For the past two years the Yorkshire Concertina Club has been working on a project to record tunes written by the Club’s only extant Founder Member, John Willis (member since the Club’s inauguration by Jane Edwards and Harry Scurfield in Otley in November 1992) as a tribute to him. So, on 19th January 2020, we turned the upstairs room of the Corner House Club in North Leeds, our regular venue, into a recording studio and captured five of our favourite of John’s compositions.
John, a retired engineer, has been writing music for both concertina and his other favourite instrument, the banjo, most of his life, and over the years, some of it has found its way into the YCC canon – we have more than 50 tunes in the YCC tune books which John collated for us, this number being but a fraction of John’s total output. As a group we have really enjoyed working with his tunes over the years and felt now was a good time to record them and share them with the wider concertina community.
The first challenge was to narrow our list of favourites down to five tunes. This took quite a long time as each of us had tunes we particularly enjoyed and each tune has a story behind it. We wanted the selected tunes to be chosen by us as a group and to reflect the very different styles of John’s compositions. In the end we settled on:
Shannon Waters – beautiful and already well-known tune of John’s, frequently heard in sessions
Old Jock’s Dance – a tune originally inspired by John’s banjo-playing but one that has adapted very well to the concertina
Larpool Hall –Typically, John finds names for tunes from all sorts of sources. This one came from a trip to Whitby, where Larpool Hall is situated.
The Little Mouse – a “character piece”. Steve’s arrangement has emphasised the use of dynamics to help capture the antics of said wee creature.
Bernie the Ragtime Ferret – we all agree in the Club that this must be one of the best tune titles ever! It refers to a real ferret once cared for by John. The tune was originally conceived on banjo and when John played his ragtime pieces, the ferret would climb up, sit on his shoulders & move to the rhythm!
We asked our Duet player Steve Griffiths (pictured below) if he could arrange the tunes for ensemble playing, and we all agree he did a magnificent job in reflecting the spirit of each composition, and in conducting the band on recording day.
Arranger and Conductor
For the past year we have been rehearsing each of Steve’s arrangements, in readiness for recording day, when we were joined by professional sound engineer Matthew Nelson, son of one of our members Chris (our webmaster), who set up our pop-up recording studio and captured our performances.
The pieces have now been rendered into something we can share through Concertina World, the magazine of the International Concertina Association.
The Club felt that we would like to include John’s solo playing of the originally-composed single-line tunes that the Club’s arrangements by Steve were based on, so people could hear the original esteemed compositions played by their composer & hear how a concertina band arrangement can take them in a new direction. John therefore recorded himself in his own home recording studio (featuring a large cardboard box I understand!) shortly after the Club had done its recording. John would be the first to admit that his playing now is maybe not what it was, due partly to the vagaries of the passage of time and partly, to quote him directly: “…it’s the drink…I haven’t had any!” But in the Club, we feel that John’s playing has a very special place, demonstrating a rare sensitivity to bring his tunes alive and a timing that is often clearly influenced by his banjo playing and its clever syncopation.
To complete the project, both John and Steve gave their permission for the scores of the original tunes and the band arrangements to be published in the “Concertina World” Music Supplement with our blessing, so that anyone or any group can have a go at them. It would, of course, be great if their source was acknowledged, particularly if performed in public.
Performers on the day were:
- Phil GrahamChris
- Ruth Flint
- John Willis (esteemed composer of original melodies)
- Helen Graham
- Carolyn Wade
- Ariane Lawson
Arranger & Conductor
- Steve Griffiths
We at YCC hope that you will enjoy listening to the sound files of both John’s renditions of his compositions and also the Club’s band versions, demonstrating how, with good arrangements, new light can be shed on great tunes. We had considered making physical CD’s to be sent out with “Concertina World” but decided that the technological revolution has moved on, with access to recordings via the cloud becoming the norm and, of course, making your own CD of the tracks at home, if desired, is now a straightforward process.
Graham Heffernan, Chair – YCC
(Photos and text research courtesy of YCC member Ruth Flint)
We have just received the very sad news of John’s death. He entered a hospice very recently, following a period of ill-health & passed away on the 2nd of July. Our thoughts are with his wife Margaret & their family. We are grateful to have known John over they decades and to have played with him in the Club but especially to have received two things from him – his beloved tunes and his great sense of humour. We trust this recording project stands in fair tribute to John’s achievements and to his memory.