Graham Collier, 1937-2011


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raham Collier died last night at home in Greece. A British composer, author and bandleader on the forward edge of modern music, Collier was 74. Early reports are that he succumbed suddenly to a massive heart attack or stroke. From the announcement by Birmingham Jazz:

Graham Collier had a major influence on British jazz, being one of the first contemporary jazz composers to write extended works for a large ensemble, and one of the first jazz people to receive commissions and tours funded by the Arts Council. He also played an important role in the development of the Loose Tubes Big Band of the 1980s which came out of a big band workshop that Graham ran at the time. He also established the Jazz Course at the Royal Academy of Music in London and and many of the key jazz musicians of the 2000s are graduates of that course.

For a Collier biography and discography, click here.

One of his seven books was a Rifftides recommendation in 2009:

Graham Collier, The Jazz Composer: Moving Music Off The Paper (Northway). The title reads like that of a textbook, but this evaluation of the art is accessible to any layman with ears. Contradicting conventional wisdom about some composers, Collier nudges Thad Jones from his pedestal, for instance, and shrugs off Bill Holman with minor praise. He puts in perspective Ellington's habit of borrowing and praises Gil Evans nearly without reservation. Whether or not you agree with Collier, he backs his positions with evidence and references and makes readers think hard about what they listen to. This is an important book.

From around the same time, here is my review of a Collier album released in 2009:

Graham Collier, directing 14 Jackson Pollocks (GCM). Long before he wrote his recent book, Graham Collier's music made it plain that Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Gil Evans were profound influences on his work. Collier followed Ellington's and Mingus's lead in fashioning pieces with his soloists in mind rather than the common concept of arrangements into which a leader could plug whatever soloist was at hand. As for Evans, I must say that I heard in Collier's earlier recordings more of the Evans of “La Nevada" or “El Matador"—roiling, abstract patterns under soloists—than of the tonal tapestries in, say, Sketches of Spain. I still do. Collier amalgamated his inspirations into an orchestral style that coalesced at a moment in the late 1960s when musicians and listeners in Great Britain were ready to expand their ideas about what constituted jazz.

Collier was his own bassist for years before he concentrated entirely on composing, arranging and leading. Among the members of his bands were adventurous players including saxophonists John Surman and Art Themen, trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Harry Beckett and drummer John Marshall. In directing 14 Jackson Pollocks, Collier reaches distillation of the notion that the orchestra, the written music and the improvising soloist comprise a trinity, each element inseparable from the other. The music makes obvious what the CD title means, unless you don't know who Jackson Pollock was.

The two-CD set consists of music recorded at concerts in London in 1997 and 2004. Themen, Marshall and the astonishing Beckett are among the players, along with pianist Roger Dean, bassist Jeff Clyne and others who long since absorbed Collier's ethos of individual independence amidst collective dependence.

The music has something in common with the free jazz that emerged in the United States in the sixties, but where free jazz often fell bythe weight of its pretensions of liberation from guidelines, Collier's coalesces around his frameworks. His composing and arranging dictates, or suggests, shape, harmonic character and rhythmic direction of the solos. He infuses much of his music with wry humor at which titles like “Between a Donkey and a Rolls Royce" and “An Alternate Low Circus Ballad" can only hint. In any case, humor is only an element In Collier's work, important but minor. He produces serious music that makes demands on its listeners and gives generous compensation to those who welcome it on its terms.

At the bottom of the opening page of Collier's website there is a link to a 13-minute audio montage that can serve as an introduction to his music.

Collier titled a 2007 composition “From Acorns" for Derby Jazz, an organization that promotes development of jazz in the British city of Derby. Collier conducted a band of young musicians with two guest soloists, his colleague the veteran trumpeter Harry Beckett and pianist John Bailey. Collier constructed the piece so that some of the inexperienced youngsters were required to improvise free solos. In discussing the music, he synthesized some of his forthright philosophy about how jazz should be made and—at the end—how it should be supported.

Graham Collier, RIP. At Rifftides, we shall miss his e-mail messages and his resolute comments. The many recordings he left mean that we won't have to miss his music.

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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
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