Julian Argüelles @ CBSO Centre

Birmingham Conservatoire
Jazz Department Leavers’ Concert
Soloist/Director Julian Argüelles
Thursday 22 June 2017
CBSO Centre

Words: Alan Musson
Photos: Courtesy of Brian Homer

As Jeremy Price, Head of Jazz at the Conservatoire informed the assembled audience, the night’s performance was to be a celebration on several levels. Firstly, it was the Jazz department’s end of year celebration. It was also an award ceremony where Birmingham born Julian was to be honoured with the award of an Honorary Fellowship of Birmingham Conservatoire. Thirdly, it marked the Conservatoire’s departure from what had been their home for many years and re-location to a wonderful new building, which is to incorporate a Jazz Club, on Birmingham’s regenerated Eastside.

The music to mark these events was to be suitably celebratory, the highlight to be a performance of Julian’s own celebration of the music of the South African Jazz exiles who came to the United Kingdom to escape Apartheid in the 1960’s and who contributed so massively to the British Jazz scene at that time.

Julian has recorded this tribute on the award-winning album ‘Let it Be Told’ in 2012. At that time his collaborators were the Frankfurt Radio Bib Band. Tonight however, Argüelles entrusted his arrangements of the music of Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani and others to the Birmingham Conservatoire Jazz Orchestra.

Listening to this music it felt that Argüelles and his musicians were helping to unite what currently seems to me to be a fractured Britain through the power of music, in much the same way that British musicians working with the South Africans did in the 1960’s.

The evening opened with Julian Lloyd-Webber presenting Argüelles with an Honorary Fellowship of Birmingham Conservatoire in recognition of his support of the institution and his success as a major jazz artist.

The music began with three pieces written by Argüelles and performed with a Quintet of students. The opening piece was a herald of what was to come, ‘Peace for D’ had an easily discernible South African flavour. A more recent piece again, from the pen of the leader ‘Nitty Gritty’ followed with the whole group putting in a fine performance. Particularly outstanding were pianist Charlie Bates and bassist James Owston. This part of the evening concluded with ‘Phaedrus’ the title piece of one of Julian’s earliest recordings from 1990. Being familiar with the original quartet recording, it was a delight to hear what a difference trumpeter Christos Styianedes made to the overall performance.

After a short pause and change of line-up, Argüelles returned with a Septet to perform three more of his own compositions including the delightful ‘A Life Long Moment’ which Julian explained was his first commission from a member of the public. A piece which was premiered at the Cheltenham Jazz festival and which featured John Abercrombie on guitar. Readers can hear a version of this tune on ‘Circularity’, a quartet album from 2014 and featuring John Taylor and Dave Holland and so the version tonight was markedly different. Sam Wright was outstanding on bass clarinet on this piece.

‘Iron Pyrite’ concluded this part of the evening and Frank Heather on trumpet, Josh Tagg on trombone were particularly outstanding here, supported by Tom Harris on piano, Aram Bahmaie bass, and Jonathan Silk at the drums.

The second set saw the Orchestra in full flight. Unusually, featuring two drummers throughout adding to the rhythmic impetus. The emphasis was on music from the album ‘Let it Be Told’. Despite the undoubted excellence of the album, the music seemed to gain greater significance performed in a live setting. Alongside music from the aforementioned South African ex-pats we were treated to an exquisite reading of the Abdullah Ibrahim composition ‘The Wedding’. This for me was perhaps the highlight of the evening. The encore was a piece attributed to Dudu Pukwana called ‘Come Again’ and was, itself, a delight.
This was an evening of joyful celebration, the infectious rhythms passing almost by a process of osmosis to the enthusiastic listeners. I imagine that the spirits of each and every one present were lifted by this always optimistic music which originally came from a much darker place.

All credit to Argüelles and the musicians and all involved behind the scenes at the Conservatoire for making the evening such a resounding success.

Julian Argüelles with Julian Lloyd-Webber