Jim Gilchrist on jazz and cartoon music

Stu Brown
Stu Brown
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In the wacky world of Looney Tunes, the laws of physics simply don’t apply. A character may hit the air running before plummeting into the depths of a canyon, be concertina’d by a falling anvil, or blasted to kingdom come by a judiciously placed stick of dynamite. Always, however, they re-emerge, dusting themselves down, to wreak further mayhem.

Stu Brown, too, has found these cartoon characters – and the frenetic music that accompanied them – more resilient than he thought. Some years ago, the Glasgow-based drummer formed the Raymond Scott Project, a sextet of familiar Scottish jazz figures performing his arrangements of the music of Scott, the maverick American composer, bandleader and inventor whose compositions were most widely known for their use in Bugs Bunny and other Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes cartoons. The band performed widely and in 2009 recorded an album, Twisted Toons, to much critical acclaim.

Scott was thinking of winding up the project, for a while at least. However, the anarchic and seemingly indestructible rabbits, cats, mice, coyotes and roadrunners proved not so easy to escape, and before you could say “meep meep!” he was once again painstakingly transcribing the manic soundtracks that accompanied their onscreen antics. The result is a fresh clutch of music by Scott as well as Carl Stalling (Looney Tunes) and Scott Bradley (Tom & Jerry, Tex Avery) and an expanded Twisted Toons Septet, which debuts at this month’s Glasgow Jazz Festival.

“We had a number of gigs last year with the previous material and line-up,” the drummer explains. “I was thinking of leaving it behind for a while to work on other things, then I stumbled across some other cartoon music and found myself listening to it and went off on quite a few different tangents. I explored some of the 1950s stock film library music that was used during the 1990s for the Ren & Stimpy cartoons, then going back into the some of the old Tom & Jerry stuff by Scott Bradley.”

With an album of new mat-
erial planned for later this year, the new septet comprises Brown with Brian Molley and Martin Kershaw on reeds, Daniel Paterson on violin, Tom McNiven on trumpet, pianist Paul Harrison and bassist Mario 
Caribe. Their new repertoire will include some complete soundtracks from Tom & Jerry, Wile E Coyote & Roadrunner and other cartoons.

As with his Raymond Scott Project, many of the tunes were no longer available as scores, so Brown 
generally had to transcribe from soundtrack recordings, and occasionally, from the cartoons themselves – trying to distinguish the musical details amid the onscreen lunacy was no easy matter, he says. He was also aided by the University of Surrey’s Peter Morris, who had researched the use of music in Hollywood cartoons. Many of the original scores had been destroyed (or, in the case of one batch, buried in a landfill site under a golf course). Morris, however, was able to send him a basic score for a Tom & Jerry cartoon, Mouse for Sale, by Scott Bradley. “It was in Bradley’s own handwriting, just a reduced sketch of a score with the rough parts for each instrument written out but not completely orchestrated, so one of the band members, Brian Molley, has adapted that for the septet. The rest of the music is all transcribed by me.”

It may have been used for laughs but, Brown says, the music is frequently very complex: “It draws on everything from contemporary classical to jazz and pop music and 
everything else. That’s what appeals to me about it – that quick-changing, frenetic madness. People are used to hearing it within the context of the cartoons, but it’s interesting to take it out of that context, present it as music and let people hear it as it is.”

Brown is often asked if they’ll be projecting the actual cartoons during performances.“I did look into it and it’s just too expensive to get the licences,” says Brown. Plus, synchronising performance – particularly the improvised passages – with the film would be a nightmare. Brown, however, does promise “some ... let’s say theatrical elements” during shows, as well as the requisite whistles and other sound effects.

The Twisted Toons Septet will also perform at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival next month, and are part of the Commonwealth Games music programme. Meantime Brown, clearly a drummer in demand, makes numerous other appearances during the Glasgow festival – in an electronic improvising duo with pianist and 
fellow Twisted Tooner Paul Harrison, in singer Nikki King’s Songs of Duke Ellington show and with the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.

Tempting as it is to wind up this article with “That’s all folks,” there is, of course, much more to the Glasgow Jazz Festival, with this year’s guests including the Neil Cowley Trio (performing their new album, Touch and Flee), guitarist Martin Taylor, Irish singer Christine Tobin, and trombonist Dennis Rollins and his Velocity Trio (also launching a new album), as well as twin-drums-driven quartet Sons of Kemet. Veteran free-jazz saxophonist Evan Parker once again teams up with the Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra, while Jacqui Dankworth and Todd Gordon present their Frank and Ella Show with the National Swing Orchestra.

Homegrown talent such as Brass Jaw, and Euan Stevenson and Konrad Wiszniewski’s New Focus duo is much in evidence, along with the finals of the Young Scottish Jazz Musician award. The Commonwealth Games are reflected in the festival’s Jamaican connections, including Mobo-nominated singer Zara Parker and a day dedicated to Jamaican music, featuring saxophonist Courtney Pine’s House of Legends, London’s Jazz Jamaica and Glasgow’s own Black Star Steel Band.

As well as regular venues such as Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, the City Halls and the Old Fruitmarket, a new venue this year is the basement Rio Club in Merchant Square, which will host late-night jam sessions and various guests, from Nikki King to those irrepressible Sixties veterans, Gino Washington and the Ram Jam Band.

• Glasgow Jazz Festival runs from 25-29 June. The Twisted Toons Septet performs at the City Hall Recital Room on 28 June, www.jazzfest.co.uk