Even though the English alto saxophonist Peter King has only occasionally appeared in New York, over the decades he's visited often enough to be very gradually establishing a connection with the city's scene. This month, King is part of Made In The UK, a touring package organized and funded by The Arts Council Of England, with a host of UK performers set to invade both NYC and the Rochester International Jazz Festival.
King's first significant entry onto the UK scene was being booked for the opening night of Ronnie Scott's club in 1959. King was just 19 years old. Over the following 50 years, the altoman has built up a reputation as one of the UK's finest players, with a foundation being a speedily loquacious mastery of the bebop tradition, which has expanded into conceptualized album projects and even the composition of modern classical pieces. King has also enjoyed a ubiquitous big band presence, performing with pianist Stan Tracey, tenor man Don Weller and keyboardist Colin Towns and earlier with Johnny Dankworth and Tubby Hayes.
"Of course, as a jazz musician, it's always been my ambition to play in America and especially in New York," says King. Even so, he had to wait until nearly 30 years into his career before debuting in NYC. This was a gig with Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. "I first played a concert there with his big band in the early 1980s, while we were on a tour of the US. After he broke up that band, Charlie asked me to play with his new jazz quintet and commissioned me to write several original tunes for the group. This led to more tours in the US with various lineups, based around the quintet, but then augmented with a string section and vocalist Bernard Fowler." Next, Watts released A Tribute to Charlie Parker With Strings, an album that was recorded live at the second Ronnie Scott's Club, in Birmingham, England. "I'd written and transcribed all the string arrangements. We then performed it at Blue Note and followed that up with more tours, featuring Bernard Fowler singing mostly ballads, with a larger string section. I wrote many of the arrangements and acted as musical director. Then in 2001, Charlie dropped the string section and we formed a great new 11-piece band." This band went out on tour, once again stopping off at Blue Note.
"I've been moving away from a bebop setting for the last 20 to 25 years," King stresses. "...I now feel more comfortable playing in a freer and more modal Coltrane-influenced way. I've also been working towards writing more orchestral music and sometimes combining both disciplines, especially with my album Janus, which features my jazz quartet with a Bartok-inspired classical string quartet. And, of course, my opera Zyklon is a purely 'classical' work."
Back in 1999, King was blowing (and even doing a small acting part) in Julian Barry's play based around the life of Lenny Bruce. This was a Peter Hall production, starring Eddie Izzard. "During the run of the show I got very friendly with Julian and I managed to persuade him to write the libretto to an opera I wanted to compose, about the famous scientist Fritz Haber. Haber's story is like a Greek tragedy. He was born a Jew but converted to Christianity to combat the anti-Semitism that was rife in Prussia at the beginning of the last century. He was a great scientist who won the Nobel Prize, but he had a dark side. He was the man who developed the use of poison gas in the First World War. But most of all I was shocked to discover he also oversaw the development of Zyklon B, the gas that, although he never lived to see it killed six million of his own people!"
King and Barry were invited to give a workshop and recital at CUNY in 2004. "When I was looking for singers, I was very lucky to be introduced to Cynthia Aaronson-Davis, who had not only been a principle singer with the New York City Opera, but was married to Anthony Davis. I was thrilled when she agreed to sing the main female role in the opera. She was brilliant in the role of Clara, Haber's first wife."
In 2008 King was in Connecticut, visiting Barry and Davis happened to be in New York at the same time. "He had an idea for a future project at UCSD featuring myself with [possibly] bassist Mark Dresser. While I was in town, Tony invited me to come and sit in at a concert they were doing at The Stone with his group Episteme. It turned out to be a fascinating and highly stimulating musical experience that took me out of my normal comfort zone. I rarely get a chance to play in this kind of freer musical environment, but I had done it before. In fact, I'd recorded with John Stevens' Free-bop band in the '70s."