reflects my obsession with John Coltrane and echoes pieces like 'Equinox' and 'Africa Brass'. The theme is followed by an open bass solo and a trombone duet, leading to a new section driven by a bass riff in 12/8 and a recapitulation of both 'S' and 'Pulse'. The finale is a return to the main theme from 's' in a slow 4/4 and new key(s).

'Palimpsest' is an overlaying of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas, based on a chord sequence originated by Frederic Chopin and borrowed by Antonio Carlos Jobim for his beautiful piece 'Insensatez'. It starts with a 'shimmer' played by the band over a double tempo drum groove, yet to be decided(!). The shimmer is improvised and is never the same from one performance to the next. A bass riff (in D minor, of course) enters and is repeated several times before the first them enters: slow moving, contrapuntal lines over the chord sequence. After an interlude, the chord sequence is repeated twice over an obstinate tumbao figure in the bass, with the introduction of a new melodic idea in the second half of the sequence. The next repeat develops this new idea, which is played by the whole group. The last repeat recaps the first melody with variations, and the piece ends with an open improvisation over the bass riff.

Into the Woods - The Journey begins

On Friday 21st September, I began work on a new Trees recording project at The Playroom Studio near Arundel with engineer and producer Mike Saunders. 

The process is as different from Heart of Oak as it could be, with each track being created from the scaffolding formed by my arrangements on Sibelius and built up over time. 

There are two reasons for this approach. The first is financial. Recording Heart of Oak was an expensive undertaking, with more than 40 musicians playing together and the music being recorded to both audio and video simultaneously. Secondly, building the tracks in the studio gives us much more control over the sound, and also over the music itself. 

On Friday 10th October, Greg Maddocks and I took part in a further preparatory session at Playroom, and on Tuesday 16th, we were joined by pianist and composer Tom Phelan to add keyboards to Dakar and No Wind. The results were magical, with Tom adding so much to each track. Our flutenist friend Mike Guest was also there to capture Tom’s work on film, and we hope to share a few snippets of this and future work as we go along. 

I spent a few hours in the studio on Thursday 25th October, preparing Muito Obrigado and S/Pulse/S for Tom’s next session on Tuesday 30th October. More news soon.