Imagine the scene. You're sitting over breakfast worrying about your upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet at your local amateur theatre.

"Everything's going so well," you moan, "except I just can't find suitable incidental music. It's got to appeal to young people and fit in with the modern image of the production. It's impossible!"

"Don't worry, dad," your son says. "I'll write you something, and I'll get together with some of the lads to play it."

That (or something like it!) was the experience of Gordon Russell earlier this year when he directed the play at the People's Theatre, the leading amateur company of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

His son, James, has a degree in Jazz from the Leeds College of Music, has played alto sax in the Duke Ellington Repertory Orchestra and has done quite a bit of composition, so he created and played some incidental music for the production in April, and so impressed were the powers-that-be of the company that they asked him to develop it into a full jazz suite based on the moods and structures of the play. Financial help was obtained from Northern Arts, Jazz Action and other sources, and the piece received its premiere at the society's theatre on Friday 29th and Saturday 30th September.

I was fortunate enough (thanks to a friend who is a member) to be in the theatre on the Friday evening when James, along with seven other instrumentalists and singer Kate Bottomley, gave the very first public performance.

It wasn't a packed house, but it was a more than reasonable size for a non-jazz venue and very appreciative. And appreciative the audience certainly should have been, for it is a very fine piece of work, performed by a group of talented young (average age 24) musicians.

The Structure

The Suite is in two parts, preceded by a Prologue which was recorded.

Act 1

  1. Have at Thee Coward
  2. Sad Hours Seem Long
  3. (Go Girl) Seek Happy Nights to Happy Days
  4. Queen Mab (True | Talk of Dreams)*
  5. Come Musicians Play
  6. It is the East and Juliet is the Sun
  7. Have at Thee Coward
  8. Benedicite
  9. Scurvy Knave / So Smile the Heavens on this Holy Act

Act 2

  1. A Curse on Both Your Houses
  2. Gallop Apace*
  3. Hie You Make Haste / For it Grows Very Late*
  4. It was the Lark / You are too Hot
  5. Ode to Juliet**
  6. Thus with a Kiss I Die

* Written by Jonny Laing
* Written by Kate Bottomley, arranged by James Russell and Jonny Laing

The Musicians

Kate Bottomley - Voice
Stuart Brown - Trombone
Andrew Colman* - Trumpet/Flugelhorn
James Corry - Alto/Baritone Saxes
Steve Davis - Drums
Dave Kane - Double Bass
Jonny Laing - Guitar
James Russell - Alto/Soprano Saxes
Jami Sheriff - Keyboard

* Young Jazz Musician of the Year 1999

So, Did it Work?

Very definitely. Personally, I'm a jazz fan but the friends I was with are not: however we enjoyed the evening equally. The music varied from the melodic, even lyrical in places (as in Ode to Juliet and Thus with a Kiss I Die), to dissonant and rhythmically complex (Have at Thee Coward). I found the extremely complex rhythms of Gallop Apace very exciting and the variations of mood and pace in Hie You intensely moving. The Queen Mab piece captured the mood of the scene and the mercurial character of Mercutio superbly, and, as for Come Musicians, it was for me the undoubted highlight of the first half.

Kate Bottomley's Ode to Juliet was beautifully etherial but it was spoilt for me by the only weakness of the entire performance - poor sound balance, which resulted in her voice being a little lost beneath the accompaniment. Just a touch more volume on her mic would have made all the difference.

The group is in the process of recording a CD of the Suite - such a shame it was not available on the night! However, if anyone is interested in getting hold of a copy when it's finished, just drop a note (with stamped and addressed envelope: it's only polite!) to the People's Theatre, Heaton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and you'll be sent all the details when it's available.