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Callum Au: jazz for pleasure

The former NYJO trombone player and arranger talks about the genesis of Songs And Stories, the album he recorded with Claire Martin, big band and 70-piece orchestra

Callum Au’s new recording with singer Claire Martin, Songs And Stories, was recently released on the Danish label Stunt. It’s an impressive large ensemble session toting a 70-piece orchestra and big band, recently reviewed by Jazz Journal. These aren’t easy things to finance. How did he do it?

“Well, I paid for it myself” came the simple answer. “It’s the easiest way to get something done if you want to do it properly.” He also indicated that a lot of the players came to him at a lower rate than they would normally ask, in support.

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“I work as an arranger, orchestrator and trombone player. The jazz side is for pleasure. And this was a way of reinvesting some of the money I’ve made in music.”

Callum thinks of himself first and foremost as an arranger. He tells me that he loves playing and does a lot of it. Usually it is around 20 per cent of his work but right now live work is almost non-existent. Until Covid-19 one of his regular gigs was as a trombone player with the Ronnie Scott Orchestra.

The orchestra on the new record comes across as fresh and individual although there are passages that remind of the classic Sinatra and Nelson Riddle sound of the 1950s. Was that deliberate or, should I say, intended?

‘One track, Stars Fell On Alabama, was a homage to the Riddle, Billy May style of the 50s. As to the rest it was an attempt to get the scale of that era. The 1950s was an amazing time for jazz music, as you know’

“Both. There is one track, Stars Fell On Alabama, that was a homage to the Riddle, Billy May style of the 50s. As to the rest it was an attempt to get the scale of that era. The 1950s was an amazing time for jazz music, as you know.”

He was looking, he told me, to produce a recording that had the grandeur of those sessions with Riddle, Billy May, Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Labels like Verve and Capitol were cutting such discs regularly, week after week.

Today he admires writers like Johnny Mandel and Maria Schneider who have produced modern big band sounds. 

I suggest that the other influence I thought I detected on the record was the Count Basie of the Atomic period – late 1950s, early 1960s. “Yes, that is my favourite big band sound and I always have the Basie rhythm section in mind when arranging. You remember the sounds of trumpet soloists and Marshall Royal leading the saxes but it is really that rhythm – Basie, Sonny Payne, Freddie Greene that drives it.”

I asked about choice of material. “That was between us. Claire and I shared emails for months and I must say she was most supportive. She gave it everything. We whittled down a list of about 25, then I went down to her place in Brighton and we sat around the piano for a whole day choosing. Claire is amazing at getting the emotional weight of the song. She gives the impression that she really believes every word of every song.”

‘Claire is amazing at getting the emotional weight of the song. She gives the impression that she really believes every word of every song’

I asked about rehearsals and the response was immediate. “There were none. You have to appreciate the economics of the music industry and realise that rehearsals are non-viable.” Which says a lot about the level of musicianship in the UK. British jazz musicians are the best in the world, he thinks.

“All the orchestral sessions were recorded in two three-hour sessions in one day. And the big band tracks were recorded in one day in one four-hour slot.”

None of the musicians saw any of the music until they arrived in the studio. Only a short rehearsal of the rhythm section took place. He wanted to ensure that piano, bass, guitar and drums were in the groove and understood how the tunes would fit together. “I Concentrate On You is quite tricky, and I wanted a run down on that.”

There were three takes of each piece, first, second nearly flawless and third, flawless and the chosen take. Callum says that he is really pleased with the record as it sounded on completion of the various stages and amazed at the level of musicianship of the players.

Born in London to a Scottish mother and a Chinese father, Callum spent most of his young life in Blackpool due to his father’s work as a cardiac surgeon. After university he moved back to London, where he now lives and works. He had a particularly good music teacher before joining the National Youth Jazz Orchestra.

“It was NYJO that really upped my game. That is where I met most of my musical colleagues and friends. If you are an athlete, you need a certain amount of natural ability and same with music, but it is 90 percent training really. NYJO helped me with playing and arranging skills and there were around two or three live gigs a week. Rehearsals regularly too, of course. And Bill Ashton, every single week he had new ideas.”

Bill Ashton asked for either his own songs or other people’s to be arranged. Callum arranged probably 100 songs for NYJO overall. He did a lot of composing too, so it was all-round introduction, “almost like an old-fashioned apprenticeship.”

Of Bill Ashton: ‘He would always give the musicians all the space they needed to be themselves and create music. He would then guide the band in the direction it wanted to go musically. He was very patient. He taught me most of what I know about music’

Of the hundred he composed for NYJO there are still maybe five he will pull out to this day on gigs. “Bill was very hands off. He would always give the musicians all the space they needed to be themselves and create music. He would then guide the band in the direction it wanted to go musically. He was very patient. He taught me most of what I know about music.”

So where does Callum think he will be in five years’ time? “Oh, difficult. Ask me again when the virus is gone. But let’s assume the virus has gone and in that case I hope to be doing a lot more arranging and a lot of writing of the kind of music you hear on this album. Arranging is my favourite thing. Until recently I was doing a lot with the Metropole orchestra. I want to do more of the same but much more.

As to influences they are, on trombone, Mark Nightingale, Andy Martin and Wycliffe Gordon. “Mark played a solo on something that absolutely blew me away.” He also cites Johnny Mandel, Nelson Riddle and some of the musicians he is currently working with. All are influences. He likes to write for trumpeter Freddie Gavita and others in the orchestra.

Callum saves the last words for Louis Dowdeswell, lead trumpet on the recording.

“He produced the album and is pretty much as important as Claire or me to the recording. He plays lead trumpet on the big band tracks and he was also the mix engineer. He did an incredible amount of work and aided production of the precision sound that you hear.”

We end talking about the sound on the two formats, CD and vinyl LP and find we agree that vinyl sounds best. Callum is, it seems, a vinyl freak, like me.

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