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Full Focus

Blazing Flame Quintet

Over The Brow Of The Green Hill

From the album The Set List Shuffle

 

'Full Focus' is a series where musicians and others discuss a jazz track or tracks in detail. The idea is that you are able to listen to the track that is discussed as you read about it. If you have a track on an album that you have released where you might like to share the ideas behind it and talk about how it developed - please contact us.

 

Steve Day talks about the track Over The Brow Of The Green Hill from his band Blazing Flame Quintet's new album The Set List Shuffle released on Leo Records, summer 2017.

Blazing Flame Quintet are: Steve Day (voice, words, percussion), Peter Evans (5 string electric violin), Mark Langford (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Julian Dale (double bass, cello),  Anton Henley (drums, percussion).

 

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Over the brow of the green hill
come Marc and Bella Chagall.
Over the brow of the green hill
come Marc and Bella Chagall.
Leaving town,
and not coming back until the world turns round.
Pogroms, pogroms, pogroms, move on, pogroms, pogroms, pogroms.

The flying lovers are drawn to acrylic skies
but the Bolsheviks were marching before the paint had dried.
The love-birds board a steamship to the USA,
where Bella died on Broadway and Marc made Broadway pay.
France became his place of peace in stain-glass blue.
Let no thief steal your lover or the one green hill you knew.

Over the brow of the green hill
come Marc and Bella Chagall.
Over the brow of the green hill
come Marc and Bella Chagall.
Leaving town,
and not coming back until the world turns round.
Pogroms, pogroms, pogroms, move on, pogroms, pogroms, pogroms.

These are the most fantastical of days,
there’s a green hill far away
where the moon is painted blue
in seven different shades
and Bella flies like a sea-gull
guarded by a golden eagle
counting sheep fast asleep
unaware there’s a wolf who wants to feed on them. 

Over the brow of the green hill
come Marc and Bella Chagall.
Over the brow of the green hill
come Marc and Bella Chagall.
They're leaving town,
and not coming back until the world goes round.
Pogroms, pogroms, pogroms, progroms, move on, pogroms, pogroms, pogroms.

 

Writing a poem, song, a play, book or story, even an online article can become a metaphor.  Bloggers and hacks, artists and painters all carry other purposes.  A picture seems to depict a certain image, yet there’s often secondary, maybe multiple meanings given off by a visual statement.  If ‘statement’ sounds too hard a word (as in solid ‘state’), try a hint of inference about a wonderland beyond reality.  The medium of paint or letters are not the facts of the matter just the means of description. 

I wrote Over The Brow Of The Green Hill after watching Kneehigh Theatre’s production of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk.  The show, based on the lives of Marc and Bella Chagall.  Ten years before, I had seen the painter’s exquisite lithographs from his Daphnis And Daphnis and Chloe book coverChloe series when I was staying on the Greek Island of Lesbos.  Chagall had painted the series between 1957 and 1960; long after the events depicted in Flying Lovers and Over the Brow.  For me Daphnis And Chloe are representative of his regeneration.  When Blazing Flame Quintet came to record Over The Brow Of The Green Hill, coincidence stepped in. I discovered our drummer, Anton Daphnis and Chloe book front pageHenley, in his role as a professional bookbinder, had crafted a beautiful bespoke book of Daphnis And Chloe translated by George Thornley and printed by The Golden Cockerel Press.  

One life can, in itself, embrace multiple lives.  Initially Marc Chagall’s birthright came out of the Russian pogroms.  His home in Vitebsk could be described as rural poverty.  He was to make many journeys of his own volition, yet some became circumstantial, others desperate. By the outbreak of World War 1 he was still a young man, on the brink of establishing his reputation as a painter.  In 1923 he left Russia for Paris, but in 1941, now clearly a formidable avant-garde artist, he and his wife Bella fled Europe at the outbreak of the Nazi invasion.  Only to find that “Bella died on Broadway and Marc made Broadway pay” – it is said that Marc Chagall considered that exile itself may have contributed to Bella’s death. 

Juxtapose these ‘lives’ with a later life with his second wife, Valentina, in Greece and the surreal sensuality of Daphnis And Chloe. Our performance of Over The Brow of The Green Hill is a compression, it’s a verbal song/poem literally moving in different directions.  Critically for me it ends with the lines: “....counting sheep fast asleep unaware there’s a wolf who wants to feed on them.” For me, the ‘wolf’ is always present.  However pastoral the painting or the verse, we must always endeavour to seek out the wolf.  If it is truthful it will be present in some form.  And sure, Over The Brow is about ‘Marc and Bella Chagall’; but it is also about the citizens of Aleppo and Mosul who currently have to flee their homes, it acknowledges the tragedy of Gaza, the plight of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, and yes, it represents the millions of Jews who never managed to “board a steam ship for the USA”.

Over The Brow Of The Green Hill was recorded in one take at The Factory Studios on 11th January 2017.  It begins with an intensely angular, caress of a violin and cello.  Immediately the music feels as if it could swallow your ears.  In concert, Peter Evans and Julian Marc Chagall Daphnis and ChloeDale stretch this duet.  They provide a prologue, précising storytelling without words.  They are both orchestrators, here they lay out the tale of Marc and Bella Chagall as if their music is a map.  As a soloist one of Peter Evans' skills is that he can hit creativity from a standing start.  I’ve heard it happen many times.  We arrive somewhere, we set up.  Peter uses an array of effects pedals, wires, leads, tuning adjustments, he’s plugging stuff in. There’s a bit of brief conversation.  A count in; he’s away, totally on the soundpicture, producing big strokes of colour from the beginning.  Julian, a formal composer as well as bassist with The Flame, configures the cello like a low sonic descant. After the initial voice incanting the chorus and verse, enter bass clarinet into the mix. 

Marc Chagall Daphnis and Chloe

 

The gift that is Mark Langford is that he plays like an enquiring mind, both troubling yet at the same time richly detailed in clarity.  As a human being he is a lovely generous person, musically, there’s something of, beware ‘the wolf’ about him.   I think he’s a special player.  A significant proportion of his career has been dedicated to open ended ‘free’ improvisation; in Blazing Flame Quintet my pre-written lyric binds him into a beginning and an end.  He becomes an interpreter of not just his own psyche but mine too.  It’s a privilege I don’t take lightly, yet I recognise that for him there has to be an element of being a “wolf who wants to feed”.  His playing throughout Over The Brow is exemplary.   

At first, Anton’s vintage Premier traps kit clicks metronome tight, by the end he has maintained the pulse yet pushed off in other directions, shaking and rattling on the rim of the lyric.  Drumming becomes a sophisticated pulse diviner, with the air between two wooden drumsticks measuring beaten time.  Never underestimate the drum role (roll), the crack is literally the space in-between.  He sets up strings and reeds for the final instrumental segment which, again in a live setting, is extended. 

Blazing Flame Quintet has never been merely an ‘accompaniment’ for songs.  Structurally, we are interested in the playoff between composition and the impromptu response.  Both Anton and I are intuitive time keepers but Peter, Mark and Julian are sonic pioneers.  Truly, each one of them is like a technically gifted fine art artist who abstracts.  People coming to our gigs this year can Blazing Flame Quintetexpect to hear ‘songs’ from The Set List Shuffle.  What they won’t hear is reproductions.  We have to alter the dynamic.  Personally, I have one other motive.  I write in order to reach an understanding with myself, Over The Brow Of The Green Hill is an example.  I operate on the itch of what troubles me.  In the writing and singing of the story of Marc and Bella Chagall, I confront my own fears. When I saw Kneehigh Theatre’s Flying Lovers it wasn’t just a good night out, to my mind it asked something of me.  To touch the raw residue of hope which exists within the baying tribe of humanity towards all people who flee persecution.  Over The Brow is an attempt to deal with the inherent desperation in such circumstances.  Once placed within a communal musical context of the Quintet – Mark’s hungry dark wood clarinet, Julian circling Peter’s top strings for harmony, Anton stirring the borderline and I, taking the ‘poetic’ to the flame.  Sometimes it produces a beacon, on other occasions the performance just burns.  I suppose, potentially it could smoulder.

Recently we played Over The Brow Of The Green Hill at a gig at The Greenbank Hotel in Bristol.  It’s an intimate, welcoming room with a strong acoustic resonance.  The venue itself is the antithesis of its name; there is nothing green growing at The Greenbank.  It’s inner-city busy, the green hill long gone in the industrial eruption of the 1800’s.  Now, in 2017, the downstairs bar area is bustling with people sitting at small tablesBlazing Flame album The Set List Shuffle sipping, eating and quaffing bespoke beers.  The upstairs calls out for music; as we began to play Over The Brow I knew it was going to be good.  It was almost as if the entry of Peter’s 5-string electric violin had parted an air pocket so that by the time I hit the storyline I couldn’t help but breathe deeply and call out, seemingly from across continents, for a better deal for those who flee persecution. It is one of the inherent mysteries of music that it can transcend circumstances yet also unite them.  Admittedly, easier to achieve in downtown Bristol than in some other parts of the world.  Marc and Bella Chagall never sat inside The Greenbank, yet I come to a line like Let no thief steal your lover or the one green hill you knew and suddenly, right there in this inner city music venue, I’m certain that no thief will ever rob us of a place to play through the heart of the matter. The Bataclan in Paris still stands.  

The idea behind the Full Focus feature on this website is, for me, the essence of what performance is all about.  It’s certainly nothing to do with fame or recognition, or being told you’re brilliant.  Writers, musicians, offer up a snippet of creativity to other people, for what purpose?  What are they actually bringing to the table?  Give me the detail of it?  Focus on it.  Those of you who have got this far with Over The Brow Of The Green Hill are entitled to expect those questions answered.  I can only explain the circumstances behind me writing the words, and Peter Evans, Mark Langford, Julian Dale and Anton Henley bothering to spend time improvising with them.  They too own their personal stake in it.  This song speaks of “the moon... painted blue in seven different shades”.  Blazing Flame Quintet translate these colours into music, adding additional worth by spontaneous extemporisation.  That’s how I hear it.

The Blazing Flame Quintet album The Set List Shuffle will be available from Leo Records (click here) and will be reviewed in June.

The band will be playing at:

Monday, 29th May - Bristol Old Vic Theatre, Open Stage, BFQ present Over The Brow Of The Green Hill, a ten minute contemporary improvised jazz opera (start time tbc)
Friday, 2nd June - Cafe Kino, Bristol BS1 3RU
Sunday, 6th August - Ashburton-Live, St Lawrence Chapel, Ashburton, TQ17 7DD
Friday, 29th September - Cafe Kino, Bristol BS1 3RU
Friday, 6th October - Chew Valley Arts Project, Old School Room, Chew Magna, BS40 8SH
Friday, 17th November - Cafe Kino, Bristol BS1 3RU
Tuesday, 12th December - The Greenbank Hotel, Bristol BS56DP

Click here for Steve Day's website.

© Sandy Brown Jazz 2017

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Visit some of our other Full Focus pages:

Tommy Andrews - Crystal Car
Sam Braysher - Braysher On Bird
Tori Freestone - My Lagan Love / In The Chophouse
Alastair Penman - Sandbox

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