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Jess Gillam (soprano & alto saxophones)
rec. 2018/19, Watford Colosseum, Air Edel, Angel Studios, Air Lyndhurst Studio 1, The Old Malthouse, UK
DECCA 483 4862 [51:48]

To anyone for whom the name of Jess Gillam is new, it suffices to say that she is a force of nature who took away the breath of all who saw her storm to prominence as the first saxophonist ever to win a top place in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2016.  She was beaten to the top slot by Sheku Kanneh-Mason, another supreme representative of the younger generation who help give the rest of us hope that a better world is possible. Coming second, however, meant that she still caught the eyes and ears of record producers and concert promoters, who were quick to recognise the potential of this hugely dynamic personality.  Her supercharged presence made the 2016 competition quite special and nobody who witnessed her lightning performance is likely forget it, for it is rare for anyone to play while using their body almost as an extension to their instrument, twisting and turning to mirror the musical twists and turns while clearly having the most wonderful time doing so. I cannot think of a better advocate for classical music and I am sure that as she is such an inspiring role model, many young people wishing to study music will now consider the saxophone, which can do nothing but good.  Gillam has made such an impact on the musical world that the BBC have snapped her up and given her own show on Radio 3 This Classical Life, described by a reviewer for The Times as “a millennial’s version of Private Passions”, showing that in terms of classical music “…Jess Gillam really does give you the impression that it’s a part of her DNA.”

I was pleased to have had Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s debut disc to review and am now just as glad to review Jess Gillam’s.  As with Kanneh-Mason’s disc, Gillam’s is a compilation as much showcasing the possibilities of her instrument as her own undoubted ability.  Just like Kanneh-Mason, she has chosen music from a variety of genres, historical periods and different moods. Launching the disc, she sets off like a skyrocket with a piece that establishes her amazing prowess on the soprano saxophone, that lithe and perky junior member of the family.  This performance of Iturralde’s Pequeña Czarda combines her astonishing talent with an instinctive feeling for pace; she makes the soprano sax sound as sinewy as any clarinet, especially at moments when the piece seems to embody the soul of klezmer as much as it demonstrates the links it clearly has with the spirit of Spain and Hungary.  She soars and dives, and when she is called upon to do so, she can set off at breakneck speed that defies belief; she must have already well and truly mastered that phenomenon of circular breathing despite her young age. 

Coming down from her roller coaster of a performance in Pequeña Czarda, Gillam gives a thoughtful and reflective reading of Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work, emphasising its beautiful lines. I should imagine Bush will be very pleased to hear what she has done with it in this arrangement by Geoff Lawson.  In a similar vein, although the music is from over two centuries earlier, she gives a lovely performance of the Adagio from Alessandro Marcello’s Oboe Concerto, again making a powerful argument for the soprano saxophone as a keen competitor to the oboe, the instrument which sounds most like the human voice.  Swapping from soprano to alto sax, Gillam then tackles Darius Milhaud’s tongue in cheek Brazileira from his suite Scaramouche, which gives her another chance to demonstrate her exceptional facility for racing up and down the scales while injecting into her performance the innate fun of which this piece is full.  We then have a piece by John Williams, that unbelievably successful composer of some of the greatest film music of all time. From the Stephen Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can, the section entitled Closing In gives Gillam an opportunity to show her jazz credentials and if she hasn’t already been approached by a jazz group to gig with them, all I can say is, “What are they waiting for?”

We are firmly back in reflective mood with If from Michael Nyman’s score for the Japanese animated film The Diary of Anne Frank.  There are several discs which include the piece and all bar two use piano; the others are played on the alto sax and I can state categorically that it works best on Gillam’s chosen soprano sax, which exudes the pathos of the piece far better than the others. Her accompanying orchestra gives her an equally sympathetic backing, its combination emphasising the tragic nature of the story of a young girl with everything to live for cut down by a monstrous evil.  Of course, it must be said that John Harle, Gillam’s mentor and the arranger here and for four other tracks, is second-to-none in knowing what the saxophone can do, so it is no surprise that he helps get the best out of her.

A John Harle original is next on the menu and indeed RANT! is said to be Harle’s portrait of Gillam, which surprised me somewhat, since it is full of Scottish rhythms and tunes, whereas Gillam is from Ulverston. However, it gives her another opportunity to show how versatile she is, with almost manic runs in dance-like mode, swooping and diving in delicious and exciting turns.

John Harle’s arrangement of David Bowie’s Where Are We Now? makes Bowie’s song sound so interesting and thought-provoking that I think that I ought to explore Bowie, whose music I can’t say I ever listened to (the same happened as a result of seeing the biopics Bohemian Rhapsody & Rocketman).  If I had not already known Kurt Weill’s music, then Paul Campbell’s arrangement of Je ne t’aime pas would have had the same effect; Campbell has enabled Gillam to bring out that palpable feeling of pre-war decadence that makes Weill’s music so attractive and accurate in its portrayal of those carefree times before the scourge of Nazism descended upon Germany and wrought destruction throughout Europe. 

Apart from Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary, John Dowland’s Flow My Tears must surely be the most well-known piece of Elizabethan music – and it is certainly the best-known for lute. David Warin Solomons’ arrangement for alto saxophone loses none of the plaintive nature of the original, despite a 19th century instrument taking centre stage in a 16th century work.  Miloš Karadaglić’s guitar accompaniment helps keep it rooted in its 400-year-old past.  Then once again we are catapulted forward to the 1920s with Rudy Wiedoeft’s Valse Vanité, its cheeky carefree nature to the fore in a piece written for the alto sax by its saxophonist composer.  In a similar music hall vein, Shostakovich’s waltz from his Suite for Variety Orchestra sounds perfectly at home in its saxophone guise - although come to think of it, Shostakovich loved using the alto sax to describe a certain decadent freedom.  We stay in Russia for a rendition of the traditional Dark Eyes (Ochi Chornya/ОЧИ ЧÖРНЫЕ) with its leisurely start and frantic finish in this version from John Harle, Gillam negotiating the roller coaster nature with the consummate ease we have come to expect from this extraordinary artist.  She completes her debut disc with the evocative and beautiful theme from the film Love Story, Francis Lai’s perfect depiction of love in music.

This disc necessarily included a number of arrangements, since the saxophone repertoire is relatively small and not crammed with works which would help fill one, but given the skill of the four arrangers here we have short pieces that could have plausibly been saxophone originals. Plaudits also go to her accompanists on guitar and piano and the other instrumentalists as well as the always dependable BBC Concert Orchestra who give her such committed support.  What a debut disc this is; there could hardly be a better way of showing her unbelievable talents than the selection she came up with, which shows her agility on both soprano and alto saxes as well as a musical dexterity that seems to know no bounds; she can make her instrument caress, tip-toe and whisper, as well as sound clamorous, declamatory and helter-skelter. My mother-in-law would say “She’s been here before”, as it is astonishing to find such a well-rounded and complete an artist in one so young. RISE is the perfect title for someone who has only just begun what will surely be a meteoric ‘rise’ into the musical stratosphere. 

Steve Arloff

1.Pedro ITURRALDE (b.1929)
Pequeña Czarda [3:30]
2.Kate BUSH (b.1958)
This Woman’s Work [4:14]
3.Alessandro MARCELLO (1673-1747)
Oboe Concerto in D minor: II. Adagio [3:43]
4.Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Scaramouche: III. Brazileira [2:37]
5.John WILLIAMS (b.1932)
Escapades: I. Closing In [2:45]
6.Michael NYMAN (b.1944)
The Diary of Anne Frank: If [4:38]
7.John HARLE (b.1956)
RANT! [5:54]
8.David BOWIE (1947-2016)
Where Are We Now? [4:10]
9.Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
Je ne t’aime pas [4:01]
10.John DOWLAND (1563-1626)
Flow My Tears [2:17]
11.Rudy WIEDOEFT (1893-1940)
Valse Vanité [4:23]
12.Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Suite for Variety Orchestra: Waltz 2 [3:11]
Dark Eyes [2:50]
Bonus Track
Francis LAI (1932-2018)
Love Story – Theme [3:34]

BBC Concert Orchestra (2,3,5-8)/Richard Balcombe (2,3,8) Jessica Cottis (5-7)
Miloš (guitar -10); Zeynep Özsuca, (piano - 1,4,9,11,13); Tippett Quartet (1,4,13); Ben Dawson (piano - 8,12,14); John Harle (piano & double bass; bass guitar - 8, mandolin - 13); Charles Mutter, Michael Gray (violin - 9,12,14); Timothy Welch (viola - 12,14); Nigel Goodwin (viola - 9); Benjamin Hughes (cello - 9,12,14); Andee Birkett (double bass – 1,4,13); Andrew Wood (double bass - 12,14)
Arrangers: John Harle (1,3,6,8,13); Geoff Lawson (2); Paul Campbell (9,12 & bonus track); David Warin Solomons (10) 

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