arts & books: Miracles will happen

At 17, Paul Reid was being hailed as the great black hope of British jazz. A decade later, he's busy reinventing himself as a serious composer. Why, he's even written an opera. By Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture
Already, perhaps, there are historical dissertations in cultural studies being written about the British jazz revival of the mid- to late- Eighties. This was a period when no lager ad was complete without a tooting bebop saxophonist either in the frame or on the soundtrack, and when products as diverse as aftershave and credit cards were given a new jazz spin. It was the period of Courtney Pine's first, incredibly successful album; of an Art Blakey residency at Ronnie Scott's that attracted droves of young jazz aspirants; and of cover stories in the style mags which, being fairly new themselves, were a ready market for cool monochrome pics of elegantly moody black men to place alongside ads for expensive clothes and parfums.

A new jazz generation of mainly black artists were signed up by the record companies, made their debut albums and then, as the market began to recede, found themselves cruelly abandoned to a career of cappuccino-money gigs in bars and cafes across town. Even the spiritual home of the period, Camden's Jazz Cafe, was taken over by an Irish entrepreneur and had its upstairs bar colonised by drunken ex-Pogues.

The composer and pianist Paul Gladstone Reid is both a casualty and a beneficiary of those years. At the precocious age of 17, he made the cover of jazz mag The Wire as Sheffield's answer to avant-garde American free- jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. He supported Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek on a national tour and was assimilated into the avant-garde end of the new jazz ascendancy, mixing with Taylor and John Cage at the Almeida's contemporary music events and becoming known as a face that The Face should watch. Then, as the jazz vogue subsided, he more or less disappeared from view at the ripe old age of 18, while the style mags moved on to dance- music and jazz was once again bumped back down the demographic scale to a niche occupied mainly by middle-aged men in cardigans. Reid hadn't even arrived before he was gone, or so it seemed.

But he has, of course, prevailed and this Thursday his new opera, Miracles, is to be premiered at the Royal Albert Hall (no less) as part of the "Miracles Project", a vastly ambitious programme of inner-city youth music and dance that appears as part of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme (and let's see the style mags make a meal of that, even with the attendance of luvvie Prince Edward grooving to the vibes).

Lest it seem that the event is one of those worthy, community-arts "let's do the show right here!" kind of Mickey Rooney Hollywood-updates, Reid's take on the project is that of a latter-day NeoPlatonist, and he has composed a contemporary "Mystery Opera" that places age-old archetypes within a frame of reference that owes more to the hermetic tradition of the Cabbala and the Gnostics than it does to the yoof-work ethic of Sir Cliff Richard's gloriously camp "The Young Ones".

Arriving slightly late for our interview appointment at his studio - a monk-like cell of a rehearsal room near the Wigmore Hall - Paul Gladstone Reid (whose brief burst of late-Eighties fame was as plain Paul Reid) can't resist a quick dart over the keys of his piano. Dressed in neat Nike leisure-wear and with a face still beautiful enough to base a poncy lager-ad on, he's a wonderfully entertaining motormouth who takes pains to establish the various stages of his Pauline conversion from hip jazz pianist to serious composer. Indeed, he's so intent on setting the record straight that he doesn't stop talking for an hour, towards the end of which I begin to feel almost physically ill from the relentless onslaught of it all.

"Back then," he says of the short-lived jazz renaissance, "I was fighting against the smoochy, cigarette-holder, safe-1950s, Athena-poster type thing and while most of my contemporaries got into the Marsalis brothers, I got into the art-music of the African diaspora. I came to London and met Cecil Taylor, John Cage and Anthony Braxton and I was on that edge where Afro-American art-music was meeting the contemporary avant-garde of Europe.

"And I was the only one doing solo piano at that time; every one else was doing, like, ding-ding-ding. I was writing music for voices and string quartet but people said no, you're supposed to get a nice little jazz trio going. So I realised that there was a short-term hipness which went around the media, of how it's cool to drink coffee and chatter in the background, but I didn't kid myself that it was a foundation for anything. It was straight back to 1950s bebop and that was the only space if you wanted to have some coverage, but to me it was not seriously representative of the late 20th century."

But, frustratingly for Reid, the classical world didn't offer much of a home either. "There were openings for me to go to Berklee, to the New England Conservatory or to the Guildhall and I had people arguing over my head over what I should be, but I realised that one path would cancel out the other. To study piano meant that you would dedicate your whole life to becoming an interpreter of existing repertoire, to be one person competing against thousands for the chance to perform a concerto at a competition, like painting by numbers, or to be studying serialism in a way divorced from its roots so that one wouldn't understand the importance of, say, numerology to Schoenberg."

Accordingly, Reid educated himself and ended up in the musicians' ghetto of the streets around the Wigmore Hall, where in 1990 he got a gig demonstrating a new midi-piano for Steinway. "I did a whole concert but the last two tunes had a beat behind them and when I got an encore, I didn't know what to do so I decided to sing, something that normally I only did in private. Suddenly I was descended upon by all these music-biz figures wanting to sign me up."

He signed for Sony and recorded an album, but it wasn't a happy experience. "They thought they could bring it to the common denominator of `He's black, he plays the piano, maybe if we give him some sunglasses he can be a new Stevie Wonder'. It was like, `Sure you can compose, but come on, take off your shirt and put on some baby oil and let's have you on Top of the Pops.' Eventually, I was threatened in the studio, and the engineers were told not to allow me to use electric guitars because they weren't `black' enough. This was before Tricky and before Seal - it was like you had to be Terry Riley or MC Hammer - and their idea was that, if you were young and black, you should be doing rap and saying `Yo!'. The album was released, unfinished and unmixed, but still girls started to write in to My Guy saying, `You've got a sexy bod, what's your favourite fish?'"

Reid re-oriented himself by forming a partnership with fellow composer and kora player Tunde Jegede, with whom he established the Axiom Foundation, and their concept of African classical music toured and recorded and built bridges with contemporary music ensembles. Though their battle for recognition is only half-won, the "Miracles Project" is an important station along the way, with Reid's opera to be performed by a chorus of up to 500 voices, full orchestra (the London Musici, directed by Mark Stephenson), electronic music ensemble, African percussion troupe and a rock band.

The theory of it all is too complicated to go into here, but basically Reid uses his idea of music as part of the hermetic tradition originating in Babylon and Chaldea and reaching out from Bach's Golden Mean as far as Debussy and the School of Paris to form a whole alternative theory of musical production. If you want to know more, Reid will probably be happy to come round to your home to explain it all to you in person. Be sure to leave the evening free, though. It might take a while.

`Miracles: The Concert': Thursday 7.30pm Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0171-589 8212)