Robert Farnons Inspired Contributions to Big Bands
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
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"
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 Hancocks 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 "Gershwins
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
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
"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
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
This article appeared in Journal Into Melody