Music / Blood on the Floor QEH, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
For decades, jazz and classical music have eyed each other, yearning for a liaison neither dares initiate. Composers long for the articulacy and freedom jazz enjoys, jazzers want the status, if not the respectability, bestowed on composition. Mark-Anthony Turnage spent time studying with Gunther Schuller, who played with Miles Davis in the Fifties and came closer than most to fusing composition and jazz, a fusion that he labelled "Third Stream". Like Schuller, Turnage spent his teenage years adoring jazz, and now uses the orchestra with the exuberance of the best jazz orchestrators. Yet his music doesn't sound like jazz. Nor should it, unless he wants it to.

With Blood on the Floor, premiered last week at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, he clearly does to some extent, describing the 75-minute piece as being "for three jazz soloists and large ensemble". His chosen soloists are the guitarist John Scofield, the drummer Pete Erskine and Martin Robinson on saxes; while the "large ensemble" is Ensemble Modern, conducted with unshowy assurance by Peter Rundel. The soloists' parts allow space, though not apparently much, for improvisation, and it's not the least of Turnage's achievement that this space seemed to open up naturally.

No doubt Scofield's guitar and Erskine's kit made amplification necessary. Some in the audience clearly found it excessive, but more problematic than sheer volume was the resulting mire of sound. While it's true that no one hears every detail of unamplified ensemble, here a whole string section sometimes sank without trace.

Turnage takes his title from a painting by Francis Bacon, while the titles of its nine sections ("Junior Addict", "Needles" etc) refer to his brother's drug addiction and consequent death. Yet, while there were moments of sombre reflection, what was most striking was the sheer delight in making music.

Although there were scored solos for ensemble players, for the most part the orchestra provided shifting layers over which the "jazz soloists" could stretch out, whether playing the score or bouncing their own ideas against what Turnage supplied. Erskine gave the pulse, but a pulse that constantly shifted within the movements' usual fast-slow-fast dialectic, offering sufficient flexibility for tempo to become part of the work's coloration. Turnage has expressed his awe about working with such jazz legends as Scofield and Erskine, yet their status has driven him to some of his most exuberant writing, to which they in turn responded with magisterial ease.

It was noticeable that half the audience applauded between movements, half didn't, suggesting that the concert had attracted the jazz and classical music communities in equal parts. Some no doubt see that as falling between stools, but, although there were moments when disparate elements clashed unproductively, Blood on the Floor emerged as integrated and inventive, leading Turnage into new territory where he patently feels at home.