Although Stravinsky wrote for Woody Herman, and Bartok for Benny Goodman, classical composers and jazz musicians rarely make music together. For Mark-Anthony Turnage, however, the two are not mutually exclusive. Turnage has had an obsession with jazz since his teens, but it wasn't until 1993 that he had the chance to write for a jazz player, when he composed a short work for pianist Django Bates.
Shortly after that, the German chamber orchestra Ensemble Modern commissioned a longer orchestral suite from him that would involve jazz musicians: Blood on the Floor. Premiered in 1996, it was a 70- minute work that featured two of Turnage's favourite jazzmen, guitarist John Scofield and percussionist Peter Erskine. Unusually, Turnage, as well as providing them with notated parts, also allowed them space to improvise.
Although this rare hybrid worked splendidly, it is not a formula easily repeated: "It's the individual musicians who interest me. There are plenty of people working in jazz who I don't think would have an affinity with what I do, and who probably wouldn't be interested in working with me. It's to do with the sound they make. With John Scofield, it was his choices of notes that convinced me that his music would not be incongruous in one of my pieces."
Now, the opportunity to work with another admired jazz player has come Turnage's way. He has written Bass Inventions for Dave Holland, the double- bassist whose playing he first heard on Miles Davis's classic recordings from the late-1960s, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. At the time, he didn't realise that Holland was British (born in Wolverhampton in 1946), nor that he had trained as a classical player at London's Guildhall School of Music.
What impressed Turnage, in Davis's music, and in the many bands that Holland has fronted since then, was the personality that his playing expressed: "Dave has an extraordinary sound, something that no other acoustic bass-player has. It's as if his instrument is an extension of him, and there's no effort involved in playing it. There's nothing he can't do, technically."
A long-standing fan, Turnage finally met Holland when the bassist played with John Scofield in London a few years ago: "Dave played a solo in the set, and I thought how fantastic it would be to write something for him. After the show, John Scofield introduced me, and I asked Dave if he'd be interested. He was quite careful, he went away and listened to my music before he agreed. He is `classically trained', so I can leave room for him to improvise, but I can also give him complex written parts.
"When Birmingham Contemporary Music Group premiered the piece in Amsterdam last May, the principal violinist said that he couldn't tell when Dave was improvising, and when he wasn't. In making the transitions organic, he has been sensitive to what I've written, and I hope I've been sensitive to his style."
For his part, Holland enjoyed the collaboration as much as Turnage: "Mark spent time listening to my recordings to get a feel for my playing and my approach, so that when I got the piece, it bore all the signs that he'd written it with my playing in mind. …