An interview with Andrew Robson for Jazz Australia.
A fresh twist on traditional ballads and folksongs
The Child Ballads is a new project from award-winning saxophonist and composer Andrew Robson. Based on ballad texts from FJ Child’s iconic collection, The Child Ballads brings to life ancient folk tales of love, lust, treachery and murder based on the lyrics of eight English and Scottish folk ballads.
JA: How did you first get interested in the original Child Ballads and tell us what intrigued you?
AR: The idea for this project actually dates back to the mid 1990s. I had just started working with Llew and Mara Kiek and although we were playing a lot of traditional music from eastern Europe at this time, there were still a couple of English folk tunes in the book. I remember talking to Mara about finding early English folksongs and she told me about the Child collection. I have always had an interest in folk music of all kinds and so aside from the possibility of creating a new project I was very curious to see what FJ Child’s work contained. At this time Child’s five-volume work was out of print and so even finding a copy was problematic. Thankfully it was re-published in 2001, but for a few years I was trawling secondhand bookshops in the hope of finding a copy or going to the State library to study it there.
JA: Can you tell us something about the author Francis James Child and the context of the ballads?
AR: Francis James Child (1825-1896) was an American academic. In 1876 he was appointed professor of English at Harvard University and it was during this time that he began work on ‘The Child Ballads’. Published in five volumes between 1882 and 1898, Child lists 305 ballads each of which contains (often) numerous other ballads, variations and fragments. Child’s thoroughness is quite extraordinary with multiple cross-references to other folk traditions, a background for each ballad, information about how and where each of the texts had been sourced etc. However, for all this detail Child focuses almost exclusively on the ballad texts and not on the music. The Child Ballads omits the ballad melodies almost entirely. Thankfully another American scholar, Bertrand Harris Bronson, published a work in the 1950 that attempts to reacquaint the traditional melodies with the ballads in Child’s collection. Bronson’s 4 volume ‘The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads’ does manage to provide melodies for many of the Child ballads but by no means all of them.
JA: How did you go about interpreting them as a kind of musical suite?
AR: While I never doubted that there was a project here somewhere, I did struggle for a number of years trying to decide how to turn my interest into a musical work. There were a number of possibilities but in the end I decided to write new music for 8 of the ballads for which Bronson could not locate a melody.
JA: Tell us about the musicians you gathered together for this unique project, and something about the recording process
AR: Once I had decided on this approach, I felt completely liberated and the project began to gather momentum. When I returned to Child’s texts and selected the stories I knew then that I would ask Mara and Llew Kiek if they would like to be involved and I also asked Steve Elphick if he would like to play bass. I had been a member of the Mara ensemble for ten years and this felt like a reunion. Aside from her amazing musicianship, Mara has the most wonderful ability to convey the story within a song and although some of these ballads deal with some pretty harrowing themes, Mara brings them to life in a wonderfully vivid way. Likewise, Llew and Steve are exceptional musicians and I definitely had this group in mind as I was writing.
JA: You previously released an album Bearing The Bell, interpreting the hymns of Tudor composer Thomas Tallis. and it’s obvious you have a strong interest in English literature. Tell us more.
AR: Well, in terms of the timeline, the idea for ‘The Child Ballads’ actually pre-dates my Tallis suite. I do definitely feel a certain affinity with English music and literature partly because it is my cultural heritage, but in other ways I identify very much as a jazz musician. I think Paul Grabowsky puts it particularly well when he describes jazz as being a process – something that you do. In this way all music is the same – not in a bland or generic sense but rather in a way that means nothing is off limits. I worked with Jackie Orszaczky for many years and this was very much his approach. Jack would frequently follow a James Brown cover with a Hungarian folksong and segue into something by Sun Ra – it is all music and provided it is played with commitment, integrity and respect the possibilities are endless.
JA: Do you have further projects based on traditional or even contemporary literary works in mind?
AR: I do have a couple of other ideas that I would like to pursue. I am writing a lot at the moment and I am hoping to get back into the studio with James Greening’s quartet in the New Year. I have also just started working on a new trio project so yes – lots of plans!
JA: What can the audience expect when you launch this album at SIMA’s Summer Jazz on Saturday 10th December?
AR: We will be performing the complete Child Ballads suite at the launch and I promise to keep speeches to a minimum. Despite constant technological developments making an album is still a long process and I think it is important to celebrate the finished product with family and friends. This one feels particularly special and I must confess that I am very excited about the launch and taking the stage with these great musicians!
Saturday 10 December – SIMA at the Sound Lounge
ANDREW ROBSON’S CHILD BALLADS ALBUM LAUNCH (9pm)
ANDREW ROBSON alto/baritone saxophones MARA KIEK
vocals, tapan (drum) LLEW KIEK guitar, bouzouki
STEVE ELPHICK double bass