Paul Towndrow blurs line between pro and amateur

THINK “music and athletics” and you may evoke images of Ian Charleson and company haring along St Andrew’s West Sands to the anthemic synth strains of a Vangelis soundtrack; think “amateur” and you may do so in negative terms of non-professional, not up to par.

Saxophonist Paul Towndrow. Picture: Contributed
Saxophonist Paul Towndrow. Picture: Contributed

But the implications of the term “amateur” are currently preoccupying Paul Towndrow, the far from amateur Glasgow-based saxophonist who is composing a suite, Pro-Am, which not only celebrates sporting achievement but explores the potential synergy between professional and amateur, utilising what promises to be a powerful, large-scale amalgam of full and part-time jazz musicians.

The Pro-Am Suite will combine the considerable forces of two major jazz ensembles, one – the Ryan Quigley Big Band – fully professional, the other – the Byres Road Big Band – an amateur group which Towndrow directs. The composer promises a “sonic extravaganza of orchestration and improvisation” when the work has its premiere at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 31 July, rounding off a day of jazz events for the Glasgow 2014 Cultural programme in association with the Commonwealth Games.

Funded by Creative Scotland’s 20 for 14 programme, Pro-Am is informed by Towndrow’s interest in just what we mean by “amateur”. In combining the seasoned big band led by trumpeter Quigley (Towndrow’s colleague in award-winning jazz horns quartet Brass Jaw) with the amateur but highly committed Byres Road band, he’s making his point big-time. “I’d like to show not just that amateurism needn’t preclude quality, but that the opposite can be true,” says Towndrow.

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    He reckons that while this has been demonstrated in the history of sport, in music the stigma remains. “The word ‘amateur’ is actually derived from old French and literally means ‘someone who plays for love’. Yet we use it to mean somebody who plays not very well, and for no money. There’s much more to the amateur music sector than that, and I’m interested in exploring how the professional and amateur sectors can work together and bring out the best of both worlds.”

    As well as performing in groups of all sizes, Towndrow, 35, is a committed teacher and director of the Glasgow Jazz Summer School. He sees performance and education as serving the same end – “to share the joy that music brings with as many people as possible”.

    It was his reputation as both performer and educator which prompted the Byres Road Big Band, established in 2009 by a group of Glasgow jazz enthusiasts, to enlist Towndrow as director. The band performs regularly in the city and, in an endorsement of its prowess, was invited to participate in the premiere of jazz and hip-hop saxophonist Jason Yarde’s composition for large-scale forces, Bold As Brass, at last year’s London Jazz Festival.

    It was his relationship with the band which largely inspired Pro-Am, adds Towndrow. “It was a fantastic synergy between professional and amateur worlds right from the beginning. I had experience and knowledge that I could use to help them and putting them through their paces on a weekly basis has been a huge boost to my own personal development.”

    As an artist in his own right, Towndrow is a powerful, edgy player, mainly on alto and soprano saxophones, as can be heard on muscular excursions such as Quirkafleeg or the title track, both from his most recent album, 
Newology (Keywork Records).

    The forthcoming suite has been influenced, he says, by everything from the classic big-band writing of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, through Charles Mingus, to 20th-century composers such as Steve Reich and Stravinsky. Its individual movements are dedicated to often unsung sportsmen and women, such as former world lightweight boxing champion Ken Buchanan, who used Scotland the Brave as his anthem, and the amazing Canadian track and field athlete Olga Kotelko who, at 95, holds 17 world records in her age category.

    “I’m 60 years younger than Olga Kotelko,” muses Towndrow. “She’s still breaking world records at 95, and I hope to still be writing and performing music at that age.”