Perhaps it was the screening of the Hobbit films on TV this week, but for some reason I found myself wanting to revisit Middle Earth to wrap up of the Lord Of The Rings series from a few months ago. It returns us to where we began, with John Sangster and Hobbits.
Sangster has written a massive body of music loosely based on the writings of JRR Tolkien. The term ‘loosely’ is significant, as the composer himself points out, calling the pieces ‘evocations’ of characters, events, and places. It’s as if his ears attuned themselves to imagined vistas and stories from Middle Earth and he dwelt there happily and productively for several years.
The relationship between the composer and the music is alluded to in Sangster’s autobiography Seeing the Rafters:
“If you want a musical autobiography, it’s all there in the Lord of the Rings albums. A crazed montage of all the jazz (and other) idioms I’ve been involved with during my life. All the musics I love are in there; some plainly stated, some distorted and disguised a little bit the way memories sometimes go.”
Just as suspension of disbelief is essential to enjoy—or even engage with—fantasy literature, so acceptance of variety is necessary to enter the Middle Earth of John Sangster. Once a listener adjusts to the music being a tapestry of different jazz styles, the medley becomes manageable*. In particular, the early jazz influences from New Orleans and Chicago may not thrill but can be appreciated as part of the variegated musical landscape. As for the more experimental, adventurous pieces, they are intriguing and really enjoyable.
Running through Volume 1 will give a good idea of the first three double albums. The last one deserves special attention.
‘Off to Adventures’ opens the album with cheerful MOR jazz, the kind of pleasant tune that would make a lovely theme for a genial sitcom about a middle-aged Hobbit couple and their adventures in the antique shops of Shire. The next piece, ‘Legolas: Elf’ could, despite its exotic title, be part of the same soundtrack. Perhaps this time a cart-ride through sunny fields to a picturesque picnic spot.
The first hint of something ‘other’ comes with the fifth piece, ‘Nazgul’. There is a breaking of the conservative mould with this experimental composition. A repetitive descending line interspersed with horn stabs and unsettling percussion may not elicit terror, but it has the most chilly atmosphere so far. Sangster’s liner notes observe that the ‘oppressive claustrophobic bass-clarinet squalls are by Tony Buchanan’. More showers than squalls, perhaps, but really good nevertheless.
The final pieces on side two make an interesting pair. ‘Orcs’ has echoes of Sun Ra circa 1960, great ensemble playing and a hint of underlying chaos, while ‘Blues for Boromir’ is, not surprisingly, a blues lament that evokes later Ellington compositions (‘Blues for New Orleans’ from The New Orleans Suite came immediately to mind).
John Sangster was a huge fan of 1920s jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke and it shows in the rousing stomp of ‘Uncle Gandalf Needs You!’, after which the odd and rather beautiful ‘Ents and Entwives’, scored ‘for wooden instruments’, provides a refreshing contrast. The composer’s notes point out the mournfully beautiful cello part evoking the lost Entwives.
Closing out side three is perhaps the strangest piece in the whole eight-record canon. ‘The Great Battle’ is a ‘montage of elements from other pieces in the Suite,’ says John. It is Sangster’s ‘Revolution #9’ with pans, distortion, fades and a general air of controlled chaos. Clever and unsettling.
One of my favourite pieces on Volume 1 is the bass-led mini-suite ‘Three Cheers for Smeagol’. The main theme is a blues variant, but the vibes/percussion elements add loads of colour. A bass clarinet in the final section is brilliant, as is the fiery climax. The closing quote from ‘Gollum’ (The Hobbit Suite) is a delightful touch.
Back to Bix B’s place for ‘Bilbo’s Birthday Party’ before a wistful, impressionistic visit to ‘The Grey Havens’ for a last journey.
Travelling in this veritable jazz time-machine was much more satisfying than I’d expected.
Without intending to diminish them in any way, it is fair to say that Volume 2 and Volume 3 follow the same overall format as the first set. The through-line is Sangster’s love and deep understanding of early jazz idioms, coupled with a fine ear for melody and a gift for impressionistic touches. A couple of highlights would be ‘Fair Ēowyn’ on Vol 2 and ‘The Uruk-Hai’ on Vol 3. So for the sake of brevity, we’ll cut to the final double album, which is qualitatively different from the previous three titles.
Crossfire were a popular Australian jazz-fusion band that released their first album in 1974. Their records were characterised not by the spiritual intensity of The Mahavishnu Orchestra, nor by the complex composition and strutting energy of mid-70s Return To Forever, but by a relaxed, melodic approach to jazz-rock that suited the climate of their sunny Sydney home perfectly. With two composers—guitarist Jim Kelly and keyboardist Michael Kenny—they had a strong creative base on which to build their accessible fusion sound. Percussionist Ian Bloxsom added variety and invention to the overall sound, while Greg Lyon provided limber bass lines. Why is this relevant? Because Ian Bloxsom appeared on all three volumes of Sangster’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and brought some bandmates along to the final part of the project, Landscapes of Middle Earth.
In addition to Crossfire members Kelly, Lyon and Bloxsom, Head Hobbit Sangster also recruited perhaps Australia’s best known jazzman, Don Burrows (flute, clarinet) and his long-time sidekick, guitarist George Golla.
The leader introduces the pieces thus:
…A feeling of time, of place, of landscape. No brass, to begin with. More reflective. Woodwinds, guitars, strings, percussions and rhythms. A feeling of countryside. Evocations, paintings… landscapes.
Sangster could hear the environment he imagined, and painted those sounds. This is my clear favourite of the series.
‘Green Hill Country’ opens proceedings with a bass line that can only be described as funky. Soon Jim Kelly’s deft, spare guitar drops in and we’re away, rambling through Shire with tenor and flute solos and another neat Kelly solo to take us out. ‘The Lonely Mountain’ is an example of Sangster’s pretty MOR jazz style. Beautifully played, but very nice, very safe.
One of my favourite pieces is the ten minute ‘Old Forest’, featuring the two guitars of Jim Kelly and George Golla, with some tasty vibes from the leader. I love the way it drifts like blown autumn leaves and hovers between sunlight and shadow. The other forest piece ‘Fanghorn’, is excellent too, built around a pretty descending riff picked out by various combinations of the ensemble.
You know, I’d never realised how strong Sangster’s arboreal fixation was. ‘A Dance For the New Forest’ opens the second disc with a gently funky baseline and some groovy playing all round. The final track I’ll mention is ‘Panorama: from the Tower Hills’. Kelly again floats and darts, Greg Lyon’s bass playing has a supple groove, the whole thing works wonderfully. This is classy contemporary jazz.
Landscapes of Middle Earth is cheerful, swinging jazz-rock lite. Sure, it can evoke Middle Earth if you’re tuned in to that mythos, but it also channels the sunny vibe of Bondi Beach equally successfully. Have a pipe of Longbottom Leaf; open a beer and kick back. Cheers.
* I am indebted to the Urban Bowerbird blog, where Rohan’s piece Revisiting John Sangster’s Lord of the Rings LPs prompted me to recalibrate my ears for Sangster’s Middle Earth music. Rohan also had me revisiting the musician’s memoir Seeing the Rafters (Penguin, 1988), which was again entertaining.