Redefining Element 78
by Howard Lawes
Listen to the gentle track Iridium II here from Rebecca's new album Redefining Element 78.
Why, you might ask, is pianist Rebecca Nash and her band getting into heavy metal with an album inspired by platinum, a metal with atomic number 78 and one of the most dense elements found on Earth? Perhaps she is adopting a fusion of jazz with music inspired by the great rock bands of the late 20th century as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny have done. Why also are all the tracks on the album named after other metallic elements (except gold) which together form a group that are referred to as the noble metals? Talking on the phone Rebecca provided the backstory to the album.
Hailing from Bristol, Rebecca studied jazz piano and composition, firstly at the Royal College of Music and Drama in Cardiff and then at Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London where she obtained her Masters degree. During this period some of her piano tutors included Huw Warren, Simon Purcell and Liam Noble, all renowned educators with a diverse range of musical styles ranging from traditional, classical, jazz to avant-garde jazz. Probably just as important as her tutors are the friends and colleagues that she encountered at these conservatoires, and in Rebecca's case she met most of her band members either at Cardiff or Trinity.
Rebecca became a tutor herself, at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and here she met musicologist and saxophonist John O'Gallagher. O'Gallagher's area of research at Birmingham included the analysis of John Coltrane’s late-period music and the use of tri-chordal pitch-class sets to produce highly structured works, refuting the notion of free jazz as ‘disordered’ or ‘chaotic’. He went on to write a book called Twelve-Tone Improvisation, A Method for Using Tone Rows in Jazz (Advance Music Publishing. 2013). Tone rows are the basis of the twelve-tone technique, invented by the composer Arnold Schoenberg in the 1920s, an influential compositional method of manipulating an ordered series of all twelve notes in the chromatic scale. In a paper presented at a symposium in 2014 called Arnold Schönberg and Jazz Pedagogy and Practice, the author, T. Scott McGill, highlights the relationship between John Coltrane and Dennis Sandole, a respected educator much influenced by Schoenberg.
In 2019 Rebecca Nash returned to Bristol after some 15 years. Her band Atlas, released their first album, Peaceful King, on the Birmingham-based Stoney Lane record label and she was invited to write the first Rising Star Commission for Bristol Jazz Festival. Peaceful King had been previewed at the 2017 Manchester Jazz Festival prompting Steve Mead to describe Atlas as "embodying the progressive energy of British jazz". The Rising Star Commission had been funded as a 70th birthday present for Ian Thorn, retired scientist, jazz drummer, and fan of British jazz pianist John Taylor, who co-incidentally is also greatly admired by Rebecca Nash.
In conversation with Ian the theme for the commission crystallised as a piece that would include drumming and electronics. Also to be included was reference to Ian Thorn's scientific work that involved advanced mathematics and the use of noble metals that are characterised, not only by their density but also by their rarity, value and stability. Rebecca had read John O'Gallagher's book about tone rows and calculated that she could use the approach on the atomic numbers of the metals, she also included O'Gallagher into her band.
The album, Redefining Element 78, has eight tracks, atomic numbers in brackets - Platinum I (78), Osmium (76), Rhodium (45), Iridium II (77), Ruthenium (44), Iridium I (77), Platinum II (78) and Palladium - Noble Heart (46). The band is Rebecca Nash (piano), John O'Gallagher (alto sax), Nick Malcolm (trumpet), Jamie Leeming (guitar), Paul Michael (bass), Matt Fisher (drums), Nick Walters and Chris Mapp (electronics).
With so many ideas contributing to the composition one might be forgiven for expecting an over-complex fusion of jazz, rock and avant-garde classical music. But in fact what you hear is a suite of beautifully crafted compositions, lovely melodies, and exuberant solos that really illustrate the best of jazz and provide a unique, allegorical picture that will be full of meaning for Ian Thorn. Rebecca Nash has not only succeeded superbly with her composition but has formed a really strong band of excellent improvisers from long-standing friends and colleagues and the rapport that is generated is evident. For the record, the twelve-tone improvisation technique is most prevalent in both Platinum I (here) and Platinum II (here) The album artwork by another, former Bristol resident, Pat Vale, features one of his intricate pictures of a surreal, urban landscape that is partly highlighted by a spotlight, another piece of art full of meaning.
Redefining Element 78 will be performed at Ronnie Scott's Club on 16th February with another of Rebecca Nash's musical collaborators, Dee Byrne, standing in for John O'Gallagher.