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Obituary: Jon Lord

Many have tried but few have succeeded in bridging the gap between rock and classical music as well as Jon Lord, the Deep Purple keyboard player and composer who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 71.

Lord’s passing has been greeted with dismay in both camps, but the tributes are of an unrestrained warmth. Ranging from Classic FM through to former Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello, all speak well of his influence and legacy, and the affectionate tributes bestowed on his memory also tell of a loved character.

In rock music, Lord is first and foremost known as the keyboard player for Deep Purple, enjoying membership of the group from their founding in 1968 until 2002, when his ‘retirement’ enabled him to channel his considerable energies in to writing classical works full time.

With Deep Purple Lord helped shape the sound of classic rock from the early 1970s onwards, but he did it in a way that was almost impossible to reproduce, making sure the raucous sound of the organ was never far from the forefront of their sound. While he might be remembered principally for co-writing Smoke On The Water, the band’s best known song, his treatment of the riff on the cover of Joe South’s Hush is far more representative of his ability with the keyboard. One only has to listen to the Deep Purple albums of the time, and songs such as Child In Time, Speed King and Stormbringer, to witness how Lord could work classical influences on keyboard virtuosity in to the very heart of a song without sounding too indulgent. Even Perfect Strangers, the title track from the group’s 1984 album, finds a distinctive path through this avenue.

The distinctive Child In Time, a prog rock staple, shows how Lord could handle a longer structure, but the Concerto for Group and Orchestra, written and recorded in 1969, was the piece that showed off his love and understanding of classical music, and how it could be integrated with rock. The premiere of that work, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by no less a figure than Sir Malcolm Arnold, was shrouded in notoriety, and was perhaps inevitably frowned upon by classical purists, but it succeeded in opening up avenues between the two musical forms, an indication that progressive rock was not only willing to take its influences from classical music but also to return the compliment. It is to Lord’s credit that, one massive drum solo aside, he avoids cliche and uses the band economically, a rare quality in a genre where excess was so often the name of the game. It so happens that the work has received a new recording in the company of Bruce Dickinson, Joe Bonamassa and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra to be released later this year, proof if it were needed that his legacy looks set to last, and last well.

The manuscript was lost in 1970 but rewritten for a performance back in the Albert Hall in 1999. Even its most fervent admirers would agree it is overlong at 50 minutes, but its concept and much of its execution were truly groundbreaking, setting the scene for further collaborative work with orchestra for the likes of Procol Harum, Yes, Roger Waters and more recently Peter Gabriel. Rather than breaking down barriers, it made sure they were not erected in the first place.

With Deep Purple in hiatus from 1976 until 1984, Lord explored other avenues, joining David Coverdale in Whitesnake in 1978. Though he brought his distinctive Hammond Organ sound with him, he found more competition for stage space alongside the likes of Coverdale, who stamped his personality all over the band. Yet Lord was still able to enjoy important musical input, notably the original version of the band’s biggest hit, Here I Go Again. Just before Coverdale and co, Lord was able to explore another important musical aspect of his life, rhythm & blues, as part of the Paice, Ashton & Lord trio, with Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice and singer/keyboard player Tony Ashton.

As a composer Lord was never one to shy away from drama, and this is evidenced by the opening ‘Fantasia’ section of Sarabande, his 1975 composition, again showing his predilection for writing in larger forms. Lord’s ‘classical’ legacy is an impressive and well-respected one. That he should appear at no.87 in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame in 2012 with the Durham Concerto says a lot for his structural craft and ability as an orchestrator, and this is perhaps his finest achievement as a larger scale composer. Though it uses his trademark organ sound in the fourth movement, it does so respectfully, with Lord very careful to keep this as a middle foreground feature. At times the piece, written for the 175th anniversary celebrations of Durham University, has a ceremonial air that betrays some of his early influences, notably J.S.Bach and Sir Edward Elgar.

Lord followed this with another big piece, Boom of the Tingling Strings, effectively his piano concerto. This was released on EMI Classics in 2008, with Nelson Goerner as soloist, and is the second of his pieces to appear in the Hall of Fame. A solo album, To Notice Such Things, followed on Avie in 2010. A piece in six movements, it has a prominent part for flute and a closing section that sets a Jeremy Irons-read poem to Lord’s own sensitive piano accompaniment.

What this shows is that Lord was having little to no difficulty adapting a style honed in classic and progressive rock for classical audiences, and the success he was enjoying in crossing between the two reflected the appetite on both sides for his music. That he was quite clearly a gentleman, well liked on both sides, made bridging the gap all the easier. It is to be hoped that his memory lives long, as a prodigious keyboard player, innovator of sound in rock music, and ultimately a composer in the 20th century English tradition. Either epitaph suits him well!

A Spotify playlist featuring some choice Jon Lord recordings can be found here.

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Obituary: Jon Lord