Photo by Miyazaki Waniouchi
How a Jazz Artist reinvented a Tudor favourite for modern times
by Chris Wheatley
"I think it comes down to a quote," says musician, composer and arranger, John Aram, "from one of my favourites, Duke Ellington: there are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind..." We are discussing Aram's latest project, a fascinating re-working of "Flow My Tears," a popular English song which dates back to the 16th century. For those unfamiliar with Aram's background, he was born in Nottingham, studied at London's Royal Academy of Music and has since worked extensively with numerous orchestras, composing for television and radio amongst other outlets. In the jazz world, Aram is equally well-respected, having worked with a selection of fine players, including saxophonist Tim Garland, with whom Aram co-leads The United Underground Orchestra.
Also on Aram's CV is a fruitful creative relationship with Phil Collins. "The Collins collaboration was something quite special," says Aram. "Normally when you collaborate with an artist like that, you are bought in for a specific job and then you are "in and out." Aram provided arrangements and organised recording sessions for Collins over eighteen months. A 'once in a lifetime opportunity' observes Aram. "We organised sessions with musicians from the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande and had almost a month in the studio with the famous Funk Brothers, leading to a tour of the US and UK."
I'm interested to know how the Flow My Tears project came about. The piece was originally composed by John Dowland (1563 - 1626). Dowland is best remembered for his moving melancholy songs, although his instrumental music has more recently enjoyed a revival. Intriguingly, it seems Dowland served as a spy in France and Denmark, in the employ of Robert Cecil, the statesman noted for his uncovering of the infamous Gunpowder Plot.
"I was fascinated by John Dowland," explains Aram, "and the fact that many of his songs still 'worked' today, after around 400 hundred years. I got to thinking that it would be fun to create music that has today's sounds but was in actual fact written at the time of Shakespeare, and if anyone would actually notice."
Aram began working on "Flow My Tears" back in 2016, but found himself stalled in a quest to find the perfect voice for the song, until a recent chance meeting with eclectic soul singer-songwriter and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson, an artist who herself blends the traditional and the modern, fusing classical music with contemporary R&B.
"During the worst days of the pandemic," Aram recounts, "Tim Garland was hosting a series of online concerts with invited guests. One of these events featured Ayanna. I fell in love with her voice and with the way she found meaning with the songs. It seemed like a 'light bulb' moment. It had to be her."
I'm curious to know, given the history involved, if Aram thinks our relationship with popular music has changed over the centuries, particularly in the accelerated modern era. "I think we have lost some of the importance that an earlier generation had with "owning" music," says Aram. "It is wonderful that music is now so accessible, and you can discover the most amazing and diverse music browsing on your phone or computer. The problem is the promotion of music and the fact that the three major record companies control the whole market, making it very difficult for niche musicians to earn a living."
Which leads, of course, to the thorny question of what exactly constitutes 'popular' music? Is it a term defined by its perceived opposite, classical? Says Aram: "I think there has always been popular music. The sort of thing that is shared at a family gathering or for an occasion, birthday, wedding, death. There has also always been a formal music heard only by members of the court or aristocracy. It would be nice to think, wouldn't it, that your music could still be listened to 400 years from now?"
All of which brings us round to Aram's Duke Ellington quote. "This was the driving force for the project," says Aram, "I think the best songs tell a story and resonate with an audience. I hope that our version manages to do this."
For more on John Aram, see his John Aram
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