BOBBY LAMB and RAY PREMRU
...their orchestra and musical ideals
|Questions put by Les TomkinsInterview of 1971|
To start off with, how about some details of your musical backgrounds?
Lamb: I was born in Cork, Ireland, which was where my musical education started, on trombone. After working around Ireland, I came to England, finally ending up with Jack Parnell’s band. Which was a marvellous band at that time. Then I went to the States, just to continue studying, and I was fortunate enough to get on the Woody Herman band for a couple of years. I’d worked with Charlie Barnet first for a few weeks, off the West Coast, which was great fun, before I went down to ‘Vegas and did the audition to join Woody’s band.
There were some wonderful players on that band, such as Richie Kamuca; and Bill Harris came back on the scene. Who—and I know Ray will agree with me—is the greatest trombone player of all time. So that was a great experience. Marvellous—I’ve been a contented human being ever since. Anyway, having got all that out of my system, I came back to England, where I’ve remained.
Premru: My birthplace was Elmira, New York. I studied trombone in school, in Rochester, New York, when I was about twelve or thirteen. My parents had stimulated my musical interest from an early age with records and things: although they aren’t musicians they both play the piano and sing very well. I used to listen to the CBC Jazz Show broadcasts from Toronto when I was in school. That was the bebop era; I was terribly knocked–out with everything that was happening then, and we formed our own little school dance band. Which gave me my initial experience in arranging and writing. On leaving school, I went to the Eastman School of Music to study composition. I finished there in 1956 and came to England in order to take another year’s composition with Peter Rassin Fricker, a well–known English composer who, strangely enough, is now resident at the University of California. And I guess I liked London and England so well, I’ve stayed here ever since.
Within a week of being here, I knew that this was where I wanted to stay. So I sat out my Union card, which was no problem, as I was studying at the time; then I started freelancing. Also I met an English girl and married her; so that was a further reason to stay here!
One of my first jobs here—a very enjoyable one—was a regular weekly broadcast with the Kenny Baker Dozen. Around the same time, Duncan Lamont and I got together to form a quintet with Dill Jones—bass trumpet, tenor and three rhythm. Then, when Dill went to the States we had a similar quintet with Eddie Thompson, until Eddie also emigrated.
About that time—thirteen or so years ago—I’d played auditions for a couple of the orchestras. And I joined the Philharmonia Orchestra, as it was called then; it’s now known as the New Philharmonia Orchestra, because we’ve run it ourselves for six years or more. This gave me, and has continued to give me, a regular and interesting job. I found that, although I was doing studio work, the jazz work as such trailed off little by little. This may have been due to the fact that, at that particular time, the pop scene seemed to be crowding the jazz scene out; I don’t think it is any more—things are quite healthy now.
Although I was partially away from the jazz world, I was writing all the time. Mostly serious music, for want of a better term—works for chamber groups, symphony orchestras and ensembles, as opposed to jazz scores. In ‘64 and ‘66, I had a couple of nice opportunities to go on the Continent with Friedrich Gulda’s EuroJazz Orchestra. With that band were such great musicians as bassist Ron Carter—with whom I went to school, incidentally—and Mel Lewis, J. J. Johnson. Not only J.J.‘s playing but his writing, plus working with such a line–up, so stimulated me that I realised there was an element in me which wasn’t being brought to the surface.
Consequently, in subsequent chats with Bob, we arrived at the idea of trying to do something about it, by making our own medium so. that we could create for it.
How did your friendship start? Did you meet as session men?
Premru: No, we met when Bobby came back from the States. Strangely enough, although I didn’t meet him in the States. I heard a Woody Herman concert in Rochester, about a year before I came over, when Bill Harris, Wayne Andre and Bobby were in the trombone section. It was two or three years after that—about ’57 that we met over here, and created a four trombone–three rhythm group.
Lamb: The infamous Slide rulers!
Premru: Yes, we had some good fun with that group. Fortunately, at that time there were quite a few jazz clubs going; so we played places like the Marquee and the Flamingo, as well as doing a couple of Jazz Clubs.
Lamb: We had been friends before that, but this was really the very start of our combined efforts, playing and writing together.
Like Ray, I had started writing earlier. When I came back from Woody’s band, I took a six–month holiday in Ireland, and the Irish Radio Service asked me to form a small group and do some writing for it. This octet played every week—very pleasant, very successful. Which gave me the bug and then, through meeting Ray, getting together over a cup of coffee and chatting about things we liked, the Sliderulers was born. After it died a natural death, for a few years we went our separate ways.
Did you continue writing, whenever you had the chance?
Lamb: For our own ends. Each of us did a couple of films: I made an album, “The Children Of Lir”, seven symphonic preludes for narrator and orchestra. We met socially on sessions and things, but we didn’t get together with this band, or start talking about it, till a couple of years ago. And we talked about it for at least a year, didn’t we?
Premru: I think so—yes. Plus the fact that, during this period, musicians—probably the majority of those in the band—came up to us at one time or another and said: “Why don’t you get something going?”
Lamb: Yes. continually. There’s been a tremendous need for a band like we’ve got.
Why a need for this particular band? What would you say is so special about it?
Premru: Well, a number of things. The personnel is just right; which stems. I think. from the fact that all of them have the same basic desire to play as we have to write. We all need this outlet. Why it’s been so successful is that it was formed in the same manner as three or four string players might get together just to play chamber music at somebody’s house some evening, for the fun of it, because that’s what they want to do, as opposed to what they’re made to play with the orchestra they’re members of.
All twenty–five of us do commercial work, for the bread and butter, and this is the real pleasure side of it. As it didn’t exist, we had to make it ourselves.
Lamb: One of the big problems was: what we didn’t want to do was to form a conventional style of band, because there are already some excellent big jazz bands in town, like those of Stan Tracey, Harry South, Tubby Hayes, Maynard Ferguson—all very exciting, marvellous bands. We wanted something wider. Not only a jazz orchestra, but something that would enlarge our scope as composers. If we felt like writing a symphonic suite, we would; there was to be no restriction on it. And the fact that we didn’t put any tag on it, this kept us from being enclosed in a jazz bag, as such. Fortunately, within the orchestra we’ve got quite a number of ‘straight’ players; so we can move in either direction. The enthusiasm and the love of the whole thing comes about because we don’t have to doff our caps to anybody or go in any particular direction. What we’re trying to avoid is the immediate labelling. People who’ve never heard the band tend to ask: “What’s your bag?” Well, we’re trying to create our own bag.
A possible comparison that people could make is with Stan Kenton’s past attempts to fuse jazz and classical music in various ways, with a band of this kind of size. Do you feel that such a comparison would be fair?
Lamb: Well, personally, I don’t care what comparisons anybody makes. As I say, we’re intent on trying to make a bag of our own. People will say that this sounds like a Kenton band, this bit sounds like Ellington. this is like Stravinsky, this is like Bartok. I’m not really interested. Eventually it’ll be the Bobby Lamb—Ray Premru Orchestra on its own—not like anybody else.
Premru: Several people, after hearing the band for the first time, have said that what they liked about it was the fact that it’s doing its own thing, and therefore has a different personality to any other sort of band.
And is this just down to the instrumentation or to your writing ideas?
Premru: I wouldn’t say it’s so much the instrumentation because, let’s face it, Kenton’s had five trombones, a tuba, maybe not French horns as such but mellophoniums, at one time or another. Sizewise, I suppose it’s about equivalent to his biggest bands. However, the music Stan Kenton played wasn’t written by us, and the players we have aren’t Stan Kenton’s players. There are some very strong personalities within the band. On a jazz level, people like Alan Branscombe are absolutely brilliant.
Lamb: The same goes for Kenny Wheeler. These are giants in their own right.
Premru: So it’s a combination of not only the scores, but more so the interpretation of the individuals, which forms the character of the band. Not just jazz players. For instance, lead players: people like Tony Fisher, Derek Watkins, Greg Bowen, Cliff Hardie, Nick Busch. And as for our wonderful drummer, Kenny Clare—he’s a real inspiration to the whole orchestra. A great artist!
Lamb: 1’ll say this—if Kenton could get half the talent that’s in that band to go and play with him, he’d be on his knees. I say this in all humility, of course!
Premru: Mind you, it’s such a galaxy of talent that the only time we can meet is at 11.0 at night, when the guys have finished work. And this says a lot for the spirit of the musicians in London; they’ve probably had a hard blow all day, starting very early, but they’ll come and do a rehearsal from 11.0 p.m. till 2.0 in the morning, for their own enjoyment.
I must say also that the recording companies, who sometimes give the impression that they’re just out for the hard cash, have been very good, because they’ve given us studio space.
Lamb: Yes, this is true. We can’t say enough thanks to these people. The major recording studios in town have been more than kind in giving us this free space. It’s a tremendous luxury for a hard–working musician who’s been blowing his heart out all day to come along to a centrally–heated studio at night, with good lights and good sound.
This means that we can work hard in comfort. The old days of propping your music up on the back of a chair, bad lighting and freezing cold, trying to get a sound—fortunately, this didn’t happen to us. We went and spoke to the right people, who were good enough to fix it up for us.
Is it going to lead to a record album?
Lamb: Well, let me put it this way: we formed the band purely for love, for the excitement that it brings, and we didn’t have any commercial ideas at the time. And we still don’t. If some albums came up, we would be very pleased to make them, but at the moment we’re just interested in each other, if you like. The joy of writing, the respect and love that we get back from the guys with their playing—it’s complete in itself as it is. The only thing that we feel the need for now is that we would like to play to a public—to communicate what we’re doing to real, live people. This is what adds the magic.
Playing in Ronnie Scott’s, you found that brought something extra out of the band, did it?
Premru: In actual fact, the first public performance that we did—in the sense of playing before an audience—was last July, a recording for BBC Jazz Club at the Camden. It always sounded good at the rehearsals, but there was another dimension which came out of the band, due to the fact that there were people in front of us. Suddenly there’s the rapport between audience and musicians. This just brought out the very best in us. And from that moment onwards, I think, we realised that we can rehearse and rehearse and rehearse but there is a need, really, to share what we’re doing with other people.
Such a big band is obviously not an economic proposition—and with these musicians. Therefore it’s just been the BBC dates that have enabled us to perform in public. Then our second public appearance was at the Ronnie Scott Club in September of last year, when we played for the Tony Russell Benefit. The same kind of electric atmosphere was there, and we experienced it again a few weeks ago, when we did the BBC broadcast at Ronnie’s.
Now we’re going to put out our own promotion on May 21st at the Notre Dame Hall. Also we’re doing a concert at the Queen Elizabeth —Hall on September 15th. We’re really looking forward to them, because, again, it’ll be making live music for the public.
That’s what music’s for—to be heard. It’s not to be hid under a bushel in some intellectual sort of way. It’s an emotive thing, and it has to be shared.
Lamb: It works both ways. The response we get from the people to what we give out in effort just gathers momentum and goes on and on. It’s a tremendous feeling. We get excited by the people; they in turn get excited by us. This is why we want to play in public.
But you don’t think that playing for the public is liable to restrict the scope of your writing, such as having long, ambitious works that could possibly be taxing to the listener? You wouldn’t want to dilute anything?
Lamb: Well, as I said, we’re trying to make our own bag: and we feel sure that they will accept us for what we are, and what we’re trying to say. And, as it’s not a commercial proposition, there’s no need for any dilution. This is the great joy. Then, when people come and like what we’re doing, it’s a double kick for us.
What kind of writing ideas, specifically, have you been experimenting with?
Premru: I’d like to go back to an earlier question that’s connected with this one, with regard to the possible fusion of classical and jazz techniques. Well, this is strictly my own point of view. I’ve loved and been involved in both spheres of music from a very early age, playing and composing, and I’ve seen and heard a lot of experiments, attempting to combine these two elements. But the two have essentially different characters and are not meant to be combined. There’s good and bad of each—and that’s it.
However, inasmuch as jazz scores are concerned—let’s face it, jazz is a baby by comparison with the hundreds of years’ history that classical music has. But I feel that jazz is the vital, live music at this moment, because inroads are just being made. A lot of people have blandly said it’s dead. Far from it.
We’ve had some great improvisers and maybe half–a–dozen great jazz writers; but I think it’s becoming more catholic, in that a growing number of people are taking an interest in this music. You’ll find that the actual content of jazz scores will develop in years to come. I hope there won’t be a synthesis with classical music as such, though.
I like to think of jazz as a spirit. When people try to define what is jazz and what is not jazz, what it boils down to basically is the thing of “swinging”, that gives it its character. Even if it’s a slow piece, there’s something about the characteristics of its momentum. Swing seems too easy a word; it just has a certain spirit, which makes me light up when I hear it.
A lot of the techniques which classical composers have used can be applied to jazz, as long as they can write in the idiom. Say, for instance, sense of development—quite often you don’t get this in jazz scores; it’s just exposition, improvisation, recapitulation, but no development, really. There are certain writers, however; from whom you do get a nice feeling of this; it’s probably not studied, either purely intuitive, which is marvellous. People like Bill Holman and Gerry Mulligan. In particular, a score like “Young Blood” for the Kenton band seems to have a nice proportion of vertical and horizontal writing, which adds up to a solid structure as well as a good, swinging piece. So I think more concern with the formal aspects of jazz writing will probably further its image and further its audience as well.
In relation to this orchestra of ours —if somebody wants to come in with a symphony, we’ll play it. I’ve been talking about the jazz aspect of what we’re doing.
Lamb: My own point of view about writing is this: I believe that, as an Irishman, I have a heritage of thousands of years of Irish traditional music instilled into me. And, even if I am doing a jazz score, if I’m to ignore what’s really a part of me, if I try consciously to keep this out, then it’s a lie. So what I’m very interested in is bringing part of my background into everything I do musically. You can say having a blues sound a bit green, if you like.
But I think that Irish, Welsh, Scottish people, any of the Celtic races have something special to bring to music. I remember a number of years ago having a conversation with Bobby Wellins, that marvellous tenor player, and he was starting to get on to this idea, of trying to bring some of his Scottish feeling into jazz. He said this: “Bob, if we had spent the past ten years trying to keep alive something that we were trying to kill or hide, we’d have done better”. Because in those days we were all copying all the usual jazz licks. from our favourite American soloists on records, and being ashamed to be ourselves.
Well, I’ve gone the other way now. I’m very proud that I’ve got this musical background, and every time I write, as I’m writing for myself anyway, beholden to nobody, I’m trying to draw upon it more and more. And if I hear jazz scores by any other Irish composers, I listen out for this little touch of Celtic twilight.
Any Celtic music swings on its own; those 6/8 or 2/4 things just roll along. An Irish composer friend of mine played me some tapes of some very old Irish traditional musicians and, honestly—at times they sounded like Charlie Parker, just wailing away. And when you hear the real thing—it’s something else. This is the kind of magic that I want to try and inject into my music. Some of these traditional musicians can improvise for hours and hours, and it swings all the way.
In working together as co–leaders rather than each having your own bands, what are the advantages? Can you achieve more as a team than you could separately?
Premru: Well, it came out of our friendship and our mutual interests. We both enjoy playing trombone, as well as enjoying composing and conducting. By sharing these duties, we are both able to have a blow with the band part of the time.
And it’s a big band to organise. If it was purely my own band, it would be such a headache getting twenty–five people together and so forth.
Another advantage is that some bands with only one leader play all scores by one person and, as good as they may be, this can lead to a sameness of diet. I should also mention that we have other writers within the band, some of whom have already produced material. Such as Kenny Wheeler, whose magnificent piece, “I Ask You”, we played at Ronnie’s on the last broadcast.
Lamb: It’s good for the band as well. But how the actual organisation, if you want to call it that, works is quite simple. Ray and I are responsible for the music. The band’s secretary, Jack Thirwall, handles most of the problems of ringing round to all the guys, telling them where and when it is, making sure everybody is there; he takes a lot of pressure off our shoulders. If Ray and I had to write the scores and do all that as well, it would be too much. Because, for such a large band, it takes a long time to do a score.
Do you find you are both writing more now than you ever did? Or have you consolidated a library to any degree?
Lamb: No, we try and keep writing for each new thing; like, we’ll probably do some new scores for this next concert. So the library is increasing in size all the time. And we have to write fresh material to keep the players interested; they’ve got to havesomething to challenge them every week.
Premru: Plus the fact that, although a pretty substantial library has developed over the last couple of years, we’ve only really scratched the surface as regards the endless possibilities of what we can do with this band. I know there are a lot of different aspects of individual players, sections, colours and so forth which I find very stimulating; I have enough ideas for new pieces to take me through the rest of the year. Being part of a live music—making scene like this, not writing purely on speculation, knowing what you have—these factors provide a great stimulus to ideas.
Lamb: The great thing is knowing that, no matter how difficult the piece is that you’re writing, at the end of it you’re going to have the best possible musicians to play it. There’s going to be no hang—ups because of their inability to tackle any phrase. This is the exciting thing about it.
Would you say it’s given you both a new lease of life?
Premru: It certainly has. The experiences with Friedrich Gulda first made me aware of what I was missing. ln the early part of the ‘sixties I’d sort of lost track of it; now I’ve really found it.
Lamb: For a start, we respect and love everybody in the band; well, they’re hand–picked. When I was with Woody’s band, the same kind of feeling about each other was there. This is what really makes a great band. If you’ve got this love and respect, plus the enthusiasm, it’s the starting point.
The difference for me between this and Woody’s band is that I’m standing out front some of the time, listening to my own music being played by people I like very much. That’s a charge I can’t describe. I’m sure it’s just the same for ‘Ray. So when you say “a new lease of life”—I’m reborn! Literally; this is it.
It’s a beautiful feeling, when you’re out in front of the band—it doesn’t matter whose eye you catch, there’s that wonderful warmth. You know that they’re going to play their hearts out, just as they know, when you’re writing a score, that you’re going to try and write your heart out.
And I’m sure this is the kind of feeling that communicates with the audience. We’re not in it for any reason other than creating something musically excellent.
To anybody who wants to know about this band, I’d say: the most important thing is hearing it in the flesh. It can sound exciting on the air and on record, but the electricity that happens with physical contact is something else. It has to be experienced.
Interviewed in 1971
Copyright © 1971, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved