It is a very tenuous link between jazz and the dead of World War One, but I inadvertently made the connection last week. I had gone to The Forum in Kentish Town to interview Mancunian trumpet player Matthew Halsall (of whom more another time) and I was sitting with the band in a nearby café. I mentioned Dead Man’s Land, the new Dr Watson novel, and the young drummer to my right became very animated on the subject of WW1. This was Rob Turner who, as well as filling the drum chair for Halsall that night (it is often taken by Cinematic Orchestra’s Luke Flowers), is also a ‘sound artist’. By another coincidence he also drums for the piano trio GoGo Penguin, an album I had recently bought and thoroughly enjoyed. To use name-dropping shorthand – if you like EST, Neil Cowley, Albaran Trio or Bad Plus, you’ll love Fanfares (on the Gondwana label) although it has strong elements, especially in the interplay of the rhythm section, that is all its own. Turner is not your average jazz drummer – as influences he cites not Tony Williams or Jack DeJohnette but Aphex Twin and John Cage (he quotes the latter: ‘There is no noise, only sound.’)
But, to the war dead. That evening Turner let drop a project so ambitious, I called him up to discuss it a few days later. ‘It came to me overnight, literally,’ he said down the phone. ‘I woke up and thought – I wonder if it can be done? So I went to Steve Mead, artistic director of the Manchester Jazz Festival and he mentioned it to the Imperial War Museum and they were really interested.’
The idea is to build a text-recognition machine that will read out the names of all the casualties of World War One, close to forty million of them. ‘We wanted it to have no political agenda, so all countries are represented, all sides and both military and civilian casualties, too. It will operate 24 hours a day, with 3 seconds or so allowed for each name. I did think about running it chronologically, so if people knew their relative died at Loos in 1915, then they could come along. But the problem was you have these clumps where people died in vast numbers, such as day one of The Somme, that it skewers the timing. So we think it will be in alphabetical order.’ The next stage is to try and get funding for further investigation into the computer software and, if it goes ahead, to build the machine in time for the 100th anniversary of the start of the war in 2014 (it would probably be installed at IWM North). And how long will it take to recite the roll call of the fallen? Turner: ‘Well, that’s one thing that brings home the scale of the losses– even running day and night, it will take four years to list them all.’
GoGo Penguin play The Vortex (020 7254 4097, http://www.vortexjazz.co.uk) in Dalston, London on December 7th, with a DJ set by Matthew Halsall.