Reviews

Jasper Rees interviews the ELF Trio

Some things just don’t seem to belong in a pairing. The flute and the French horn both have their distinct sonic personality. It wouldn’t be going out on a limb to suggest that the average listener tends to lean towards one or the other. Even Mozart wrote for the horn out of love but trotted out his flute compositions for money. But opposites can and do attract and so it once more proves in a new recording featuring the horn and the flute and, discreetly chaperoning the pair of them, the piano.

The musicians responsible for this newly formed ensemble are horn player Dave Lee, flautist Andy Findon and pianist Geoff Eales. Taking the first letters of their surnames they have chosen to dub their trio ELF (though none of the three musicians would seem to answer to the description of elvish). Andy Findon is a prolific and highly regarded multi-instrumentalist whose main instrument is the flute. Lee has been principal horn of, among others, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Opera House; in his groundbreaking CD Under the Influence he showed the horn in a searing and seductive new light. For many years both have been associated with two British composers with highly contrasting voices – Michael Nyman and Andrew Lloyd Webber – and it is these two who between them underpin the creation of ELF.

“There is a piece we recorded for Michael called ‘Wonderland’,” explains Dave. “One of the first pieces in the suite starts with a unison tune of the horn and the flute. We got used to playing it and then Michael started writing other stuff using that same colour, and he’s still writing them. He just said, ‘I really like the sound of that. It works really well together.’”

Armed with the knowledge that the two instruments could, as it were, get into bed with each other and make music, Lee approached Lloyd Webber and requested the sheet music for Phantasia, his Phantom of the Opera suite, a reduction originally created by Geoffrey Alexander for Julian Lloyd Webber on cello and Sarah Chang on violin. “The concept was for violin, horn and piano to make it a classical trio.” But then Findon, the distinguished flautist and multi-instrumentalist whom he’s worked with for years in both the Nyman band and on West End shows, suggested that the violin part be transplanted to the flute. Paul Bateman did the honours to turn the stringed parts to wind. All they needed was a pianist. They went to Geoff Eales, a session musician who in the 1990s took a conscious turn into composing, arranging and recording jazz. “Geoff was resistant,” recalls Dave. “The piano reduction was an absolute heave-ho of a piano part.” But he was persuaded.

They made their first appearance at a lunchtime concert at St Martin’s Lane in 2009, then in Germany a few months later (pictured above). “There wasn’t an enormous repertoire,” says Findon. Lee corrects him. “There was no repertoire.” “But when Geoff is there it broadens things,” Findon continues. “It’s amazing what you can come up with. Then we all started looking at each other’s albums.”

“It’s an unusual combination,” concedes Eales. “The natural reaction is that’s not going to work. But we proved that it can.” The CD Reflections has taken another two years, in which time they have indeed plundered Findon’s CD When the Boat Comes In and Lee’s Under the Influence. Eales has also composed new work for the trio, while they also gathered in other arrangements. The resulting repertoire is a complex and undefinable mulch of styles reflecting their mixture of musical backgrounds. “There are so many pigeonholes,” says Dave. “I have a funny feeling we don’t fit into any. We’re bringing in aspects of jazz, aspects of classical. It’s a melting pot we pile into. Sometimes the way we play some of the stuff is not strictly kosher.”

They certainly display an intriguing and fearless will to flout musical orthodoxy. The centrepiece, slightly shortened from its original 32 minutes, is the Phantasia. Findon is unapologetic about shunting the violin out of the way. “I knew that it would work with the flute, better than with a violin. Both the lads thought, because I don’t just play the flute and in Nyman I’m his baritone player, that I would use soprano sax. The problem is, to play to the level I want to be able to impersonate Sarah Chang you can’t have physically a saxophone going at the same time [as a flute]. You can’t do that if you’ve had a reed on your bottom lip in the middle of a concert at the level Dave is playing the horn.”

So the flute it was. Findon’s flute takes the lead in the folky opening section of the CD. Later on, after the Phantasia, it’s Lee’s turn to put the horn through its jazz paces. When people think of jazz horns, they assume it’s anything but the French horn. In fact Julius Watkins recorded two albums of jazz on the French horn in the heyday of Blue Note, there are several American horn players who specialise in jazz while Jim Rattigan has made a name for himself doing it over here. Although he played a beautiful woozy solo on a track called “Daydream” in the London Horn Sound’s jazz recording Give It One!, Lee is ambivalent about the horn’s adaptability in the idiom. “My opinion is the horn is a little bit too long to play jazz. To have the fluidity I think the horn’s character changes and it starts to sound like another instrument. It’s a conical-bore instrument. In order to get the facility you lose the beauty of the sound.”

That said, he couldn’t have been working with a composer more sensitive to the horn’s attributes. Not that he knew that he was in safe hands. When Eales trained at Cardiff University under Professor Alan Hoddinott his second instrument was the horn (indeed he played it professionally as a dep on BBC Wales). “While I was a student they knew me more as a horn player than a pianist. I played for 15 years but there was no time to practise and I hardly ever got the instrument out of the case.”

I can’t ask resisting if they’ve thought of doing the Brahms Horn Trio and give the violin part to the flute? “Of course we could,” says Lee, “but why would we?” We’re trying to create a new format, have a musical experience for all three of us. We got together not knowing where this was going to lead.”

Jasper Rees, theartsdesk.com, August 2011

theartsdesk.com on "Reflections"

Horn player Dave Lee’s earlier solo disc Under the Influence is re-released alongside this new one. Under the Influence’s success comes down to the range of music chosen by Lee; there can’t be many CDs which showcase Peter Maxwell Davies alongside David Bowie. Reflections is a collaboration between Lee and two colleagues – flautist Andy Findon and pianist Geoff Eales, both of whom have enjoyed careers as eclectic as Lee’s. Flute, horn and piano blend surprisingly well, and care has been taken to ensure that the results don’t tip over into bland mood music. Lee’s horn sound is fabulous – he’s one of the best legato players around, and the most impressive parts of the disc are where he lets the instrument sing. Findon is excellent at varying his platinum flute’s tone colours, and he plays with a warm vibrato which never becomes obtrusive. Barry Tuckwell released a disc of Jerome Kern songs in the 1980s which for me recalled Phantasia on this disc – an extended suite based on themes from Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. Lloyd Webber is a shrewder, more skilful composer than he’s often given credit for, and the results hang together beautifully. The arrangement is a classy one, with both solo wind parts sounding like authentic flute and horn parts.

Michael Nyman’s If offers a reminder that this composer can produce extended cantabile melodies as well as hyperactive minimalism; equally successful are the compositions and arrangements by Eales, with Song for my Mother and his take on a meeting between Chick Corea and Rodrigo especially affecting. The only dodgy moments are the folk songs which begin the album. Beautifully played, but they can’t help recalling Constant Lambert’s comment that with a folk song you can’t really do much with it apart from play it again. Louder.

Graham Rickson, theartsdesk.com, August 2011

MusicWeb on ELF Trio - "Reflections"

The following review taken from musicweb-international.com, 11 July 2011

This is a difficult disc to categorise, and I expect that staff at the few remaining emporia actually devoted to selling CDs will need to seek guidance: is it classical, crossover, folk, jazz, light, or a cross-pollinator of some, or indeed all, of the above? Perhaps it will help to know that Andy Findon and Dave Lee are both members of Michael Nyman's band and that Geoff Eales is a highly respected jazz pianist. Together the initials of their surnames spell out the trio ELF, which formulation is becoming something of a cliché in powerhouse piano-bass-drum jazz trios; see EST etc. Calling yourself ELF also suggests a bout of the Hobbits, or something, which I'm sure is not the intention.

The repertoire takes in traditional material, Lloyd Webber, a Nyman song, three compositions by Eales – including an Elf Dance, somewhat inevitably, I suppose – and jazz standards. They're grouped together amusingly under headings such as "Folk in a Boat" for the traditional material and "Doing Bird" for the trio of avian-related jazz titles. Clearly these are not sour-faced practitioners.

The motor of the disc is the long sequence of themes from Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, here called Phantasia. It's arranged by Geoff Alexander and heard in this trio reduction by Paul Bateman. By coincidence I was watching a "making of" retrospective of the original work the week before I listened to this 26 minute outing for piano, horn and flute, so the themes were already lodged. It would have been nice, though not essential, for each separately tracked cut to have been identified in the booklet. I enjoyed this ingenious piece of work, from Eales's tinkling piano introduction [track 9] which is full of suspense; also the commanding playing of Dave Lee and Findon's blandishments.

The folk arrangements include a rather spare piano introduction to When the Boat Comes In over which the flute pirouettes and the horn mulls. It ends pessimistically, segueing into Brigg Fair where the counterpoint with Scarborough Fair is adeptly realised. Molly on the Shore brings out the fife or penny-whistler manqué in Findon, whose flute playing evokes these instruments whilst Lee plays the straight man throughout, harmonically speaking. I enjoyed Ian Hughes's Reflections, the title track, very much. It comes from a 1996 TV film, and is a worthy salute to the late composer.

Another lovely song is Nyman's If, followed immediately by that rather funky Elf Dance, albeit one containing a fair share of wistful elements too. Eales's Song for my Mother was written for his jazz trio and though it explicitly evokes Horace Silver in its title, this combination of instruments re-imagines it in a new and richly textured way. We also hear Chick Corea's Spain and that bird-related trio of classic jazz themes by Joe Zawinul, George Shearing and Charlie Parker, all genially arranged; Lullaby of Birdland is the best of the bunch.

So, whatever genre this disc occupies – and it traverses repertoire and different forms without embarrassment – the proof is in the playing, which is typically outstanding. Sympathetic, receptive listeners will enjoy it – the jazz, the pastoralisms, the show tunes, the traditional songs, the originals, and indeed the whole ethos of un-pigeonholed musicians working hard and enjoying themselves.

Jonathan Woolf

The British Horn Society

Dave Lee talks to Hugh Seenan

For many years Dave Lee has been numbered amongst London’s most exclusive inner circle of horn players, regularly crossing all the boundaries between classical/ commercial, pop and jazz genres. He has been Principal Horn of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden with periods in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. His film and TV recordings include Michael Kamen’s score for the TV series Band of Brothers with its heart rendering horn solos and Dave Arnold’s score for the feature film Stargate.

His special relationship with the group Morcheeba is highlighted in their best selling album Big Calm, one of many pop artists he has played for. He has been around the world and back again with the Nyman Band and for many years he has been Andrew Lloyd Webbers principal horn having played in London’s West End Shows Only a Sunday, Aspects of Love and Whistle Down the Wind. I think we get the point – Dave has been there and done it all.

As if all those achievements where not enough, he has recently crossed another boundary into uncharted territory with the release of his solo album Under The Influence. This is an unusual and unique CD. “The idea for it started with some arrangements I did of some Queen numbers for a little event I did in Walthamstow with Chris Davies [of the Royal Opera House] who was at the time a peripatetic teacher in the area. He had something like 30 – 40 horn pupils, and we thought why not put on a concert? It went on from there; a couple of the Queen arrangements worked really well, and lent themselves to the horn, so I decided to go down that route”. Whilst he was thinking about arrangements, Dave played on the London Horn Sound recording and thought that the light stuff worked well. Also, his contacts influenced things “Michael Nyman is rock and roll classical music to me and some of his music would sound great arranged for horn and sax, I’m a great fan of David Bowie and Pink Floyd, which I also thought would work well”.

The next impetus was his association with the group Morcheeba. Dave was involved with their first two albums, which involved arrangements for strings and solo horn by Steve Bentley Klein. This further encouraged him to take the horn into new areas; he wanted to change the sound and perception of the horn. So his CD has Maxwell-Davies’ Sea Eagle for solo horn, Michael Nyman for horn and piano, multi-tracking for horn and for horn and saxophone, then horn with synthesiser, and string quartet with horn. “And then I thought it would be nice to add a voice. Essentially, it’s what we do a lot of the time professionally – we do all of what’s on the album at some point. The idea was to mix it up, and to try and get the spectrum of what we do for a living – from classic 70s rock, through Nyman and Arvo Part to Maxwell Davies”.

As Dave himself says, this CD is a distillation of his career to date. “I have always hated being put in a box as a classical player or anything else. To me it’s all music. And if I’m in one box, I always want to be in another – the grass is always greener…”

He seems to have had no trouble in jumping from one box to another in his 33 years as a professional player. His first position was as co-principal/third horn in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, at the rather tender age of 18. Taking this job, he was faced with the kind of choice that not too many 18-year-olds have to make. He had got his A-levels out of the way at 15 or 16, and stayed on for an extra year at school to take an extra subject, and to assess what to do. “I applied to the Royal Manchester College of Music, as it was then, and got a scholarship there. I was also offered a place at the London School of Economics to study economics and history. At the same time, in that particular year, there was something like 10 horn jobs advertised”.

He applied for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, bumping Tim Brown, who gave him a trial and told him he should go to London. He also applied for the BBC Welsh, which job he was offered, and the BBC Northern Ireland, and the BBC Scottish. Of all of these, he decided to go for the Scottish at the princely sum of £36 per week – “which was double what my father was earning as a train driver. And the BBC was a job for life then – it’s funny how things change. This was a foot in the water that was very hard to resist. Although I did miss out on three years at college, which I regret, I do think college is very important, because of the amount of growing up you do during that time. Instead of that, I ad to work out day to day professional problems as they came along. I feel as if I’ve been at college all my life”.

He recalls his first live broadcast with the orchestra. “The fourth horn was a great character who had been with the orchestra for ages – no-one knew how old he was, but he was long past the official retirement age – all his papers had been lost by the BBC during the war. My first gig was Dvorak’s New World Symphony, on third horn. The rehearsals had gone well, but the first entry in the actual concert was a very exposed unison B natural for third and fourth horns. When it came to this the fourth horn came out and with the most perfect lip thrill, hitting every note but the B natural. My first thought was that everyone listening was going to think it was me.” However Dave accepts that this is all part of gaining professional experience. Everyone makes mistakes and horn players especially have to live with it.

The next step was to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra as principal horn. Dave had auditioned for Maurice Handford, and was appointed by him but when Louis Fremaux became the principal conductor he felt he had to put his own stamp on him. “My lack of college experience had been fine on third horn in Scotland, but now I was principal horn in a new and strange environment, and I had to learn quickly. It took a couple of years to sort things out. But I have very fond memories of my time in Birmingham”.

After three years with the CBSO, he moved to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He really had the bug for playing nuw, and got the urge to move to London. The RPO wanted a principal horn, after Jim Brown and Ian Harper left the orchestra. He auditioned, and was promised the job and enough work to justify leaving the CBSO. But it didn’t quite work out like this. Although they had offered him a principal job, they then decided he needed some more experience so they offered him the co-principal horn position with the view to having a more experienced principal horn sharing the job with him. Although he enjoyed working with guest principals Alan Civil and Jeff Bryant, whom he greatly admired, he was then offered co-principal horn in the LPO. With its secure work at Glyndebourne Opera and a roster of great conductors he thought it would be a great move. He remembers playing first horn in a recording of Brahms Serenade No 1 with the great Sir Adrian Boult. However he was not really happy with his lot and he was still seeing the profession through rose tinted spectacles. He was searching for the right job and after a period working with Sadlers Wells touring ballet he was eventually appointed principal horn with the BBC Concert Orchestra. “I had a very good time in the Concert Orchestra. I was able to be myself, and they have a big, wide repertoire – classical and light stuff. I had always listened to Friday Night is Music Night when I was at school”. At this time Dave made a broadcast with the BBCCO of Villanelle by Paul Dukas in its rarely performed version for solo horn and orchestra.

During this period circumstances evolved to direct him towards what was to become the other big part of his career. Just before joining the BBCCO, he took on a Lloyd-Webber show, Tell Me On A Sunday, which was fixed by Sid Sax. Sax was the major fixer (contractor) in London at that time and this led on to work with the National Philharmonic Orchestra, film sessions, and so on. From that point on, Dave was a regular for Sax. “I was back into a regular job as the film and session work kicked off”. These two conflicting directions inevitably caused increasing problems during the three years he was with the BBCCO, and the commercial side won. Notwithstanding this, he describes his time with the BBCCO as roaring.

At the time of his leaving, the West End show Chess had been running for about a year. After depping for a while, he got this show, and then, before it finished, was offered Lloyd-Webber’s Aspects of Love. There has been a change in attitude towards West End shows over the past few years. They are now highly paid jobs with very difficult horn parts. They have also become a staple diet for really top trumpet players like Derek Watkins, John Barclay and others.

This ran for three years, towards the end of which the principal position at the Royal Opera House became vacant. Why did he decide to go for that, when he was free-lancing so successfully? “Because I wanted to prove myself, and because I wanted to play The Ring and Rosenkavalier – I had always fancied opera, because it was one thing that I hadn’t done. Also, Strauss and Mozart’s best music is in their operas”. Dave did a trial under Christoph von Dohnanyi playing Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, and was subsequently offered the principal job. “I enjoyed it very much, but ultimately the conflict between the job and the free-lancing came up again The Opera House job demands 100% both physically and mentally, and I was juggling that with free-lancing, and the Nyman Band. I enjoyed opera very much, because of the theatre connection – you can really subject yourself to the story. But the classical discipline and free-lancing just doesn’t mix. I had too many plates spinning at once, and this conflict was exacerbated, because the Nyman Band is very well paid gig, it quite different line in horn- playing, and the Nyman Band is like a family – I have a very strong bond with the players there”.

The Horn Call

Dave Lee – “Under The Influence” – by Pip Eastop

In London there is every kind of music going on all the time and it’s no secret that a large proportion of the world’s best musicians live and work there. Dave Lee is a hornplaying Yorkshireman who has lived in London since 1974 and is one of the Capital’s busiest and most brilliant players. He can be heard in films, on television and in studios, concert halls and theatres playing everything from classical to pop music, from chamber music to big band.

He has produced a CD album of short works for horn in a wide variety of styles and settings. A brief selection of some of his chosen musical sources will give an idea of the kind of treats in store : Pink Floyd, Weather Report, David Bowie, Erik Satie, Bifly Strayhorn, Kurt Weill and Michael Nyman, to name but a few. In the context of the kind of horn playing work which is Dave’s bread and butter, this album is somewhat autobiographical but if there is a central theme for the disc as a whole it must surely be the actual sound of the modern horn itself, most particularly its commercial appeal, I mean “commercial” in the sense of it being such a glorious sound that anyone hearing it will be hooked and want more of it.

Dave’s instrument is interesting : he uses a mouthpiece of his own design and plays a stunning looking pure sterling silver single Bb/A Schmid with a built-in F extension.

Apart from being an extremely enjoyable and listenable disc, I think this collection is such a compelling advert for the effectiveness of the horn in projecting musical/visual scenes that it is likely to have quite an influence on any film composers, song writers or producers lucky enough to hear it.

The opening track, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, by Pink Floyd, begins with a pulsating, glowing backdrop of sound oito which float the steely, glinting tones of a muted horn. The effect here is of a visual panorama and when when the mute is removed it’s as though the sun has come out from behind a cloud flooding the soundstage with warm golden glowing hornlight.

“Birdland”, written by Zawinul for Weather Report was recorded so well in 1977 that although it soon became a classic it has seldom been performed by anyone else since, probably because it was too intimidatingly perfect. Dave Lee’s new version is highly original and effective and he has a wonderful group of musicians to accompany him – including Derek Watkins, one of the world’s greatest and most recorded trumpet players.

“The first Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is presented within an eclectic mix featuring the breathily intimate voice of Skye, vocalist from the dub-sout-trip-rock-meditation-trance-pop group, morcheeba. She is skillfully blended with a lot of tasty solo and ensemble horn sounds and the spicy tabla playing of Sirishkumar.

In a suite of starkly angular music by Michael Nyman written for the film, “The Ogre”, there is a curiously Alpine flavour with shades of Janacek’s sound world creeping in. For me, this track conjures up the scene of a pack of mad barking clockwork saxophonists cavorting in high Czech mountain pastures. In the other work by michael Nyman, “Psalm”, we discover a good new piece for horn and piano The music conservatoires are always on the lookout for this kind of thing. Students be warned, though; it is not going to be easy to play.

Dave Lee includes an adaptation – for horn, bass guitar and tabla – of a short piece by Jaco Pastorius, the brilIiant bass guitarist from Weather Report. This works beautifully and is strangely reminiscent, in both tonality and timing, of Benjamin Britten’s serenade for Tenor, horn and strings (although, thankfully, there is no tenor!). Here can be heard some beautiful and spacious horn playing.

In “Blood Count”, by Billy Strayhorn, Dave shows that there are other ways of sounding sexy apart from using saxophones with lashings of vibrato. Duke Ellington would have loved this sound but French horns coutdn’t really produce it back in his era.

“Sea Eagle”, for solo horn, was written in 1984 by the eccentric English composer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, knighted for his compositions despite their lack of musical appeal and their aImost total unplayability. Dave Lee gives us a great lesson into how to turn a seemingly random, shapeless and impractical selection of notes into a thing of great beauty.

The disc includes a very beautiful version of the much-arranged (and much abused) piano piece, Gymnopedie No. 1 by Erik Satie. The horn’s timbre is magical here, seeming to come at you from all directions at once. It’s a great reminder of what a horn really sounds like – what a horn really should sound like. But just what that sound is and why it is such an elusive and indefinable thing remains a mystery to me because even when it is presented like this, as if an a golden platter, one can only listen in puzzled wonderment, feeling somehow enriched by the whole thing.

Spiegel im Spiegel is a very slow religious-sounding melody by Arvo Part. For me, this is the heart of the whole album. Anyone who feels in need of a horn lesson should look no further because this is a wonderfully practical illustration of how it is done. On the surface this track is no more than some extremely slowly played legato scales but deeper listening will reveal an astonishing, literally breathtaking, degree of control. An impossible, invisible legato and immaculate breath control with a sound, which is, paradoxically, as steady as a rock and yet always fluid and mobile. The effect is hypnotic and, to most horn players it wilI be humbling experience. I think it’s also worth noting that every individual note can be heard to posses its own unique timbre, yet another layer of subtle variation. Composers of commercial music constrained by budget considerations shouted listen to it and take note that this kind of richness, this infinite variability of sound, is simply not possible to create by electronic means. In other words real hornplayers are irreplaceable.

This CD is a jewel box of delights, many more than I have described here, all beautifully produced, aIl excitingly and perfectly played. The horn has been crying out for an album like this to be made and I can think of quite a few horn players who will be kicking themselves for not having thought of doing it, …and then perhaps kicking themselves again on realising that even if they had, they wouldn’t have made such a superb job of it as Dave Lee has with “Under the Influence”.

« Older