I first encountered saxophonist Jess Gillam at a private party given by a friend of mine. Still just a young teenager, she burst on to the stage in a gold-sequinned mini dress and black DMs, and proceeded to play an unaccompanied, foot-tapping saxophone solo with all the energy, commitment and confidence of a seasoned professional artist twice her age. Her vibrant presence was palpable and hugely engaging: it was clear even then that she was going to go far.
And so she has. A finalist in the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition, she had already made her name as “one to watch”, not only for her striking stage outfits (shiny trousers, a homage to David Bowie jacket, and those DMs), but her obvious pleasure in music making. I attended the grand final of BBCYM at the Barbican and was rooting for Jess. Her stage presence was – and is – charismatic, infectiously extrovert, and highly expressive. She was assured and very comfortable on stage, interacting enthusiastically with the orchestra and lifting the sound out of her instrument and into the audience.
If anyone is going to succeed at advocating classical music to the younger generation – the generation that concert promoters are so keen to tempt inside classical venues – it’s someone like Jess Gillam. She’s personable, intelligent, articulate, enthusiastic and attractive, and can reach out to young people by engaging them without condescension.
Rise, her debut disc, reflects her democratic, joyful and eclectic approach to music making, and offers an enjoyably varied selection across genres of music which has inspired her, including This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush – as tender and tear-jerkingly poignant as the original – and Where Are We Now? from David Bowie’s penultimate album (in an arrangement by Jess’s teacher and mentor John Harle). These sit well with works by composers as diverse as Dowland and Weill, Marcello and Milhaud, and reveal Jess’s musical versatility, segueing deftly between the sombre elegance of the Adagio from the Oboe Concerto by Marcello (which Bach “borrowed” to create an equally striking concerto for solo keyboard), and Milhaud’s playful Scaramouche. Her sound is rich in expression and vibrant colours, her intonation so sensitively controlled, at times one might think she’s playing a clarinet. If previously you thought the saxophone was a “jazz instrument”, listen to Jess’s John Dowland; here she perfectly captures the haunting simplicity of this Renaissance music.
Rise is available now on the Decca label and also via digital download and streaming