“When it is something you love, it does not feel like a job” – an interview with Jess Gillam


On a typically snowy Finnish mid-March Thursday, the brilliant English saxophonist Jess Gillam is finishing a rehearsal with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and Santtu-Matias Rouvali for a concert ahead on Friday. The programme includes Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Fantasia for saxophone, three horns and strings (1948) and John Williams’ Escapades for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra (2002), a concert piece based on his score for the Steve Spielberg film Catch Me if You Can.

Gillam has performed the Williams piece on many occasions, starting with an all-John Williams concert at the BBC Proms a couple of years back.

”It’s such a brilliant piece. I think it is more inspired by the days of Johnny Williams rather than John Williams, with its fifties bebop and jazz influences, and the orchestration is really wonderful. We just had a rehearsal, and the vibes and bass player are both brilliant, it’s gonna be exciting.”

Though nowadays John Williams is best known for his big symphonic scores for the Star Wars and Harry Potter films, as well as a his collaborations with Spielberg from the early seventies on, the composer has his early jazz side too.

”This piece almost fuses the two worlds together, but authentically. We have these amazing filmic, epic orchestrations, but the smaller combo with its jazz-inspired style does not feel off-placed, because it’s all glued together so brilliantly.

There are some technically challenging parts, and it’s so essential to get everything right together with the vibes player, because a lot of the writing is in unison. So it’s got to be rhythmically very, very intact. And while it’s not the most technically challenging piece, to get the style right is quite difficult, because it needs a particular sound. It can’t be played with a straight classical sound, because it would sound out of place. The piece really needs that kind of jazz tinge, a little bit of bebop articulation. So the difficulties are more in the projection and tone quality, I think.

In the end, it is about working out how to fit into the sound of the vibes, especially with the motor on. How the saxophone sound can work together with it. Rather than sounding two separate instruments, the two should be coming together in one sound. It is genius orchestration! The vibes add this sparky sound to the saxophone, making it all come alive one step more.”

While the Williams piece is quite well known, either in its original guise as a film score, or in its reworked form as a concert piece, the Villa-Lobos Fantasia is not something a concert-goer gets to hear very often.

”It is quite a strange piece, not uncomfortable, but harmonically very strange. The sounds are are very weird due to harmony and its orchestration for strings and three horns and a soprano saxophone, which is an odd combination, but works very well. A good match, I think. The first movement is kind of grand opening, with a lyrical section to finish the movement. Then we have a slow second movement, with viola solo at the opening. The third movement is my favourite to play. It is more lively and dance inspired, but it’s in 3/4 plus 4/4, so it never feels quite settled.”

The saxophone is not an instrument usually associated with classical repertoire. Yet, it is a combination with inspiring, ever expanding repertoire.

”I started playing the sax when I was seven. I was in a carnival band and we played this Brazilian samba kind of music. I didn’t come across with the classical saxophone, or really proper classical music until I was eleven. Then I saw a saxophone quartet play, and the sound was completely unknown to me. I couldn’t believe it, that saxophone can produce this huge array of sounds. It was such a versatile instrument, and I thought, I have to play this, I have to try this, and then it just became what I love and what I love doing.

And also it is exciting that we don’t have the history of the violin or the piano has. Our history is still being made, so we are be able to commission and play new pieces, and introduce the instrument in this context to people. It can be seen as disadvantage, but it is also an interesting opportunity, I think.”

One of Jess Gillam’s early classical loves has been Michael Nyman’s riveting saxophone concerto, Where the Bee Dances (1991)

”I love the Nyman concerto, it was written for my teacher, John Harle, so that tradition of playing and his kind of style of playing is very much where I come from. I heard the Nyman, when I was twelve and that was when my love for the classical really got started. I heard it, and I thought, I have to be able to play this piece, which I eventually was.

But it is funny to put it under the branch of classical, for it is such a broad, broad term for everything. The point of music is that it is inexplicable, we can’t verbalize it or create terms for it, because what it is trying to do is beyond that.”

When asked about her favourite saxophone pieces, she comes up with some fascinating repertoire.

”Definitely the Nyman, and also the Glazunov concerto (1934), which is the most recognizable saxophone concerto. Milhaud’s Scaramouche (1936) is really wonderful, just the kind of festive and fun piece. Then there’s a concerto for soprano saxophone and strings by Dave Heath, called The Celtic (1994), which is inspired by Scottish and Irish folk music. And also the John Adams concerto (2013), which is a great piece. And once you start, you end up finding others, They’ll lead you on a a trail. There’s so much to discover.”

Alongside her active touring life, she has a new studio album coming out in April.

”It’s with Decca Classics, and they’ve never had a saxophone player before, which is exiting. We worked out a concept for the album, which is just pieces I love, and I love to play, all quite short pieces. We have a premiere there too, which is a commission from John Harle. It is a wonderful piece, inspired by folk songs of Cumbria, Northern England, where I come from. Then we have a movement of the Williams, some Marcello, Dowland, and David Bowie, one of my musical heroes. It is a real mix and tries to show the versatility of the saxophone and how it can come in and out of different styles and different genres, and also, that genres are not that useful, I think, as a term.

In addition to her performance career onstage and in the studio, Gillam is still a student of Harle at the Royal Northern College.

”It is quite difficult to fit in performing career with studying. It is a difficult balance. Like this month, I am here in Finland, then back to London, and then to Barcelona and back to Finland. I try to work on the road, so when we finish this, I’ll do some college work! But when it is something you love, it does not feel like a job.”

As we speak, the British parliament is in the midst of a series of crucial votes on Brexit. For touring musicians, the eventual outcome of the process of the UK leaving the EU will have a key impact on the everyday realities of their professional lives

”One of the most inspiring things about being a musician is meeting people in different cultures and understanding their views of the world and seeing how they interact with people, how they react and how they live and what they believe in. I just hope we can hold on to that. If we would break ourselves off from all this, it would be awful.

It sounds cliche, but music is this universal language, and we must have an access to the universe and be able to share it. I just hope we can continue to collaborate with other countries. Easily. Without a visa.

All of the arts are something that can unite people. One of the most important things is people coming together and having a shared belief, we should not become cut off from that.”


c Jari Kallio

(Photo c Kaupo Kikkas)

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