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 Recording of the Week  Alison Balsom performs trumpet music inspired by Paris

Over the past decade or so, trumpeter Alison Balsom has established herself as a real ambassador for her instrument, and an imaginative, effortlessly versatile one at that. In the booklet-notes for this new disc she explains that she’s ‘constantly looking for different ways to demonstrate the many voices of the trumpet’, and this intriguing collection of music from early twentieth-century Paris certainly fulfils its brief. A central triptych of Ravel, Messiaen and Satie is flanked by music by the tango doyen Astor Piazzolla, torch-song supremo Michel Legrand and legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Such a project could hardly be more different from her last solo disc, Sound the Trumpet (released September 2012), which focused exclusively on baroque repertoire – but like that earlier album, Paris features some masterly transcriptions which Balsom worked on herself as well as starry cameos from guest artists (the acclaimed countertenor Iestyn Davies made an appearance on Sound the Trumpet, and this time round there’s a contribution from the young Montenegrin guitarist Miloš Karadaglić, who joins Balsom for a mesmerising account of Piazzolla’s louche Café 1930).

Alison Balsom
Alison Balsom

Balsom is a long-term Francophile, having taken postgraduate studies at the Conservatoire de Paris, and affection and empathy radiates from all the material on this disc. The project actually came into being not in France but in Uganda, when she met jazz trumpeter and arranger Guy Barker, who spent his early career sharing the stage with jazz legends such as Gil Evans and John Dankworth (he’s also patron of the charity Brass for Africa, hence the Uganda connection). The pair discovered much musical common ground, and so Paris began to evolve – almost all of the arrangements on the disc are the result of their collaboration, and Barker’s own orchestra (essentially a big band, augmented to symphonic dimensions here) provide the classy support.

Warner Classics have form when it comes to chic, eclectic discs with a French connection; last autumn brought us Natalie Dessay’s lovely Michel Legrand recital, Entre elle et lui, and long-term readers may recall Alexandre Tharaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit which I wrote about in 2012. Paris continues that tradition with serious style: though the programme looks so diverse on paper that the orchestral musicians initially thought they’d been given material for two different discs, the transitions never feel remotely awkward or contrived, and for me the juxtapositions pointed up just how much dialogue there is between the ‘classical’ and jazz worlds during this period.

Whilst I’m sure I’ve read numerous programme-notes over the years about the jazz and blues elements in Ravel’s Piano Concerto, hearing the slow movement in close proximity to Legrand’s La valse de lilas and Reinhardt’s Nuages made the connections come alive as never before. Similarly, the opening arrangement of a Satie Gymnopédie (one of the pieces which provided the germ for the project as a whole) feels like it wouldn’t be out of place in the mouth of a smoky-voiced chanteuse in a Pigalle jazz-bar.

The centrepiece of the disc is a quite extraordinary transcription of Le baiser de l’enfant Jésus from Messiaen’s mighty solo piano cycle Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus – Balsom and Barker’s (with a helping hand from Timothy Redmond) choice of sonorities here brings out all the luminous, ecstatic power of a work which by Barker’s own admission was the most exciting and intimidating raw material on their list!

Lovers of Balsom’s glorious, malleable sound will need no prompting from me, but even if you’d normally find the prospect of an entire trumpet disc a little indigestible you’ll be won over. Definitely one of my discs of the year.

...and if you like the sound of Paris, have a look through Alison's other recordings - currently available for up to 30% off in our special offer, here.

Alison Balsom: Paris

Alison Balsom (trumpet), The Guy Barker Orchestra, Guy Barker

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC