Jazz: Different pitch, same goal

John L Walters sits in on a recording session featuring Joanna MacGregor and Infinitum - a show of many disciplines
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Joanna MacGregor frowns in annoyance - she can't phone out of the studio where she's recording with Nikki Yeoh, the young pianist and composer. The client has blocked all outgoing calls, says someone. "But I am the client," she says.

It's true. When producer James Mallinson booked the studios for MacGregor's new SoundCircus label, he insisted there could be no extras such as phone calls, food or overtime on the bill. And they have to be out of the studio by 5.30pm with a complete recording of a three-part work that MacGregor commissioned from Yeoh for her adventurous concert series (also called SoundCircus) in Manchester. MacGregor has talked about starting a label for some time, but this is the day when things get serious: the clock is ticking, the meter is running.

The band she's recording consists of Yeoh's trio Infinitum, with bass guitarist Michael Mondesir and drummer Keith LeBlanc, augmented by MacGregor driving the second of a pair of Steinway grands parked in the cavernous space of Whitfield Street's Studio One. They play a kind of structured contemporary jazz: three episodic pieces that exploit the musicians' performing skills with written ensemble sections and improvised solos over a variety of grooves and pulses. Yeoh's music grabs the ear but demands repeated listening. This is not something a regular record company would record. That's why MacGregor is doing it herself.

The engineer is Mike Ross-Trevor, a legend among film soundtrack buffs for his orchestral recordings of classic (and new) movie scores. He's recording every performance straight to stereo on an optical disc recorder, a small black box packed with state-of-the-art technology. What we hear on playback is the final mix - this is pretty much the way jazz records were made in the 1950s and 60s. Mallinson is best known for his classical work, producing most of MacGregor's recordings for Collins Classics. "It's a snapshot in time," says Mallinson, "what a particular group of players did on a particular day. You have to capture the element of surprise. This can create a conflict with performers, particularly piano players, but it's a productive conflict."

The musicians finish their sandwiches, stow their mobile phones and settle down for another take. The assistant engineer says "Rolling", anachronistically, as he puts the digital machine into record: all four musicians launch into the opening ensemble. The atmosphere is friendly but tense. This is Yeoh's first record as a composer, and MacGregor's first as a jazz improviser. They have performed the suite just once, at Manchester last November. Yet there is clearly a great warmth between the two pianists: at one point MacGregor refers to Yeoh as her "spiritual sister".

By late afternoon, there are enough takes to make a record: no overtime, no extras. Mallinson is beaming. MacGregor is exhausted. Her idea is to make SoundCircus a label that will reflect all her music interests, whether they be William Byrd transcriptions, John Cage sonatas or new commissions and collaborations. And the diversity of genres, sounds and styles - the elements that make marketing (in record industry terms) so difficult - are the very things she wants to emphasise. So as well as the small-group collaborations with Yeoh, the Apollo saxophone quartet and Iain Ballamy, there will be new commissions from Harrison Birtwistle (a solo piece called Harrison's Clocks) and Talvin Singh and full-blown piano concertos by Django Bates and Lou Harrison. Her thinking is much closer to the approach of indie labels in the rock and dance scenes. The music excites her, so she wants to record it, and get it out quickly, by mail order rather than through record shops. That's why I'm here, but that's another story...

Yet it doesn't sound like club music and it certainly isn't "crossover classical music" or the Frankenstein monster of enforced "fusion". It's the music you get when talented musicians play interesting material. It's an example of creative casting, like John Scofield and Ensemble Modern playing Mark-Anthony Turnage's Blood on the Floor, or Bang on a Can playing Eno's Music for Airports.

A few days after the session, Yeoh comments that "Joanna played with the same kind of fire she has playing Bach and Scarlatti. She always plays the music - she doesn't let the music play her".

And you can hear this in Yeoh's Be-Bop: the composer vamps funkily in the left speaker while MacGregor rattles off a long, intricate melody line on the right. And it's fascinating to hear the metronomic groove of LeBlanc (whose CV reads like the index of a particularly hip record library: Tackhead, Nine Inch Nails, Maceo Parker, Annette Peacock...) in this looser, more acoustic context.

"Nikki played more spikily and like me as the session wore on, and I became more laid back and like her," says MacGregor. "And she was completely insistent that I became a member of the band." Mondesir rejects any suggestion that musicians from different backgrounds might speak in different musical languages: "I've always found it strange that people think things shouldn't mix - basically it's all music."

Yet MacGregor is treading a well-worn contemporary music pathway. She commissions new music. Then she performs it in a way that is faithful to the composer while stamping it with her own personality. But where the intentions of a Jonathan Harvey or Birtwistle, say, are expressed in pen on paper, Yeoh's are expressed through her personality, through the way she gets MacGregor to be one of the girls in the band.

Joanna MacGregor finds this exhilarating. "Nikki was very picky about the way I played the written pieces," she says, "but very open about the way I improvised. Classical musicians can sometimes get very hung up on the idea that there's a right way and there's a wrong way," says MacGregor. "You can see this destroy a lot of players. Jazz musicians have a way of understanding that there are a lot of different ways of doing things. That's what's great about them, they're so friendly. And they are so individualistic - that's why they can accept someone like me."