Composer,Jazz,Music,Review,Sammy Stein

Album Review: “Happy Music For Orchestra” – Alex Paxton. Words: Sammy Stein

It is not often a musician or composer makes me sit up, listen and then listen again and again to the music, but Alex Paxton took me by surprise – I am almost ashamed to say I knew nothing of his music until now but I believe it should be shared. 

This album is like opening up a treasure box. Each track is revealed to the listener like a multi-layered treat – and there are many surprises. From the delightfully playful ‘Love Kittens’ with its beautiful orchestral arrangements conjuring up pictures of kittens jumping, leaping, waiting to pounce and then ‘whaarp!’ the trombone clearly indicates a pounce, to the third stream confection of ‘Od ODy Pink’d’ where Alex achieves that almost perfect fusion between jazz and orchestral arrangements, the improvisational nature of the jazz being explored and presented in a deeply textured and annotated form, giving it depth, layers, and textures which a sensitive composer can find. The orchestral parts wrap around the soloist, embracing them like a supportive arm. 

This music is noisy, fulsome, and evocative with contrasts of blaring improvisation over arcing strings and melodic chordal progressions. In many places, the trumpet improvises as it sighs and warps solo across the top and the embouchure is changed to allow for some cheeky, tongued notes and peeps. This is like listening to evolving music with everything from wah-wahs to gentle melodic phrases and the arrangements are masterful.

Within each track are stories that reveal themselves as you listen again and again. ‘Strawberry’ lifts the mind with its strange, contrapuntal rhythm and time pattern changes, and the counter-tenor vocal line that develops a slightly sinister atmosphere, while ‘Water’ is equally engaging with its rivers of percussive sounds which trickle independently yet create a wholeness that unites the individual lines in a watery world of sound. ‘Strawberry’ was inspired by the tapestries of Grayson Perry and certainly the work of the artist and orchestra feel as if they blend to create a cordial and mesmeric patchwork. 

Then there is ‘Sweet wishes’ which is a light fanciful escapade of sonic adventure with a slight melancholy running underneath and finally, ‘Bye’ with its oddly juxtaposed vocal and multi-tonal effects and one trombone improvising alongside another playing the composition. The Wurlitzer adds a certain fairground tone.  

This entire album is captivating and should come with a warning because once any improvised music lover presses ‘play’ they will find it difficult to prise themselves away. It is at once fun, eye-popping music, with arrangements that are clever, highly individual and, well, very very good.

The tracks are inspired by people Paxton has discovered. An example is ‘Sweet Wishes’ which was inspired by Madge Gill who was a London East End resident committed to an orphanage in 1882 and transported to Canada when she was fourteen as part of a child labour scheme. Finding her spirit guide, Myrninerest, when she returned to London, Madge began drawing, writing, knitting, and weaving fanatically creating meticulous portraits of ladies in fine hats, set against backgrounds of intricate, cross-hatched geometries. Her tale is reflected in the music as melodies are generated from sonic doodling before becoming encrusted with layers of surface decoration and distortion. 

Paxton has worked as a commercial orchestrator and while completing his master’s in composition at the Royal College of Music he worked as a primary school music teacher. His experience working with children seems to come through in the music too. There is that quick-fire moment when something loud and often funny happens that gains the attention and then the development which comes through listening further. For children or adults, this is a terrific way to be introduced to jazz and classical music – and here they are together. That title ‘ Happy Music For Orchestra’ at first threw me as I did not know what it might mean, but after listening to this no other title could suffice. This is brilliant.

Thirty musician, one gifted composer and arranger – jazz and classical – there is everything to love about this 


Taylor MacLennan flute, piccolo, Lavinia Redman oboes, Zacharias Wolfe oboe, cor anglaise,Alex Roberts clarinets,Joy Boole clarinet, piano, Wurlitzer, Sine Wave Synthesiser, Izabela Musial bassoons, Lucy Smith horns, Gwen Owen Trumpets, Rike Huy trumpet, Alex Paxton trumpets, trombones, tuba , Beibei Wang percussion, Elizabeth Bass harp, Vickey Powell harp, Lasma Taimina violins I , Kalliopi Mitropoulou , violins II , Victoria Bernath violas, Clifton Harrison, Cecelia Wyld ‘Cellos, Mike Newman ‘cellos , Gwen Reed double basses, Patrick Terry countertenor, Matthew Herd alto saxophone , David Ingamells drums, David Zucchi soprano & alto saxophones, kazoos , Lloyd Coleman Wurlitzer, melodica , Lloyd Coleman piano, Elischa Kaminer saw-wave synthesizer , David Ingamells drum,  Emma Purslow violas  Alex Paxton, composer, mixer, arranger, everything else. 

Buy here: Happy Music For Orchestra – Delphian: DCD34290 – CD or download | Presto Music

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