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The Sound Of The Baskervilles

I read my first Sherlock Holmes story at the age of eleven and I’ve been hooked ever since. The amazing deductive powers of the great detective and the bizarre cast of clients and criminals still fascinate me. But more than that, they provided a complete world to escape into.

Things were done properly at 221b. A variety of drinks could be obtained from the Tantalus on the sideboard, which sat next to a cold joint, placed there, despite Holmes’s assertion that nourishment slows down the mental processes, to alleviate any hunger pains between meals. Cigars are available from the coal scuttle or tobacco from the toe of the Persian slipper, a fire roars in the grate and a comforting pea soup-er envelops the windows. Watson is stolid, with a good grasp of the obvious and is always ready to be amazed, although he mainly restricts his medical expertise to doling out brandy to all and sundry. All was well with this world: in the end Holmes would solve the problem, the scales would fall from our eyes and justice would triumph, “Or the Universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable!”

What stories they are: Tales in which severed ears are sent through the post, Ubangi ordeal poisons are sprinkled on the fire, a huge precious stone is found in the crop of a Christmas goose, busts of Napoleon are smashed beneath street lamps, and a fiery-jawed hound of legend howls all too realistically across the mist shrouded treacherous moors.

Around the same time as these stories gripped me, I started playing the clarinet and jazz music opened up to me- another strange and attractive area, full of the unfamiliar, that one could disappear into and escape the mundane modern life.

These two discovered worlds seemed to have several things in common.

There was the rarity of the material for a start. In the market town of Altrincham, the local bookshop and record store had neither in stock, and there followed an exciting hunt for books and records. Nobody else at school seemed to be interested in these things, so my fascination grew. There was a memorable find of a Faber hardback of “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” in a bookshop on the same day as six original Blue Note jazz albums turned up in Oxfam.

The two subjects began to intertwine in my mind and become inextricably linked. Baker Street and 52nd Street seemed one long thoroughfare.

Jazz legends such as Thelonious Monk, “Cannonball” Adderley and Miles Davis seemed out of the same exotic stable as colonel Sebastian Moran, Professor Moriarty and Augustus Milverton.

Holmes’s character, with his knowledge of boxing, Japanese wrestling and violin playing (although he was ignorant that the earth travels around the sun) is well matched by Charlie Parker, riding a white horse through New York, eating massive portions of Mexican food, quoting the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and pouring out the greatest saxophone playing ever heard. Both men were involved in the dark world of injecting drugs and both men went firmly their own way.

I began to think that the stories would provide a good basis for a jazz suite and finally got down to work on it in 2001. I must point out that composer Duncan Lamont has already written a brilliant jazz suite on the subject, but I still wanted to pursue my own personal vision of the stories represented in music.

I asked some of my favourite musicians to be involved and tried to write in a way that would bring out their strengths and unique qualities. This is not an original idea: Duke Ellington often revealed that it was the best way to approach jazz composition and that’s good enough for me. I chose the titles of the pieces first and wrote the music to fit them.

I felt that “The Hound Of The Baskervilles” needed to be preceded by an atmospheric section to establish a somber mood and allow the hound to be heard in the distance. I came up with “Grimpen Mire”. Augmented chords moving over baritone saxophone pedal points and throbbing mallets on tom toms create on ominous landscape with all instruments in their middle to lower ranges, interspersed with the trombone taking the role of the giant dog. He is fairly reserved for the moment, snuffling around, waiting for a scent. Bruce Adams on trumpet with plunger, in the manner of Cootie Williams and Clark Terry, vocalises a warning to stay away from moor when the powers of evil are exalted.

In the cadenza that connects the two pieces, I wrote a few bars for Mark Nightingale on trombone and asked him to improvise the rest bearing in mind the context. I’ve always enjoyed the blurred area between the written notes and those that come from the performer. In this case, Mark came up with a howling, muscular and chilling Hound.

One of the great strengths of jazz is that, even when most of the notes are composed, each performance is different. On one concert, Mark Bassey deputised on the trombone chair and gave us an entirely different canine experience- a hilarious cartoon, comic animal! Not quite what was originally intended but a brilliant re-reading.

Suddenly, we are off-the hound has his scent. The trombone is thickened up by unison with the baritone sax and takes an angular and desperate course. Trumpet and saxophones answer and things really speed up. Trombone, alto saxophone and piano solos give three different views of the lengthy chase. At one point I made the hound pause, scent the air- a short silence- then plunge off with new energy- all the instruments playing a thickly harmonised line together in the same rhythm. Clark Tracey takes an unfettered drum solo as the hunter closes in. However, the dog misses his quarry this time and so bays his disappointment across the mire- more solo trombone, but this time slightly breathless and simmering with anger. To complete the form, Bruce Adams repeats his solemn warning over dark chords rising to a climactic crescendo.”

As I wrote the suite, an attractive idea sprang to mind. Holmes must surely have been aware of the visit of the Original Dixie land Jazz band to The London Hippodrome in 1919 and his keen intellect must have told him that here was a new music worthy of his investigation. After all, he had always been interested in things American.

Is it too fanciful, therefore, to imagine an aged Holmes in the mid 1920’s, relaxing after a hard day in the apiary, by listening on his wind up gramophone to a 78 recording of the great jazz violinist Joe Venuti?

Can we even picture him lifting up his violin from the table, where it was, no doubt, sharing space with on of his malodorous scientific experiments and tearing off a hot chorus of “Dinah” or some other hot hit of the time?

I should say, not only possibly, but also very likely indeed!

Alan Barnes

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