What have Jamie Cullum, Quincy Jones and Kamasi Washington all got in common? Well, besides the fact that they are all noted jazz musicians, of course, they’re also connected by their association with JULES BUCKLEY, who will be working alongside them during August as their orchestral conductor. The London-born conductor/arranger, who is the director of the redoubtable Dutch orchestral ensemble, METROPOLE ORKEST, is the coolest hot property in pop at the moment. Like a lightning rod, today’s most electrifying acts are drawn to his unique talents. Indeed, his CV reads like a Who’s Who of cutting edge jazz, pop and rock – he’s worked with everyone from Laura Mvula, Arctic Monkeys, Lalah Hathaway and Caro Emerald, to Snarky Puppy (with whom he won a Grammy earlier this year) Tori Amos, Razorlight, Emile Sandé, Professor Green and Massive Attack.
The workaholic conductor is currently preparing for a trio of concerts in which he’ll conduct three different orchestral ensembles at the Royal Albert Hall. All three performances are scheduled as part of the current summer season of Sir Henry Wood’s famous Promenade concerts (a British institution that’s better known as ‘The Proms,’ of course). ‘The Proms’ are almost exclusively associated with classical music but this year jazz is getting a look in.
On Thursday August 11th, Jules will be leading the Heritage Orchestra (an ensemble that he helped to establish in 2004) as they accompany British singer/pianist Jamie Cullum. Eleven days later, on Monday August 22nd, Jules gets to work with the bona fide jazz legend that is Quincy Jones, conducting the Metropole Orkest on a varied selection of the producer/composer’s music. When that’s finished, Jules has to prepare for a late evening Kamasi Washington gig at the Royal Albert Hall where he’ll be waving his baton in front of the City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra as they play material from the American saxophonist’s acclaimed ‘Epic’ album.
“With these sort of projects you do the rehearsals close to the date of the concert,” explains Jules. “For all of these different concerts, the music’s being prepared at the moment by the arrangers, myself and different people and then the rehearsals for the Jamie Cullum concert begins on 10 August, Quincy begins on 18 August and then Kamasi begins on 28 August.”
The 36-year-old London music maestro – who currently resides in Berlin but works in Holland masterminding the Metropole Orkest’s activities – also reveals that with one-off concerts like those that he’ll be conducting, there’s limited rehearsal time. “It varies but generally you wouldn’t get more than about four and most of the time you only get two rehearsals,” he says. To the lay person, perhaps, that situation may sound like it’s cutting it a bit fine but as an experienced conductor and arranger, Jules knows what he’s doing and makes the necessary preparations to ensure that everything goes smoothly: “You make a game plan and then you figure out how many minutes you’ve got and what you can get done and then you pitch your battles and then isolate the hardest bits. Obviously everybody’s professional and working all the time so the standard is high and it’s just a case of making sure that the vibe is right.”
In an fascinating conversation with SJF’s Charles Waring, Jules Buckley talks not only about the eagerly anticipated Proms concerts but also reflects on his life as a conductor and his groundbreaking work with the Metropole Orkest…
Jamie Cullum’s concert is the first of the three at the Proms with the Heritage Orchestra – what will you be doing with him?
We’ll be doing a lot of his newest songs and a couple of standards plus a couple of re-workings of old songs. There will also be several special guests involved in it, but I couldn’t say for sure who they are yet (laughs) because I think it’s been in flux for the last six months. Sometimes in terms of special guests on concerts, those elements often come in close to the date and depends on the touring schedules of other artists and the management side and all those things.
You worked with Jamie previously in 2010 (pictured left) didn’t you? What’s he like to work with?
He’s really, really fun and easy to work with. He’s really the most down to earth person you’ll probably ever meet, so that’s cool because there are no egos involved.
You will be conducting the Heritage Orchestra that night. How many people will be in the ensemble on stage?
I think on Jamie’s concert it will probably be about fifty-five to sixty players. So there will be a large string orchestra, a big band and then Jamie’s own band plus guests and also the Roundhouse Choir.
And then you’ve got a concert after that was a true bone fide legend, Quincy Jones (left)…
I’ve met him a few times for this project and in the past. I’ve been communicating with him and his team along the way about the program and the guests and how we’re going to do it and what we’re going to do.
Are you using any of Quincy’s original charts or has the music been reconfigured into a fresh arrangement for the Proms performance?
It’s combination of the two, so some of them will be original charts and some of them will be transcriptions of charts that got lost in European touring in the ’60s. Some of them will be completely new arrangements written for the ensemble on stage. Some pieces, like ‘Soul Bossa Nova,’ for example, that’s originally a big band chart and it stays quintessentially a big band chart but there’s also a point where the whole orchestra kick in as well.
What else song-wise is in the set?
There’s a hell of a lot of stuff. Obviously we’ll be touching on his Michael Jackson collaborations, and we’ll also be doing stuff from Mirage, a really old movie from about ’65. We’ll also be doing ‘They Call Me Mister Tibbs,’ and ‘Ironside,’ and will be touching on his Count Basie collaborations. We’ll also be doing newly written material from Jacob Collier, Alfredo Rodriguez and Richard Bona, who are all Quincy’s artists at this point in time.
That sounds fantastic. Are you looking forward to it?
Yes, big time. I’m snatching at every free minute at the moment to try and get the music written along with my colleagues but that’s good; sometimes pressure brings out the best results.
Later in the month you’ll be working with Kamasi Washington, who you recently collaborated with at the North Sea Jazz Festival (pictured left). This time, though, you’ll be using a different orchestra.
Yeah, so we’re going to do things a little bit differently. We talked about it, Kamasi and me, and we’re going to gear this concert to the Proms so it’s a little bit more acoustical in nature. There will be a couple of features within the 65-minute set that will feature the CBSO and Kamasi as a sort of duo team. It will be slightly different to the amazing, almost wall of sound approach that Kamasi usually purveys.
What challenges, if any, do one-off concerts like this bring for you as a conductor?
I think that one of the main challenges is that it might be the only time that you play this gig so you want it to be a memorable occasion. The main challenge is to try and get in the rehearsals and at the concert the performance to the highest possible standard ever just because you want to have fun and you want to be inspired and you may never do it again. And then other challenges would be to trying to get a real empathic musical feeling between the artist and the orchestra. Another challenge, of course, is the sound challenge; working to the sound of the room and trying to get the best sound between the ensemble, the monitor guys, the front of the house guys and the radio and TV guys.
You’ve done the Proms before, of course, when you featured at last year’s Ibiza Proms, marrying dance music with orchestral sounds…
Yeah, I was responsible for that infamous concert, I have to say. (Laughs).
It’s gone down in history, hasn’t it? What are your memories of it and what was that experience like?
My main memory of that concert was, before the concert, I remember sitting backstage and thinking this might be the end of my career, because when I was a teenager I was not a dance music aficionado and I just wasn’t sure at all how this was going to be greeted by the public because it really was a bit of an experiment. Then we started, the room basically exploded, so then I knew immediately it was going to be fine and it was quite a cathartic feeling. Two months buildup of stress was released within 30 seconds. It was quite funny actually. So that’s my main memory and the fact that it obviously resonated with a lot of people in the audience and it was the most downloaded Prom ever apparently.
Do you think that it changed a lot of young people’s perceptions about what The Proms is about?
I’m not sure, I couldn’t say for certain to be honest but hopefully at least some of the people in that room who may have never been to an orchestral concert before might have gone on to check out some classical music in a live situation.
Where did your interest in conducting come from?
When I was a teenager I was writing for brass band and big band a lot. I tried to conduct as a teenager but you’re a little bit clueless because no one has ever really shown you the ropes but when I got to music college we started doing a couple years of study. Then I set up the Heritage Orchestra and began to conduct that and that was actually the point when I decided to take it seriously. Then I got a couple of different teachers over the years and a lot of it was trial and error and I’m still learning to be honest. I didn’t get serious about it until I was about 24.
You became the conductor of the Metropole Orkest – how did that come about? Did you have to audition? How do they go about appointing a conductor?
That’s a good question actually. What happens is, at some point you might get invited to conduct an ensemble or conduct a gig and then you’ll see whether there’s a feeling between the two sides as to doing anything more in the future. What often happens with conductors is, if they do one project then they might do two and if they do two then they might eventually become what they call a guest conductor, so you’re doing regular spots with an orchestra over a season. In my case, what happened was, Vince Mendoza had been their chief for about eight years and he decided that eight years was plenty and stepped down. Then the orchestra’s management asked me whether I would consider taking on the job. I thought about it for awhile and wasn’t sure whether I really wanted to be doing it. Then I took it on and that’s that.
What do your responsibilities involve?
I’m co-responsible for the artistic output of the group and that can involve working on the seasonal planning and the program with artistic producers and within that it involves approaching artists and talking about concerts and talking about gigs you might want to do or can we do a gig together and try and make that fit into the diet of the ensemble. You’re trying to find a balanced diet which inspires the group but also keeps them existing. It’s very difficult, to be honest, at the current time because Metropole Orkest is a unique ensemble but financially in the future it will be less than 50% of the subsidies that it used to have so we need as many partners and sponsors as we can get really to keep this great canon going.
Is there philosophy that underpins the Metropole and its work?
I suppose its main philosophy is that it’s a non-classical orchestra that specializes particularly in jazz and pop music. So that’s still pretty broad but in terms of a specialty on the pop front, at least since my own tenure I’ve been trying to make it more on the younger, up-and-coming and fresh artists on the jazz front. So we try to work with the most cutting-edge and freshest current artists out there within these two worlds. If you were to sum it up, I suppose you could say that was the main mission.
You won a Grammy earlier this year for your work on Snarky Puppy’s ‘Sylva’ album (pictured left, by Joke Schot)…what did that feel like?
That felt like a 10-year-old when you’re playing a football match in a school tournament against other schools and then you get the winning goal in the 91st minute… And you’ve lost all control and you’re hugging people that you don’t know and you become 10 again for a day. It was great but also very strange. To be honest, it wasn’t something that I’d ever considered in my life.
Congratulations, it’s well deserved. Do you find that you have an affinity with Snarky Puppy because you’ve recorded and performed with them in concert?
Yeah, definitely, I think a lot of the musicians in that group are of a similar generation to me and to some of the younger players in Metropole and they’re basically into a lot of the same music so when we started hanging out we realised it was a good thing yeah, definitely, I would agree.
You’ve worked with everyone from the Arctic Monkeys and Professor Green to Snarky Puppy, José James, Laura Mvula and Massive Attack – which project that you’ve done are you most proud of?
It’s hard to say in a way because I feel like if I said one project I’m trashing the others but I suppose the Laura Mvula album (2014’s ‘Laura Mvula With The Metrople Orkest’) and the BBC Proms concert we were very proud of. I’d also say, the Snarky Puppy album (last year’s ‘Sylva’), and we did a project with Giorgio Moroder and the Heritage Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House about two or three summers ago. I was also very proud of that. We really pushed out the boat in terms of the production and approach to that one.
Looking forward to the future, is there anybody that you’d like to work with that you haven’t done so before?
A new artist called Anohni who’s just been nominated for a Mercury so it would be cool to do something with her at some point, but I don’t know if she’s up for doing orchestral projects. I would like to do something with as well with Lianne Le Havas.
What about your own musical tastes, Jules? What sort of music do you gravitate to and what’s been the soundtrack to your life so far?
Cor blimey! That’s a hard one to answer, isn’t it? When I’ve got a couple of months off I usually go and listen to non-orchestral, non-jazz records. It’s probably some sort of necessity to empty the cache from the brain all over the season and then I will probably start to look into left field, minimalistic electronica and singer-songwriter stuff. Generally I always seem to gravitate towards that. I also love film scores and I love movies – I suppose I’m a sci-fi geek – so at the same time I just get into the cinema a lot, though I’m often disappointed by the blockbuster movies. I think independent films are where it’s at today in terms of creativity.
Maybe that’s because they are able to be uncompromising and avoid the usual Hollywood clichés…
Yes, and it’s the same with jazz music and contemporary classical music: zero compromise. That means that sometimes it might not work but it also means that if it does work, you’re going to get freaked out at how good it is. I think a lot of people are just scared of putting themselves as an audience into that position of being challenged and to see what happens to their brain when they have to concentrate on a piece for 40 minutes. To see what happens when they’re put in that seat, row 20, and there’s no escape. (Laughs) I’m more and more into that but mostly in pop music it’s the same thing as the movies, it’s mostly regurgitation really.
It seems there’s an aversion, generally, to creative risk-taking in the music industry.
Yeah, take Laura Mvula’s latest album (‘The Dreaming Room’). That is an amazing piece of work. Zero compromise. In terms of age range she fits into the Radio One bracket but is she on the Radio One playlist? I don’t think so. And we probably know the reason why that is.
She just doesn’t fit into Radio One’s narrow programming parameters.
Looking ahead beyond these concerts, what else is on the horizon for you? Have you got any recording sessions or concerts lined up?
Yeah, with Metropole in September we’re going to the Musikfest in Bremen which is really good. Traditionally it’s a classical music festival but we’re going to go there with Christian Scott, the jazz trumpet player. We’re also going to be there was Snarky Puppy to present the album that we worked on. Then there is actually something a bit different in October, I’m doing a project with Henrik Schwarz, who’s a German dance music producer but he’s definitely much more than that. We’re putting together a programme for Amsterdam Dance Event which will be premiered in the middle of October with Metropole Orkest.
Catch Jules Buckley at The Royal Albert Hall conducting Jamie Cullum (August 11th), Quincy Jones (August 22nd) and Kamasi Washington (August 30th)