Arts: Bach to the future?

Jazz and classical music have had a difficult relationship in the past. Now the partnership of Nikki Yeoh and Matthew Barley looks set to bring about harmony.
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The Independent Culture
Music's course is full of ironies. While people like Barenboim try (and fail) to swing, jazz itself - with its heyday long gone - looks for inspiration to the even more distant heyday of classical music. And what does it find? In the case of Chick Corea's foray into Mozart at the South Bank last week, nothing much. Corea's jazz embellishments were inoffensive in themselves, but Mozart's limpid expressiveness was way beyond his grasp. Keith Jarrett might have been a different matter.

But Jarrett is one of many jazz musicians who acknowledge Bach as their founding father. As he told Piano magazine recently: "Bach built the house we live in." Bach was the greatest polyphonist ever, and polyphony is what jazz is all about: no wonder the jazzers gravitate to him. Tomorrow night at the Purcell Room, Bach will be the cause of an unlikely new pairing. Jazz pianist Nikki Yeoh will team up with the classical cellist, Matthew Barley, for a programme in which two of Bach's solo cello suites will be sandwiched between new Yeoh compositions coupling her piano with Barley's cello. "I've long wanted to do something like this," says the cellist. "I had no idea of the sound-world I wanted to create, but when I heard Nikki playing with her band I knew she was the musician I needed. The pieces she's written are in no way jazzy versions of Bach - that was an aberration of the Seventies we both want to stay clear of."

Like Jacques Loussier? "I'm not naming names, but you can if you want. No, our pieces are designed for us to set each other off, on the gammon- and-pineapple principle." Meeting Nikki Yeoh is quite a surprise. Her music is mercurial, but with a hard-edged clarity: Yeoh in person is a defiantly ordinary denizen of Islington where she was born, raised and still lives. Her family quickly spotted and nurtured her gift - her mother kitted out her pram with a radio, her cabbie grandfather bought her a piano - but school was a scarring experience, and not only because she is of Malaysain extraction and came in for some old-fashioned racial abuse. "I played all the time at my local comprehensive - in groups, with the choir, and doing solos at Christmas, for which I used to prepare all year. One parent's evening I was asked what I wanted to be. I said a concert pianist, and the music teacher just said `Forget it.' I was devastated, because this was my dream - I had a bust of Beethoven on my piano. But for some reason he regarded me as a rival, and hampered my progress whenever he could."

But Yeoh was quietly developing a parallel life in jazz, studying sax with Don Rendell, and plundering the local library for records of all the greats who intrigued her - Parker and Coltrane, Rollins, Mingus, and Monk, but not Art Tatum. "Him I didn't get till later - I found his music too flowery, and I was never awed by technique. For me, music always had to have more to it than that. Now of course I think he's marvellous."

The school may have let her down, but she made up for it by going to Ian Carr's weekend arts college in Camden where the junior leading lights included pianist Julian Joseph and bassist Michael Mondesir (who now plays in Yeoh's band). "That's where I got used to being a lone female in a male-dominated world."

And in that world - as a composer, band-leader, and soloist - she's already at 25 made it big. The nerves she once suffered from on stage have gone. "That's because of my faith. I have a very intense relationship with God." A born-again Christian, she worships at a Caribbean church in Brixton. All of which makes a piquant contrast with the gammon side of the equation.

Barley's comprehensive was no more inspiring than Yeoh's, but he quickly set about building a serious classical career, progressing from the National Youth Orchestra to Chetham's to the Guildhall. At Tanglewood, Leonard Bernstein gave him an astonishing accolade, saying "one of the most talented cellists I've ever heard" when he took the solo in his Mass. "I think the accolade was more for his work than for me," says Barley modestly, but that doesn't prevent him flashing the magic words on his cv.

Having been taught and conducted by Russians, Barley was inexorably drawn to continue studying in Moscow, where the success-obsessed students couldn't understand why he wanted to play Beethoven quartets for pleasure, with the aid of a bottle of wine. Marrying the Russian violinist Viktoria Mullova marked a further stage in the process: "She took him firmly in hand. `She said practise less, but practise better', and my playing improved dramatically."

Six weeks ago Barley took up the post of co-principal cellist with the London Symphony Orchestra; two weeks ago he resigned. This had as much to do with his innate restlessness as with the fact that some interesting proposals had come his way. "Life in an orchestra can become totally fixed. You're in a bubble - you can go on doing exactly the same job for 30 years." And over the past few years he's developed his own remedy for this, which goes under the innocuous name "orchestral training".

"Improvisation is the heart of it - the thing classical musicians are normally trained never to do, which terrifies them as a result. I ask each member of the group for their first musical memory, and try to help them get back to it. I remind them that we all improvise in speech - we don't need scripts to converse. In other words, the skill is there in all of us. It just needs bringing out." He's a practised crosser of musical divides, having collaborated with the African kora-player, Tunde Jegede, and the Indian sarod king, Amjad Ali Khan. He has also just produced an album, which Philips will launch with a fanfare next year, in which Mullova plays his arrangements of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, the Beatles, and the Bee Gees. The Purcell Room concert, moreover, will be his own London debut as a soloist. When I ask how he hopes his Bach will be measured against the Bach of his famous precursors, he launches into a pitch which is nothing if not audacious. "I play the suites as I believe they should be played, with hardly any vibrato, and a lot of short, light bow-strokes. I try to keep the dance rhythms intact. I like Yo-Yo Ma's new recording of the suites, but I hate his old one. I don't like Casals's approach at all, but his integrity shines through."

What about Jacqueline du Pre? "I don't like her Romanticism, or Rostropovich's either. It's just not Bach to me." This boy's setting himself up to be either critically hailed - or hanged, drawn, and quartered. But the significance of tomorrow's concert lies in the collaboration. One of Yeoh's pieces uses a prepared piano, while another draws on Indian forms; Barley's improvisations will be circumspect, but Yeoh's will be characteristically unfettered. At one point the audience will be roped in too. It is a pity the Purcell Room is so small.

Purcell Room, South Bank, London 13 November, 7.30 pm, 0171-960 4242