Colin Towns Mask Orchestra Drama (Provocateur Records PVC 1044)
When I was a teenager in the early 1960s I found myself growing up in the mind of the London theatre. Living near the end of the District Line and stuck on literature in sixth form, I would spend all my pocket money on cheap gallery and upper-circle seats for productions of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the fledgling National Theatre at the Old Vic, and — most earnestly — at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in Stratford, east London.
So late in the evenings my Tube train would rumble home through East End stations, passing through the West Ham birthplace of the composer and creator of the marvellous Mask Orchestra, Colin Towns. Born in 1948, he would have been a piano-playing 14-year-old then, and now I wonder if he was at his keys as my early evening train tracked near his parents’ place.
All this came back to me as I played the 20-piece Mask Orchestra’s latest album Drama, a compilation of music written by Towns for productions of classical plays from Shakespeare to Chekhov and Ibsen to Arthur Miller. Towns leads an assembly of powerful British jazz virtuosi, some of them esteemed veterans like saxophonists Peter King and Alan Skidmore or trumpeter Henry Lowther. Others are younger but similarly compelling in their musicianship, like pianist Andrew McCormack or saxophonists Nigel Hitchcock and Simon Allen.
The former RSC theatre director Terry Hands writes in the sleeve notes: “Colin has musically inspired many a play. Now he reverses the process and uses the play to inspire his music.”
He begins with Chekhov and The Cherry Orchard and I thought of the 1962 RSC production I saw, with John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft and Judi Dench playing 17-year-old Anya Ranevsky. Towns employs the clipping feet of tapdancer Rachel Catherall, the percussion duet of Stephen Maass and Ralph Salmons and a joyous horn ensemble including George Hogg’s jubilant trumpet and Barnaby Dickinson’s tricky slides to create a quasi-New Orleans ensemble, as if, as it was for Chekhov’s people, revolution is not far away.
Towns uses his notes to clamber and wander inside the minds and artistry of his dramatists, causing you to recall great performances you have known. In King Lear, Towns’s own eerie keyboards brought back to me Paul Scofield’s 1962 Lear on the blasted heath, his agony blown again by Hitchcock’s sonorous tenor saxophone, and I remembered the angular, carping brilliance of Leonard Rossiter, years before Rising Damp, in a 1962 Stratford production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, while hearing Lowther’s cavilling solo.
Andrea Hess’s ghostly cello mourns above the rattling drums of Macbeth, while in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night we hear Graham Russell’s burnished trumpet solo followed by the atmospheric trombone of Dickinson before the seething finality of King’s incisive chorus.
Then there are the 20 minutes of rapid changes of pace and mood, the galvanised percussion, sounds fearful, tense and caustic, minds terrified by spiritual and political violence — all bursting from Towns’s aural adaptation of Miller’s The Crucible. There is the searing tenor duet between Skidmore and Hitchcock and Julian Siegel’s proud and jaunty bass clarinet colloquy with Arnd Geise’s prancing bass. Like the peerless Ellington, Towns uses the full brilliance of his soloists to express the diversity of his sonic mind, and like Miller, he expresses the subliminal horror of McCarthyite witch-hunts through the startling surprise of his creation.
Then there is The Royal Hunt of the Sun. In 1963 I saw the first ever production of Peter Shaffer’s play about the conquest of Peru by Pizarro’s conquistadores, by the newly formed National Theatre company, with an astonishing performance as Atahualpa, the murdered Inca emperor, by Robert Stephens. In my teenage years it taught me much about imperialism and those millions slaughtered and enslaved in its wake, and as I travelled home on the Tube past Towns’s dwelling, my mind was cascading. His musical empathy and internationalism is poignant and startling, with the Japanese percussionist Joji Hirota’s pounding commentary, King’s potent volley of sound and Skidmore’s final and transcendant soprano saxophone climax.
The ultimate criterion for the unity of drama and jazz is Ellington’s great Shakespeare suite, Such Sweet Thunder, of 1956-7 — a masterpiece made with one of his greatest orchestral line-ups including Johnny Hodges, Clark Terry, Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney. Towns’s album is on the same ground as that, and such an achievement is indeed powerful.