Alison’s fanfare for the versatile trumpet

Alison Balsom
Alison Balsom
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Trumpeter Alison Balsom is a great ambassador for the instrument she loves. She spoke to Yvette Huddleston ahead of her UK tour.

The trumpet, especially in this part of the world, tends to be most readily associated with brass bands, or with jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie.

However, it is a much more versatile instrument than it has perhaps been given credit for, something which world-renowned trumpeter Alison Balsom, regarded as one of the most exciting classical musicians of her generation, is keen to demonstrate both on her latest album Paris, which came out this month, and in her first solo UK tour which starts next week, stopping off in Leeds on October 7.

“It’s been great to have this opportunity to show what I think about the trumpet – and its versatility as an instrument,” says Balsom. “It can be heroic and heraldic but then it can go right down to a Miles Davis-style jazz feel. That’s something that I have always tried to do throughout my career – to show what the trumpet is capable of.”

She says she is particularly excited about this tour because, after many years travelling and performing internationally, she feels it is “definitely time to bring the music home.” She has very much enjoyed the process of selecting the concert programme – which ranges from Baroque to Broadway. “I want to take the audience on a journey really – like a fairy story. I want them to think ‘oh wow, the trumpet can do that!’ It can be thoughtful and pensive, sultry and moody. I’ve tried to include things that are really well known but also not so well known – it’s all about taking people where they don’t necessarily expect to go. The show has also been influenced by what I recorded for my new album.”

The album is, she says, quite personal. She studied at the Conservatoire in Paris for a time and the music to some extent reflects her feelings about the city. “It is an emotional response but not in a melancholy way,” she says. “It’s quite moody and I also wanted to reach people who wouldn’t necessarily go out and buy a classical album.” While she admits that classical music is her first love and always will be, she is very open to trying out other genres. “Classical music runs through me,” she says. “But I have so much curiosity about different kinds of music. The classical repertoire is quite limited for the trumpet but it is such an adaptable instrument – it can sound like different instruments depending on how far you take your imagination with its sound. I am trying not to be too defined by genre.”

Last year she branched out into theatre, collaborating with playwright Samuel Adamson in devising Gabriel, a play which used the music of The Fairy-Queen and other pieces by Henry Purcell which she performed with actors and the baroque orchestra The English Concert at Shakespeare’s Globe in London as part of the 2013 summer season. Inspired by the music of Purcell, Balsom came up with the idea and approached the Globe with it. “Purcell was the golden age of the trumpet,” she says. “The music is very theatrical and I was thinking about how it could be presented in a new way.”

The play was a great success – Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington described it as “a piece that gloriously defies definition” – and it was a challenging role for Balsom who was the principal musician and was on stage practically the whole time. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she says, laughing. “Lots of people have said ‘let’s do it again’ but my natural tendency is to do something new. I’m always looking for the unexpected. I have all sorts of crazy projects up my sleeve and there are other albums I’d like to record.”

Balsom started playing the trumpet when she was seven years old and when she was 12 joined her local brass band, a path she believes was excellent training for her future profession. “I would say that the British brass sections of orchestras have some of the best players in the world,” she says, “because they have come up through the brass band movement.” As a child she had the opportunity to play a variety of instruments but settled on the trumpet after hearing Dizzy Gillespie.

“I thought ‘that’s an amazing sound’,” she says. “I have never wavered in my feelings about the trumpet – it is an amazing instrument. It just felt like a really natural and obvious choice for me.”

• Alison Balsom performs at Leeds Town Hall on October 7.