NEIL BIRSE: Jazz Piano


Friday 1st November, 2019

I always look forward to the organ concerts given by Dr Roger Williams for the SOUND Festival. They are guaranteed to be full of amazing surprises. He welcomed us to this year’s concert which he promised would be very different from any that had gone before. He mentioned that in so many of these earlier concerts, the organ, as much as being the traditional instrument that we all know and love, was often used more as a sound source – something that was relatively new. Stops would be half pulled out providing unusual sound qualities and SOUND Festival regulars may well remember the occasion when Roger had to get down on his knees and work the pedals with his hands. Today however was going to be very different. The organ would be used in traditional ways but would share the platform with the piano played by the talented jazz musician Neil Birse. Neil is from a talented musical family in the North East. His father, a trombonist is Principal Teacher of Creative Arts at Ellon Academy. Concert goers will know Neil’s brother Andrew and sister Amy who are both gifted violinists.

Discussing today’s concert, Roger referred to the fact that the organ is not just a church instrument. He mentioned carvings of musicians in the nave of Beverley Minster including an ‘ambulant’ organist, reckoning that the music they played would most likely be secular dance music. (My aunt and Uncle lived in Beverley so I am familiar with these carvings).

I thought that today’s concert was superbly well organised. It began with a piece by Tim Raymond which although modernist, was also part of the traditional religious repertoire for organ. It moved on to a piece for piano by the American jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams that had both jazz and religious connotations. Then we had a piece by Joseph Stollery which as well as having its serious side was an entirely non-religious fun piece. Neil Birse continued the programme with his own free jazz improvisation before he and Roger got together with Variations and a Fugue on a theme by George Gershwin, very much a cross-over composer whose music touched on jazz, popular music and classical.

Tim Raymond’s composition entitled ‘The Flowering Cross’ had powerful mystical connotations with its subject and in the way in which the composer reacted musically to it. I am always inspired to hear how even fairly astringent chords and angular melodies can sound attractive when delivered by the organ. Here and there in this piece, the ghost of Messiaen drifted past. In his programme note, Tim Raymond wrote, “Its rhythmic complexity reflects the complexity and freedom from conventional pulsation which I have observed in folk singers”. To begin with I was not aware of that but as the piece progressed, there was exactly that idea. Eventually the Gaelic melody, ‘Lament of the Three Marys’ came shining through most tellingly – a splendid piece.

On solo piano, Neil Birse played ‘Ode to St Cecile’ by Mary Lou Williams (1910 – 1981) entirely self taught and once described as ‘The greatest woman jazz pianist in the world’. Her music was slow and expansive with enticing rhythmic force in the left hand, all beautifully played by Neil Birse.

It was back to Roger Williams on St Machar’s Father Willis organ for ‘The Squabble of Mews’ by Joe Stollery. It presented a graphic description of flocks of seagulls which are no strangers to Aberdeen especially around King Street where Joe lives. I thought the music was an apt description not just of the cries of the birds but of the soaring and diving of the flocks as well. Again I sensed the wraith of Messiaen drifting past in the music although Messiaen’s music always had a religious significance and Joe’s was intended to be more fun and full of colour. Messiaen often used birdsong in his music but never I think seagulls.

Neil Birse was back on piano with his free jazz improvisation. It had an attractive melodic core and it was relaxed and soothing.

Now it was time for Roger and Neil, Pipe Organ and Jazz Piano to get together. They did so with their ‘Variations and Fugue on the Gershwin tune ‘So am I’. The performers began with a transcription of Gershwin’s own performance of the piece (if you are interested, it comes up instantly on google including the piano score) before taking turns in providing their own variations, Neil’s very much in jazz style, Roger’s more classical. Finally with the Fugue, organ and piano came together in a way just slightly reminiscent of the finale of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony. It was a joyous conclusion to one of Roger’s most fascinating and unusual concerts for SOUND.