There’s a fairly well-known story about Charlie Parker bringing his band to Paris, and spotting Igor Stravinsky in the audience. Like many of his jazz peers (and despite his headlong, self-destructive reputation), Parker was a keen and well-informed follower of classical music. As he played the bebop standard Salt Peanuts he added an impromptu tribute into his solo, blowing in a quote from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the same conversational way that he’d have sung back another jazzman’s phrase through his horn. Stravinsky – no less a jazz fan himself – was so delighted that he spilled his drink.
If only all meetings of the classical conservatoire and the jazz stand were as happy as that one: but for every genuine Parker/Stravinsky-style love-in, there’s a daffy piece of fusion or a classical piece which colonizes without comprehending. I’ve learned to be suspicious when reading program notes in which a classical composer claims to love jazz and engage with its ideas. Too often, that jazz component becomes another post-modern ingredient to be used and ploughed under, just another dead rattling tongue in the composer’s vocabulary. It’s ugly to see a living form become a dried-up skin, its rhythms pinned under the steamroller of European art music as the latter rumbles on, convinced of its own innate superiority and its right to merely mimic and exploit where it should be sharing.
Richard Causton’s ‘Non mi comporto male’ is a welcome exception to these disappointments. Nominally, it’s a close-clustered set of solo piano variations on that cheerful Fats Waller evergreen, Ain’t Misbehavin’. Even the title is a tongue-in-cheek classical translation. In fact, being all of a piece (and having been built particularly freely out of the melodies and chord progressions), it’s closer to being a contrafact: an adaptive and inventive form which in modern times has found a happier home in jazz than it did in classical. Additionally, ‘Non mi comporto male’ builds backwards in a kind of reverse deconstruction. Coalescing over seven minutes from multiple, deliberately scattered fragments of tone and rhythm, it returns to the re-integrated original piece like an explosion filmed and played back in reverse. piwhT. moobaK.
So far, so tricky; and on spec alone this could have been a bloodless game. As a composer Causton’s cerebral skill is evident, and he echoes some of Harrison Birtwistle’s ideas of presenting multiple views of a musical theme from differing angles (and through different gaps in the musical bulk) and John Cage’s chance rearrangements of Erik Satie in ‘Cheap Imitation’. Yet rather than attempting to overwhelm Waller with architecture and indeterminacy, Causton chooses to honour him instead – first installing him invisibly at the heart of the piece and then gradually revealing him in small touches. Starting with what seems to be a tranquillized muddle of straying notes, and moving into fitful chromatic squiggles akin to bursting bebop saxophone lines, Causton slowly lets his key parts fall into place. A flurrying treble line may zig-zag away, only to lose its momentum and be gently pulled back in like a puppy on a leash. The entrance of a familiar bass chord brings gravity to a whirl of chromatic flechettes; emerging as if from nowhere, a true melody note is carefully positioned on a hinted moment of swing.
Pianist Stephen Wolff plays a major role in making this work. His impressive technical skill is well suited to interpreting Causton’s long-game of structure and projection; but he also displays a humble and affectionate understanding of jazz, making the eventual recovery of the original tune entirely convincing. By the sixth minute, Ain’t Misbehavin’ has emerged in full, softly and freely played, taking its final steps back into shape while surrounded by jags of high notes. Until just before the very end, a few stray extrapolated plinks still glint around the melody, like the dust left by hand-tooling: the last traces of Causton’s unexpected loving touch. You can imagine Fats himself – tipsy and happy, with whisky-glass in hand – chuckling away at it.
Richard Causton: ‘Non mi comporto male (for solo piano)’
(performed by Stephen Wolff)
unreleased recording (private collection)
composed and performed 1993