Restricted access

This content is exclusive to members of the International Journal of Music.

Join now for as low as $1.67 per month…

…or get FREE access if you are a student or teacher!

Alison Balsom — “Quiet City” (Warner Classics, 2022)


Alison Balsom discusses the repertoire selections for her new album, her close partnership with Simon Wright while arranging Gershwin, equipment, the meaning of Ives’s “Unanswered Question,” and her homage to Miles Davis.

Cite this:

Publication date:

ISSN: 2792-8349

Copyright ©

International Journal of Music

Article views:


You just signed a five-album deal with Warner. The first one, Quiet City, explores American music from the 20th century and will be released on August 26th. You recorded Copland’s Quiet City, a newly edited version of Bernstein’s Lonely Town from On the Town, Ives’s Unanswered Question, a brand-new orchestral arrangement from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and two works by the iconic Miles Davis/Gil Evans partnership, Concierto de Aranjuez and My Ship.

What inspired your selection of works?

It started from my decades-long love for Copland’s Quiet City, which is just such an incredible piece. It’s very profound, it’s very universally expressive of the times that he was living in when he wrote it and the times we’re living in now, and it’s also one of those pieces where I feel proud to have played the trumpet. In many ways, it goes against what most people stereotypically think is the trumpet. It shows that the trumpet can have an amazingly expressive, soul-like, vocal, introverted and thoughtful character. I discovered it when I was a teenager. My dear, wonderful guru teacher John Miller introduced it to me, and as soon as I learned it (and it’s not an easy piece, as any trumpet player will tell you!), it sort of spoke to me. Once you got around the nuts and bolts of it, the technical challenges of it all — the piece unlocked and became something that related to my voice and my identity on the trumpet. I found it when I found this piece — how I wanted to express myself through the trumpet. It really stayed in my heart for my whole life. I didn’t want to rush my recordings and just do things because they were part of the trumpet repertoire; it’s got to feel like the right time. And this really felt like the right time. I knew that the Britten Sinfonia would play it so amazingly, too.

But one of the other reasons that album came about was because I was invited to play at the Barbican in London a few years ago with the Britten Sinfonia, and they asked me to play the Concierto de Aranjuez, Miles Davies and Gil Evans’ version of Rodrigo’s Sketches of Spain. I wasn’t sure if I was the right person for it, being a classical trumpet player, and I didn’t know if it would sound right with an orchestra. But in fact, it turned out that the Britten Sinfonia are a very flexible ensemble and not really defined by genre. They have some of the best non-classical musicians in London who also play in bands, who play classical, jazz and many other styles. When I went and participated in this concert, I was mesmerised by their playing. It didn’t sound pastiche or like a copy of Gil Evans’ recording — it sounded really like what Gil Evans would have wanted. It really had that sound, rather than a classical version of that sound. So I was very inspired by that.

I felt like I was in that place that trumpet players often find themselves in, where they often wonder if they are falling between two stools; classical trumpet and jazz trumpet. There is this place in the middle where you don’t want to get it wrong, and you don’t want to be a bit of either. I was really intrigued by that. I felt like I had done enough recordings to just take a risk and explore that gap in the middle between the two genres, and whether you can just say, “I am justifying this because I feel I’ve got something to say about it.” Let’s take the labels away from jazz and classical and just see if there is a place where the trumpet (or how one sees the trumpet) can sit comfortably in the middle. And, of course, one of the biggest conceptual challenges for me on this album was playing music that was conceived by Miles Davis and playing his conception of the piece. I used Gil Evans’ notes and then brought in my own written interpretation.

I feel that we all know that Miles Davis was such a legend and iconic musician who almost found another side and character to the trumpet. I felt that it deserved exploring as though he were the composer. I was looking for ways to bring those two worlds together.

I have this tendency when recording. I’m so busy trying to prove to the world that the trumpet can do so much more than people think; to try and cover too many themes. If we’re talking about America, should we talk about jazz, soul, blues, musical theatre, film, or twentieth-century greats?

And I had to say to myself, “Hang on a minute, this isn’t a lecture recital; it’s just an album! It doesn’t have to be about how varied we can be! It can just be about the music I love without it having too wide of a theme.” I have done that in the past where you feel slightly seasick from all the different directions you’ve been taken in by my albums, so I was trying to calm down in this album, basically.

Photo: Hugh Carswell.

Can you tell us about what to expect from the new arrangements?

With Quiet City, this is not an arrangement; it’s an original work. I toyed with the idea of trying to steal more of the cor anglais part for the trumpet because it was originally written for quite different forces. It was written for eight instruments, and it was much more of a chamber piece where the trumpet did have a lot more to do. I was trying to steal some of that stuff back, but I wasn’t allowed. The Copland estate was having none of it! But I did try. I thought it would be really interesting as there are so many great recordings of the piece, so I wanted to try something different if we could musically justify it. But it’s as great as it is with the strings and the cor anglais, and I was so lucky to play with Nick Daniel, one of the world’s greatest cor anglais players, so that was very inspiring to stand next to him and feel his energy and musical ideas.

I don’t think of the Bernstein as an arrangement, really. It has a hauntingly beautiful melody with a little trumpet solo at the beginning, but it also has a cor anglais solo. And I thought that the cor anglais solo would work on the trumpet, so I basically just edited it and put the cor anglais bit on the trumpet as well. It wasn’t really that much of a change; the orchestra stayed the same.

After that is the Gershwin. It was the biggest technical challenge on the disc because I realised that the copyright on the original Gershwin was up in 2020, so whilst this sounded really fortunate, of course, the orchestral version was not out of copyright! We had to redo the orchestration entirely! I approached an amazing arranger friend of mine, Simon Wright, with whom I’ve worked a lot in the past. I thought I was asking to do one thing, which was to add a trumpet part: I wanted to keep the piano because it was an iconic, wonderfully written part, but I also wanted to insert trumpet work into that as well and make it a dialogue between piano and trumpet, with orchestra. But it turned out that the whole thing had to be rewritten. It was a huge time commitment for Simon, for which I am grateful. But it was also an opportunity to speak to Tom Poster, the pianist and my great collaborator who has played the piece brilliantly many times in the form we all know. It was really constructive to ask him, “Are there any moments in this piece where you think, actually, could they be a little different?” Although we haven’t veered too far away from what people know, there are some changes that we really enjoyed when we performed and recorded it. Whilst sitting in my living room, I called both Simon and Tom (both of whom I’ve worked with for decades), and remember very clearly saying that I had had this idea… At the beginning of the conversation with both of them, they thought I was absolutely bananas, and it was the silliest idea I’d ever had! I spent fifteen, twenty minutes telling them what I was thinking and why, and by the end of that, they said, “Oh, this actually might be fun — it might work!” So I managed to talk them around.

We never knew if it was actually going to work as a finished product, but we knew for a fact that it was going to be a lot of fun trying. So that’s what we did — we threw everything at it and played with as much conviction as possible. We hope people will really like it. It does make us smile as it’s quite a cartoonish piece in some ways, but it’s got many beautiful moments written by Gershwin, of course, and it’s just a privilege as a trumpeter to get my teeth into some of those melodies that weren’t previously available to us.

The arrangement feels so natural. Did you have some input on what trumpet lines you’d like to combine?

I did all the trumpet lines, and very early on, I just took the score and figured out what could work on the trumpet: how would that affect everybody else? Was it justifiable? I would say to Simon what I wanted to play, and then Tom and I would bash through it, just trumpet and piano. We wanted to see what felt right or what might have needed to be changed. We would then go and tell Simon, who would put it all on the computer and make it all coherent, then send it back, and we would keep playing over what we felt was the most natural. If it had been for another trumpeter, it might have been completely different, but with me, these were the things I felt that I needed to do with the trumpet to make it feel natural and work musically. It was really organic. We actually did two performances, the second of which was recorded for the album. The first was a few days before, and we still hadn’t got the part anywhere near what it now sounds like on the recording! We were still experimenting with things in the first concert! It was very exciting in that regard.

The Ives is also an original work. Amazingly, it’s the earliest on the disc and feels, in a way, as the most pioneering and the most modern. He wrote it in 1908, which was very early for music like this. It’s really existential and thought-provoking. It’s also really musically complex and avant-garde. But it has a soundscape that’s just ravishing. Again, it felt like such a privilege for there to be a trumpet part: a haunting, lonely solo trumpet voice that made me love the piece and want to play it and have an opportunity to record it. And it’s a short piece, so you’re never going to really know how to curate it and have an opportunity to record a piece like this. I was delighted that I felt that it fitted in on this disc.

Photo: Hugh Carswell.

The orchestration of Miles is fantastic. How much of it is close to the original, and what modifications did you do?

That line that Miles Davis played at the time — he had worked this out; he wasn’t just improvising throughout. What he actually did on that final recording was transcribed. He was very deliberate on what ended up on that album, and it wasn’t an accident or a decision to just use the best take. So that got transcribed, and that’s what I recorded and played, in homage to Miles Davis as the composer of the trumpet line of that piece. There were one or two moments which I knew were written down for Miles Davis that he chose not to do, but I did do; certain notes here and there. I think that was because I just liked what Gil Evans had written there, and Miles did his own thing, but I wanted to do what Gil had written. But there are very few of those moments. That’s the exception to the rule. I just wanted to soak up what it was that he was bringing to the trumpet and the repertoire. I wouldn’t describe myself as a jazz musician, so there was no way I was going to make a trumpet line over the top of what Gil Evans had written that was going to be anything like what he did! So why would you ignore that? It was out of my love and respect for him that I recreated that. It’s a risky thing because you could say that it’s just copying, but I see what he wrote as composition. So I don’t see what I’ve done as copying; I see it as reperforming his ideas like you would with any composition.

What instruments did you use throughout this album?

I used an old, antique trumpet on the Miles track! It’s my uncle’s old copper bell — I actually need to give it back to him! It’s not a named brand, it’s just an old, knackered trumpet that has a darkness to it, and it’s a nightmare because it is so out of tune. It has no triggers. But it has a dark airiness to it. I felt I shouldn’t use my normal trumpet to create the sound I wanted. It would almost be like pressing too hard so my lips weren’t vibrating or changing my embouchure, which I can’t do. Maybe some people can, but I definitely can’t do that! It would mess up my technique completely.

But I found that when I played this instrument, it was quite close to the sound I was looking for, so I just thought, “Right, let’s do this”. There were a couple of takes where I had to scrap everything either side — I needed to pull all the tuning slides out in order to just get these few notes. The joy of being able to record, not live! But in the concerts, they were just a bit out of tune; I just tried to bend them with my lips a bit and hope for the best.

On the rest of the album, I’m using my Bach C trumpet, which I love, and it was just very straightforward. Especially for the Gershwin, I find it a really virtuosic, peaceful instrument that I love. It just works for me, and it’s a great tool. But I did use thousands of mutes!

I should mention there were a few other pieces that I attempted to put on this album. But once we got to the editing stage, I found that they didn’t work. I didn’t want to do that thing that I mentioned earlier; the box-ticking of every possible American genre or piece. So I just dumped them, which is quite controversial, especially if the label has paid for that time and those extra instruments, but I do think it’s a better album for being shorter and more precise. Some of those pieces have loads of mutes in them as well!

Lastly, I want to give a big shout-out to the trumpet section, who are experts in a lot of this music and have really thought about it all their lives. They played so incredibly, and they really inspired me on the sessions.

Audiences and musicians tend to discuss the philosophical meanings of Ives’s Unanswered Question; what does it mean to you?

It reminds me of the thing we all talk about as musicians; we instinctively know how important music is in one’s life. You don’t have to become a professional musician for music to be really important and make life worth living. I don’t think, as humans, we fully understand the benefits of music. We know that there are so many benefits of music, but we don’t fully understand how to apply all of those benefits to the rest of our lives yet. Some of us do, but it’s certainly not part of any government policy! And yet we know it’s a fact. One thing that keeps returning to my mind is that music is like a concept that takes over one’s language when words have run out; when we don’t have any other way of expressing ourselves. Music is almost the next highest step onwards. And I think this is what this piece means to me, more than any other. Music is as good a way as any to explain the universe, and I think this piece is a brilliant encapsulation of that.


Full Interview: “Keep Going, Keep Seeking Out New Experiences That Remind You Why You Love It and That Inspire You All Over Again”

Did you enjoy this content? Please consider sharing it with others who may find it interesting: