Robert Farnon’s Big Bands and Jazz Music
Robert Farnon’s Inspired Contributions to Big Bands and Jazz
recalled by PAUL CLATWORTHY
Robert Farnon was a genius in the world of music, and his career would have prospered in any field of music he chose. All members of this Society know every facet of his illustrious work in the category of light and classical music but his jazz output mostly took a back seat.
Jazz always has been a minority realm: every devotee has their own definition of what comprises jazz. Some argue that whoever is playing should improvise each session and written jazz has no place! Others take the view that arranging jazz is just as credible because the writer is improvising as he writes. Further arguments start between the Traditionalists, Mainstreams and Modernists, each saying theirs is the only true genre.
Bob grew up with fellow countrymen Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson. Dizzy is quoted as saying if Bob had kept on playing trumpet he would have been a serious rival. Bob kept his jazz for special occasions, sometimes inserting Big Band tracks into his orchestral albums, film soundtracks or when backing singers. Bob won many awards but the one he was proudest of was the ‘Grammy’ earned for his arrangement of Lament on J.J. Johnson's "Tangence" album.
There was always a long list of Jazzmen lining up for Bob's input but for various reasons not many of them reached fruition. I sent a sample of Herbie Hancock’s compositions to Bob when Herbie approached Bob about working together. I suspect Herbie was familiar with Bob's work (especially "Porgy and Bess") because he later recorded "Gershwin’s World" - more than likely a project he wanted Bob involved in. Bob thanked me for the suggestions but said their two managements could not agree terms. If it had got off the ground I am sure another ‘Grammy’ would have resulted.
Vic Lewis promoted a concert starring Dizzy Gillespie, and requested Bob as conductor. Only one of Bob's arrangements was used - Con Alma; unfortunately it never made it to CD. I was slightly consoled when Johnny Dankworth used Bob's chart for Dizzy's CD "The Symphony Sessions" using the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Another track on the CD was Lorraine - Dizzy's composition dedicated to his wife. Bob also had Lorraine in mind when he wrote Portrait of Lorraine. It had its first outing in the Chappell Recorded Music Library but in 1975 Bob conducted the German NDR Big Band expanding the piece into a Jazz vehicle. Two other titles Bob used on the session were Almost a lullaby and Lamasery Chant, the latter pulled from Bob's "Road to Hong Kong" score.
Bob wrote The Pleasure of Your Company for Oscar Peterson and it was performed on British TV in 1969. The writing was perhaps the most liberated that Bob ever put to paper, a constantly inventive study in rhythm, obviously enjoyed by Oscar at his peak.
Tony Coe's recording "Pop Makes Progress" (a Chapter One LP) arranged by Bob kicks off with a fine Big Band chart There will never be and continues with another eight popular tunes of the day. Bob's arrangements make the album because, for me, Tony's tone jars. It only works on Bob's own composition Blue Theme.
Some of Bob's best Big Band charts were written for the Tony Bennett albums "With Love" and "The Good Things in Life" (hopefully they will be out one day on CD!). Bob's one recording with Sinatra (now a collectors’ item!) mainly concentrated on his string writing. Examples of arrangements Bob might have used on a ‘swinging’ follow-up are contained on his instrumental tributes to both Bennett and Sinatra.
George Shearing and Bob arranging was another match made in heaven. "On Target" and "How Beautiful is Night" impeccably show the lighter side of Jazz.
Bob made a jazz version of one of his most popular compositions Portrait of a flirt for the BBC Radio Orchestra which probably raised the hackles of purists (Bob always liked a challenge!).
"Showcase for soloists" featured Bobby Lamb, Don Lusher, Frank Reidy, Dennis Wilson, Roy Willox, David Snell, Kenny Baker and Stan Roderick. Stan used to live near to me and I persuaded him to come to one of our meetings. He cried off of a second visit when hearing that Bob was attending. I never discovered if it was in awe of sitting next to Bob or a more personal reason! I do know Bob used Stan on most of his sessions until Stan lost his lip and enjoyed too many sherbet dabs! "Showcase" gave all the players charts they could really get their teeth in to. They were the cream of session men and revelled in the beauty of sounds created.
The first Farnon chart that impressed me with its jazz leaning was In the blue of evening from the "Presenting Robert Farnon" LP – now on a Vocalion CD. Frank Reidy was the soloist and I played it incessantly - still the bees knees!
Trombonist J.J. Johnson stated that Bob had been one of his heroes for as long as he could remember. "He orchestrates with the meticulous precision of a fine Swiss watchmaker". Many years before recording "Tangence" J.J. had heard Bob's masterful score for "Captain Horatio Hornblower". One piece in particular really blew him away - the majestic, lush, elegant tone poem Lady Babara's theme.
The CD "Tangence" explored Bob's jazz credentials perhaps more than any other recording, hatching ideas by the nanosecond, collating songs old and new. The opening track written by Benny Carter People time grabs your attention from the first notes; working Only the lonely into Dinner for one, please, James is another example of Bob's talent for surprising and delighting any listener. Sadly this inspired partnership only got together for one other CD, "The Brass Orchestra", where Bob arranged Wild is the wind for JJ.’s muted trombone; the writing is moody - almost funeral - but still offering a new way of thinking jazz orchestrally.
Bob could take compositions written by others and make them his own. Always one step ahead of his compatriots, Bob knew instinctively whether to construct backings with soaring or subdued strings, oomphy brass and woodwind voicing to suit the artist singing or soloing. Bob's comprehensive mastery whether arranging or composing will never be bettered, and I find it very hard to believe we will ever again be blessed with such a talent. The world of music will never be the same deprived of that special man, Robert Joseph Farnon.
This article appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ September 2005.