Tony Haynes, composer/director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.
I was shocked to hear recently that Rick Taylor had died at the age of 62.
Like so many Grand Union Orchestra musicians, Rick came into my life quite unexpectedly. By spring 1984 we had been touring our seminal show Strange Migration for over a year, with great success and appealing to very mixed audiences around the UK, when we appeared at a jazz festival somewhere in the Midlands. About half way through the show, a heckler shouted “what makes you guys think you can play jazz?”. This was met with a vehement, withering riposte from another member of the audience. He came up to me enthusiastically after the show, said that this was the kind of music he would like to play, and that if ever there was any opportunity, we should call him. He introduced himself as Rick Taylor.
I already knew of Rick as one of the promising new cohort of adventurous young musicians. He was involved in the burgeoning UK Cuban music movement in the early 1980s; he was a member of the ground-breaking band Onward International, working with other imaginative and questing musicians like Dave Bitelli; and he was very much in demand for his unusually forthright and individual trombone style. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long before an opportunity arose, and I could give him a call…
In the spring and summer of 1984, Mrs Thatcher was busy winding up the Greater London Council. She also wound up Ken Livingstone, who retaliated by creating a series of lavish events in London Parks over every weekend, to celebrate multicultural London. Fortuitously Grand Union was involved in this, and out of the various musicians associated with the Company through the Strange Migration tour, we put together a rudimentary big band – still with the migrant artists Sarah Laryea, Vladimir Vega and Tunukwa at the core – in which Rick played a crucial part (vintage b&w photo above!). Then came one of Grand Union’s most significant turning points.
As part of a final gesture of defiance, its Year Against Racism, the GLC commissioned Maggie Pinhorn, director of the equally trail-blazing Alternative Arts (then based in Seven Dials, Covent Garden) to produce a suitably commemorative event. Through the advice of my friend and co-founder of Grand Union John Cumming, Maggie came to us; the outcome was an hour-long show The Song of Many Tongues.
This was performed on an open-air stage in the portico of St Paul’s (‘the actors’ church’) in Covent Garden Piazza to an enormous and exuberant crowd on a glorious Sunday afternoon in early September 1984. Thus the Grand Union Orchestra was born. We toured this work nationally for the next two years, and it became our first recording. Rick remained a stalwart member of GUO for the next ten years, and was hugely influential – and encouraging – in the development of my own work for the Orchestra.
Perhaps the most remarkable fruit of our association emerged in our next touring show (and ultimately CD) Freedom Calls. Premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1986, it was based on lyrics by Caribbean, South African and Chilean writers covering subjects ranging from the Slave Trade to the Spanish Civil War, the coup in Chile to Apartheid. I wanted to write a powerful ‘overture’ to set the tone of the show with a relentless, progressive energy; the iconic song of the French Revolution 200 years earlier Ça Ira provided ideal material for this:
However, I found I didn’t need the whole song (or the words) to get its spirit across – just the first four notes, in fact, and the rising phrase at the beginning of bar 3! Given the show’s themes, it seemed appropriate that drums from different countries around the world should frame the piece, especially if they were played by people whose communities were in some way involved historically or culturally with freedom movements. In the opening section, therefore, they enter one by one with a flourish before settling down into a steady rhythm, introducing in turn a series of bass instruments hammering out the ‘ah ça ira’ notes and improvising around them:
But revolutions need charismatic leaders, an orator to arouse the crowd to action; and if you need a declamatory instrument, there is absolutely nothing that can match the trombone. This role is magnificently embodied here by Rick Taylor, filled to perfection with his powerful, dramatic, beautifully-shaped solo – in my view, one of the outstanding masterpieces of personal improvisation. I can think of no more appropriate tribute to Rick than to reimagine and share this moment.
If you’re curious to know more about this piece, I wrote about it in full in Post 21. This recording of Ça Ira has been edited from the original version, to be heard on the CD, which does in fact include the song, as well as a section introducing other instruments used later in the show (notably charango and steel pans). Serendipitously, in 1989 the Grand Union Orchestra was invited to perform Freedom Calls in the idyllic setting of the beach in Boulogne, with the sun going down behind us, as part of the French celebrations of the bicentenary of the storming of the Bastille.
Rick played several other notable solos on GUO recordings. There are two examples on The Song of Many Tongues: By the Waters of Babylon, with singer Gail Anne Dorsey; and a three-way conversation with Claude Deppa and Courtney Pine, which coincidentally featured in my previous blog Down by the Riverside.
In the early 1990s, Rick returned to his roots in the Northeast and then to a very happy domicile on the Isle of Skye. Ros Rigby (of FolkWorks and The Sage) worked closely with him on projects in Newcastle and Gateshead. She has written a deeply moving memoir of Rick here: https://lance-bebopspokenhere.blogspot.com/2019/06/rick-taylor-january-31-1957-june-7-2019.html?m=1#more
There are really no words to express what a delightful, generous, creative, larger-than-life and big-hearted person Rick was, but his character lives on vividly in his music, and in his impact on those whose life he touched.