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Graham Collier

Graham Collier was a British composer, bassist, arranger, educator, author, and bandleader. He was an eloquent jazz practitioner, able to write complex, abundantly harmonized lyrical scores wedding everything from the big-band tradition to the vanguard and post-bop with shifting time signatures and canny modalities. His 1967 debut, Deep Dark Blue Centre, revealed the influence of Gil Evans but with a more adventurous rhythmic palette. 1971's Mosaics forged distinctive frameworks for group improvisation and 1978's The Day of the Dead was inspired by Malcolm Lowry's writings, particularly Under the Volcano. 1996's Charles River Fragments consisted of two near-iconic long form works, 2002's Winter Oranges was written for and performed by the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra, and 2005's Directing 14 Jackson Pollocks was released on Jazzcontinuum. 2023 saw the archival release of Down Another Road @ Stockholm Jazz Days '69. Collier was born in Tynemouth, Northumberland in 1937. He studied composition, bass, and arranging music in school and showed a natural aptitude for it; he became an army musician for seven years after leaving school at 16. He entered a Downbeat magazine contest and won a scholarship to study at the Berklee School of Music in Boston in 1961; in 1963, he was its first British graduate. After graduating, he briefly toured with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra playing bass, then returned to England where he formed the Graham Collier Sextet and later, the Graham Collier Ensemble. His groups varied in size, but the relationships he forged with musicians tended to be long and cooperative. From the '60s through the '90s Collier's bands were usually stuffed with Britain's finest musicians. The Graham Collier Septet released Deep Dark Blue Centre as their debut in 1967 on Deram. The group included Harry Beckett and Kenny Wheeler on trumpets, Karl Jenkins and Dave Aaron on saxophones, John Marshall on drums, Mike Gibbs on trombone, Phil Lee on guitar, and the composer on bass. Arriving at the beginning of the modern British jazz boom, it won acclaim from jazz critics. Two years later, the Graham Collier Sextet released the wonderfully bluesy Down Another Road on Fontana. A 1969 episode of the BBC TV series Jazz Scene: At the Ronnie Scott Club was devoted to Collier and his music. In July 1971, Collier was profiled on London Weekend. Given the constantly fluctuating lineup of his band, Collier changed his group's name to the Graham Collier Music. 1970's Songs for My Father showcased a ten-piece big band that included Beckett, Lee, four saxophones (among them Alan Skidmore), drums, and John Taylor's piano. This group, though it continued to shape shift in personnel, became a touring outfit that played across Europe. The Graham Collier Music featuring Harry Beckett released the live, forward-thinking, modal Mosaics in 1971. The television program Music in the Round, also profiled Collier in an episode titled "Improvisation and All That." Collier's group won airplay across Europe, worked the summer festival circuit at home and across the continent and played residencies in France and Switzerland. 1973's Portraits showcased his long-form writing with the two section, 25-minute suite "And Now for Something Completely Different." Though the music won praise across the critical jazz spectrum, the muddy sound and production of the set drew some criticism. After 1974, Collier founded and directed the record label Mosaic to release his own albums. 1975's Midnight Blue, a collection of two long suites and a mid-length composition, was recorded by a quintet that included Beckett, pianist Roger Dean, and guitarist Ed Speight. That group played an incendiary live set at the North Sea Jazz Festival. Also in 1975, Collier published the book Jazz: A Student's and Teacher's Guide, and released two albums to accompany it: Jazz Illustrations and Jazz Lecture Concert. New Conditions, issued in 1976 by Mosaic, offered a 12-piece band, Collier's largest recorded ensemble to date. In November of that year, he brought that large group onto the stage at Ronnie Scott's Club and recorded Symphony of Scorpions, an aptly titled, ambitious composition juxtaposing modal and avant jazz with 20th century classical and serial music. So riveting was the performance, no one left until it was over, and it became one of Collier's most well-respected albums after 1978. He was the first recipient of an Arts Council bursary for jazz and was commissioned by festivals, groups, and broadcasters across Europe, North America, Australia, and the Far East. Also in 1978, Collier released Day of the Dead. A suite in eight parts, it encapsulates a perfect balance between the writings of Malcolm Lowry (read by John Carbery) and Collier's freest music. Collier accepted a 1983 commission for a composition from the Bracknell Jazz Festival by the Arts Council of Great Britain. The composer assembled his big band and cut the 70-minute composition Hoarded Dreams. It debuted at that year's event with a lineup bolstered by such special guests as trumpeters Ted Curson and Manfred Schoof. Though the set was impeccably recorded, it went unreleased until Cuneiform licensed it in 2007. In 1984, he assembled a rehearsal ensemble that later became the nucleus of Loose Tubes. 1985 saw the Mosaic issue of the live Something British Made in Hong Kong that received an abundance of criticism for its dodgy sound quality. In 1995, Adam's Marble appeared from Israel's Jazzis. It was recorded live in Israel and consisted of three related compositions that dated from the mid-'80s. Charles River Fragments was recorded over 1994 and 1995. One of Collier's major works, it was released in 1996 and contains two originals, the almost-ten-minute "The Hackney Five" and "Charles River Fragments," composed in ten sections totaling nearly an hour, commissioned by BBC Radio Three for the London Jazz Festival. It was initially released by Boathouse Records and successively remastered and re-released by JazzPrint which, over the course of its eight parts, encapsulates a perfect balance between Malcolm Lowry's prose (read by John Carbery) and Collier's music. In 1999, the concert recording The Third Colour appeared from ASC; it had been recorded at the Oris London Jazz Festival two years earlier. It was followed by Winter Oranges in 2002, which consisted of eight works written especially for and recorded by the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra. The Cuneiform label established a relationship with the composer and licensed two concerts from him in 1968 and 1975. The first was cut in Southampton and consisted of two archival works and the "Workpoints" suite, while the second, titled "Live at Middelheim," showcased four shorter works and the entirety of the Darius suite. The release of Hoarded Dreams in 2007 became an event in British jazz. It had been performed by a 19-piece jazz big band that included among its illustrious cast Finnish alto saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen, baritone saxophonist/bass clarinetist John Surman, trumpeters Henry Lowther, Wheeler, Schoof, Curson, and Tomasz Stanko, a three-trombone section led by Conny Bauer, and Dean on piano. Collier conducted the concert but didn't play. 2009's Directing 14 Jackson Pollocks was the last album the composer released during his lifetime. It consisted of three suites: "Forty Years On" and "The Vonetta Factor" were both studio recorded in London in November 2004, while "The Alternate Third Colour" was taped in a London studio in November 1997. Collier spent many years as a professor and later became the director of jazz studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He was awarded an Order of the British Empire by the Queen in 1987 for contributions to jazz, and also wrote music for several plays, films, and television; he authored seven books. Collier was a founding member of the board of the International Association of Schools of Jazz and ran its magazine, Jazz Changes, for seven years until its publication ended in 2000. Collier moved to southern Spain and continued to compose and tour internationally, including for the NDR Big Band, and played concerts throughout Europe, Asia, and Australia. He subsequently lived in Greece, where he died of heart failure in September of 2011. The posthumous Luminosity: The Last Suites appeared in 2014 from Jazzcontinuum. British Conversations featuring Harry Beckett + Ed Speight appeared in 2021, and in 2022, the stunning live document Hamburg 1968 saw release from My Only Desire, which followed it in February 2023 with an impeccably recorded archival release titled Down Another Road @ Stockholm Jazz Days '69.
© Thom Jurek & Ron Wynn /TiVo


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