Ahead of the festival, Ally got the chance to talk to Denny Ilett, guitarist, vocalist, arranger and bandleader of Electric Lady Big Band, a 16-piece big band of leading UK jazz musicians who formed to re-imagine Jimi Hendrix's 1968 masterpiece Electric Ladyland.
What was the process like transferring Jimi Hendrix’s seminal album to become a full big band project? Did you feel much pressure?
"It was less of a process and more of a labour of love for me. I first heard Jimi when I was 14 years old and my admiration and respect from him has grown over the 35+ years since. Separate to that, I grew up around jazz and my ears were always drawn to the sound of a big band. Having done a lot of arranging over the years, I felt like it would be an interesting and fun idea to see what Jimi's music would sound like with 12 horns and a rhythm section. The biggest challenge was in trying to adapt Jimi's vocal melodies, which are as much spoken as sung, into instrumental lines for the horns to play. Of course, I had to make some slight changes there otherwise it could sound very 'square' but, I hope I made it work! The rest of it was a process of singing the tunes from Electric Ladyland in my head and starting to hear how I could shape it for the group. Some came very easily, others took a bit more time for example All Along The Watchtower; I struggled for a while to think of a way of adapting that one until one day, in the car, I started imagining it in 7/4 and it came to life from there."
Being a guitarist, have you always had the idea to pay homage to Jimi Hendrix in this way?
"I regularly get together with a trio and blast through a Hendrix set so I'd already been playing his music for several years. In 2018 it was the 50th anniversary of Electric Ladyland and I started thinking of honouring that for a slot at Bristol Jazz and Blues festival. I then remembered a snippet from an interview Jimi gave shortly before he passed away where he expressed frustration at the limitations of the trio format and that he would like "a big band that I can write and conduct for". On top of that, I remembered the album of Hendrix compositions that Gil Evans arranged and produced in 1974, so the idea came from those three elements. Ultimately, I came to it from a big band perspective than that of a guitarist. This project isn't one where it's a guitar-led thing backed by the band. I made a conscious effort to make it an ensemble project and, with the band I was able to assemble, I wanted them to be featured as much as possible."
How did you come about forming such a fierce big band with all-star players?
"I've known and worked with each of the players in the band in a variety of guises over many years, so it was simply a question of who could I imagine playing Jimi's music with the same level of love and respect that I have. I was very happy to learn that, despite the 'jazz credentials' of each of the musicians, they all understood what Hendrix was about and were as excited by the idea as I was. I think my favourite moment was when we assembled for the first rehearsal and was able to sit back and witness happy reunions between many of the players who hadn't seen each other in a while. I was careful to make sure we had lots of contrast in solo style and approach so I could end up with soloists that span the history of jazz, blues and everything in between. It was vital to the project to have good section players who also take great solos so that was a defining factor in my choice of musician too."
Is it difficult assembling all those amazing players into one room?
"Everyone in this band is busy in their own right so I was very lucky that they all made room in their diaries for this project. They all seemed to really want to be involved so it wasn't as hard to put together as I thought. I'm not sure I'll always be able to put the same group together but, now the core is there, we can bring first-class deps in when we need to without affecting the energy and attitude of the overall thing."
Congratulations on recently releasing your album, what has the reaction been like?
"I wasn't originally planning to record the music but, after our first gig so many of the musicians said "we HAVE to record this!". I'm so grateful that everyone cleared their diaries and gave their time and energy in the studio and I had the best time with us all in one room recording it live. When we took the band to Ronnie Scott's for two nights in March 2018, I was overwhelmed with the amount of love people have for Jimi's music and that's carried on now the album is available. Everyone that's heard it has loved hearing Jimi's compositions in a different light as well as having the opportunity to hear a big band packed full of great players smashing out the arrangements!"
What are your ambitions, or the group’s ambitions, for the future? Do you have any more projects for the future – will you be sticking to just Jimi Hendrix renditions?
"I'd like to get this band out there more. Now the album is available maybe some interest might come along from festivals etc. We'll see. As for future projects for the band, there are a lot of other Hendrix tunes I'd like to incorporate so I'll start writing soon. Maybe I'll write some original pieces at some point or maybe we'll bring in the work of some of my other blues and rock heroes. It's called the Electric Lady Big Band but that doesn't tie it exclusively to Jimi Hendrix but, for the time being, that's what we're doing."
Electric Lady Big Band will be performing at Leeds College of Music - as part of Jazz Leeds Festival 2019 - Sunday 21st July.
Purchase your ticket here:
You can purchase Electric Lady Big Band's album here: https://electricladybigband.bandcamp.com/releases
Electric Lady Big Band:
Guitar/Vocal/Arranger: Denny Ilett Trumpet/Flugelhorn: Simon Gardner, Noel Langley, Yazz Ahmed, Tom Gardner Trombone: Winston Rollins, Ian Bateman, Ashley Slater, Justin Pavey Saxophone/Flute: Nathaniel Facey, Iain Ballamy, Ben Waghorn, Kevin Figes Rhodes/Moog: Dan Moore Bass: Thad Kelly Drums: Ralph Salmins