Arts: The man who has brought sheer sax to musicals

Saxophonist and composer John Harle has never been afraid to experiment, leaving critics raging and raving. His jazz rearrangement of the Fifties musical The Pajama Game opened recently.
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The Independent Culture

"Watching Leonard Bernstein eat a lobster was quite the most disgusting thing in the world." Amused amazement lights up the face of saxophonist and composer, John Harle. "He ate it with such vigour. It went everywhere." Not that Harle is an overly fastidious man. He's an omnivorous enthusiast, a truly unfashionable state of mind in a self-conscious age of irony, but something which links him with the late American master.

"Watching Leonard Bernstein eat a lobster was quite the most disgusting thing in the world." Amused amazement lights up the face of saxophonist and composer, John Harle. "He ate it with such vigour. It went everywhere." Not that Harle is an overly fastidious man. He's an omnivorous enthusiast, a truly unfashionable state of mind in a self-conscious age of irony, but something which links him with the late American master.

"He used to take the piss out of me for playing the suite from On The Waterfront too jazzily, but I used to say to him: 'How about a saxophone concerto?' And he'd say, 'Look, if you ask me that once more... in America I'm asked to write a saxophone concerto every 30 seconds'."

The concerto never happened, but one suspects that Harle doesn't waste hours in regret. At 43, Harle has had 17 concertos written expressly for him and number 18 is on the way from John Tavener, whose rhapsodic music shot up the charts after being played at the funeral of Princess Diana. That alone gives you a clue to Harle's musical identity that effortlessly straddles the often opposing worlds of so-called "popular" and "serious" music.

This former soloist with the Band of the Coldstream Guards plays around 60 gigs a year (with everyone from Elvis Costello to Michael Nyman and Richard Rodney Bennett); composes scores for concerts, film and TV; is a professor of music at London's Guildhall School; and a record producer. If that doesn't bring new (and bestselling) meaning to the dangerous term "crossover", try his witty and eclectic rearrangement of the score for the 1954 Broadway musical, The Pajama Game, which opens tonight in a chic new production.

The musical is yet another new venture. He met the director, Simon Callow, when playing at the National Theatre almost 20 years ago, but when the idea of re-arranging the score of this smart-mouthed, comic love story - set during a strike in a pyjama factory - came up, he could not initially see his way through it. But Callow knew his lustrous album of Ellington arrangements, In the Shadow of the Duke, and he persuaded him that he could make the music sound - in the true sense of the word - cool.

"The seminal music of the period was Gil Evans and Miles Davis and the beginnings of the 'cool' period. We treated the songs so that they reflect the jazz music of the Fifties." Together with top-flight arrangers - Gary Carpenter, Iain Gardner and Dick Walter - he's played fast and loose with rhythms, filling the score with the moods of the Fifties, rather than the standard Broadway sound which was fast beginning to sound dated.

There are instantly recognisable Fifties echoes, such as the mooning vibraphone tones made famous by the Modern Jazz Quartet, redolent of a million cocktail lounges. They've even turned the joyous, climactic wage- rise march "Seven and a Half Cents" into something more complex. "It now has more to do with something like Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges," he grins. "Without being untrue to the original, I think we've placed it in another part of American culture."

He's a dab hand at this kind of cross-culturalism, even bringing in Ladysmith Black Mambazo for Lesley Garrett's next album which he is producing, a collaboration certain to induce apoplexy in purists who bridle at Harle's refusal to sit in one particular box.

A thorny issue, evidently. "Richard Eyre calls it the difference between primary and secondary creation. If you're a primary creator then you write the thing that everybody works towards realising. For a musician or an actor who starts to write, the journey from secondary interpreter to being a primary creator doesn't seem a large leap, but for critics that journey is seen as massive. It entirely alters the way they view you." He sees it is as a controlling and peculiarly British attitude, and he's not alone. Michael Nyman has often complained about the intransigence of opinion that frowns upon his work for its supposed lack of high seriousness.

As a performer/composer - which appears to mean that he'll never be accepted into the aristocracy of English music - does this similarly upset Harle? "Naah," he says, convincingly. "Nyman has a terrible time because they say he cannot compose. That's very, very hurtful. His very ability to do his job is in question. Nobody is about to tell me that I can't play the saxophone." Listening to the astonishing depth and range of tone he produces on alto, tenor, and notably the soprano sax - "a bastard of an instrument" - this isn't arrogance, it's fact.

But it does partly explain why his first opera, Angel Magick, met with both rage and rave reviews from different sides of the press. Several critics sneered at his combining of traditional harmonic structures and 20th century serial techniques for their different expressive and dramatic capabilities.

For a while, he considered writing a joke piece in which an old devil admitted to his therapist that around 1915 he'd visited a well-known Viennese composer and told him that the whole history of music had been wrong. The 12 tones of the octave were meant to be organised in a numerical way, the previous tonal system was a complete mistake and that music had to be reinvented. Unfortunately, the composer took him seriously... but he'd meant it as a joke. He was now really sorry, because from that moment on music was never liked and he'd started the division between serious and popular music.

"It might have been funny," he observes, "but it would have appeared rather reactionary." In the light of his passionate advocacy of certain hardline contemporary composers - he famously premiered Harrison Birtwistle's Panic to boos at the Proms - that story might also appear strikingly contrary. In fact, he views Schoenberg's experiment as a massive opportunity that created a new aural vocabulary. Indeed, Harle is startlingly eloquent on the usually woolly subject of our response to the "natural" intervals of the standard harmonic series and the aesthetics of music. If he can squeeze it into his diary he should, like Bernstein, write and broadcast about it.

Next year's diary includes writing 10 hours of music for Simon Schama's BBC History of Britain. Does he, just possibly, do too much? He concedes his last year has been "bonkers" but argues that now he only does what he believes he can do well. Certainly, his alarming schedule is moving closer to a marriage between composition and playing, writing for himself and friends like Evelyn Glennie.

"As one gets older, you becomes less keen on impressing people. There were years when I played a million notes on the saxophone and even some of my early albums seem like a very talented sixth former showing off."

He looks straight at me with calm confidence. "Now I care less about the overall impression, and more about feeling that I really want to do something."'The Pajama Game', Victoria Palace, London SW1 (0171-834 1317)

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