Classical Album of the Week: British Star Saxophonist Jess Gillam Enthralls with Debut Album, RISE

Jul 15, 2019

July 15, 2019.  At age 21, if your last name has already been transformed into an “ism," then it’s fair to say you’ve arrived. So it is with British saxophonist Jess Gillam.

"...Pedro Iturralde’s Pequeña Czarda, the ​‘Brazileira’ from Milhaud’s Scaramouche and the traditional Russian song ​‘Dark eyes’ contain by-now trademark Gillam-isms – lively characterisation combined with technical brilliance.” — Pwyll ap Siôn, Gramophone, April 2019

Gillam landed with a boom into our collective classical consciousness back in 2016 when she became the first-ever saxophonist to reach the finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition.

In the few years since, she has made her international concert debut with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, has performed at the BBC Last Night of the Proms, and has developed her broadcasting chops—now the youngest ever presenter in the history of BBC Radio 3, with her show, This Classical Life.

In April 2019, Gillam released her debut album, entitled Rise. Featuring both dazzling and lyrical showpieces composed or arranged for saxophone and orchestra (or piano), there’s no doubt that Rise puts Gillam’s effortless technique on full display.

What’s even more interesting is this — throughout the album, Gillam’s command is such that her playing never sounds as if it’s hanging on the periphery of classical music-making, in the way non-traditional instruments of the recital or orchestral stage, like the sax, sometimes do.

Gillam and her sax own this program inside and out, and the instrument is such a natural extension of her own physicality and musicality that we hardly know where one ends and the other starts. Together they are a delivery system for a radiant, very individual, world-class artistry that would be envied by musicians twice her age.

Watch Gillam perform one of the tracks from Rise, Darius Milaud’s Scaramouche, at the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms, an annual event renowned for its infectious energy and legendary performances. In this clip from the 2018 Proms, Gillam is a cut above and steals the show.