Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes
New Year 2013 and the launch of Grand Union’s new touring programme Trading Roots, our main project for the next few months. It made a great start, playing to a wonderfully enthusiastic and responsive audience in Colchester – miraculously defeating all the snow and ice that paralysed Britain in the middle of January! – with visits to much of the UK to come, including Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Cambridge, Southampton and London. The ideas behind the project, and the Grand Union Orchestra musicians involved, are described here, and on a separate page.
As the title suggests, Trading Roots aims to share and explore the huge range of musical traditions Grand Union musicians are expert in – to a great extent a benevolent legacy of our colonial past – and to create original music by combining styles and approaches, in which improvisation of course also plays a vital role. This example is a simple demonstration of this principle in action.
Regular readers will already be familiar with the way I experiment with ways of ‘expanding’ traditional melodies, perhaps through fuller harmonies, different rhythmic feels or musical textures. To describe it as ‘fusion’ doesn’t do it justice – it’s more a process of seeing what musical ideas the original music throws up, and allowing it to grow organically in collaboration with the Grand Union musicians. Several previous Posts explore this idea, and one Turkish song (Yemen, Post 7) has already been featured; how this particular collaboration came about is described below.
The structure of the song is very simple – a four-bar phrase repeated, followed by a second slightly different four-bar phrase repeated:
As in many Turkish tunes, the 2nd degree of the scale is sung and played slightly flat, which in a way limits the possibilities for harmony and counter-melodies; the 6th degree, if present, is often similarly inflected. For this reason I’ve avoided these notes in the bass line, which is in effect based on a minor pentatonic scale; it simply supports the melodic line, harmonising some notes at the 3rd below. Because there is already a lot of space in the melody, it seemed natural to echo this, and a kind of reggae bass-line riff emerged. The off-beat guitar (mainly just C minor chords) and the drum feel followed naturally.
The challenge then was to explore how far we could go with this Anatolian reggae.
There are really only three elements, needing very little in the way of notated examples. For the most part the arrangement is quite conventional and reflects the song’s 8-bar structure:
By this point, some harmony has crept in – albeit only one additional chord! However, this chord is quite unusual in the context – an augmented subdominant chord, F augmented in the key of C minor. It’s suggested, of course, by treating the slightly flat 2nd as a fully fledged well-tempered D flat (and assuming the absent 6th would be natural).
The spirit of reggae, and the inherent ‘spaciness’ of the melody and bass, is further developed in the open section for tenor sax solo that now follows. The pulse is actually maintained throughout this section, as is the basic scale, and it’s brought to a close with the brass chords of Ex 3.
The brass now play the melody, this time also doubled by saz (and trying faithfully to inflect the half-minor 2nd!), before the voice sings a final verse. The second strain (B) is now supported by the brass figures of Ex 2, and the augmented chord is left unresolved at the end.
We first met Cemal Akkiraz in the late 1980s when we began producing our big North London spectaculars in the Union Chapel, Hackney Empire and later Sadler’s Wells. He was a political exile, persona non grata in his native Turkey – a fine musician, respected teacher and leader of an authentic saz or baglama ensemble, which included instruments of 3 or 4 different sizes. He and his group were therefore a very welcome feature of these shows.
Along the way he mentioned that his sister Sabahat, who had continued to live in Istanbul with the rest of the family, wanted to work with Western jazz musicians and extend her musical range and appeal. It turned out that she was a leading exponent of Anatolian singing and Alevi songs, and a best-selling artist in Turkey and Germany, where there is a big Turkish diaspora; she was also very popular of course in North London.
Assembling a repertoire of suitable material, and different ways of arranging and presenting it, was one of the most challenging commissions I’ve ever undertaken – but therefore also one of the most rewarding! We organised a concert with Cemal and Sabahat and a group of 6 Grand Union musicians in the Union Chapel in Islington as part of one of the London Jazz Festivals; this was very successful, drawing a large and very mixed audience.
We therefore repeated the exercise the following year, and this time Sabahat’s manager (another brother, Hasan) put up the money to make a studio recording of the repertoire we had created. Released under the title Anadoludan Yansimalar (‘Echoes from Anatolia’), it went on to sell several hundreds of thousands of copies.
This version of Yagmar Yagar is one of the songs from that album, and of course features Sabahat and Cemal. The rhythm section is Andres Lafone, bass guitar and Brian Abrahams, drums, with Louise Elliott on tenor sax, so Sabahat certainly got her wish to work with fine jazz players!
Other Grand Union reggae-style bass lines…
This is just one example of how roots can be traded creatively, but bass lines like this occur also in other Grand Union orchestra compositions and arrangements. They are a great way of creating a steady forward pulse without getting in the way of the melody, and not being too specific harmonically – particularly when the melody itself is based on a simple scale. So we’ve used this kind of feel with Chinese folk music, for example, or – as in the following example – South Asian songs.
Although completely different in style, and for a very different occasion, here is a similar creative result of another collaboration with a distinctive and remarkable visiting overseas artist. Grand Union was commissioned to perform with the Bangladeshi baul singer Kala Miah, and this is one of his songs we performed with him in a recent Tower Hamlets Mela.
The full story of this collaboration is told in this documentary of one of our visits to Dhaka – and it’s a timely reminder that the journey from Bengal to Bethnal Green resumes in February!