Lead image: Alison Truefitt

When Sir Andrew Davis spoke of Daryl Runswick’s ‘genius’ he touched upon a recurring theme. As Runswick celebrates his 70th birthday with the world premiere of his piano concerto, two new CD releases and a Gala Concert at Cadogan Hall with The King’s Singers in June, Clare Simmonds and John Wickes survey the career of one of our greatest contemporary composers 

One would have thought that, in this consumer-driven age, a polymath of generous vision would be greeted warmly. It surely says more about marketing than about Daryl Runswick that his profound vision for musical equality makes him problematic for event organisers to package.

How to bill a composer, virtuoso jazz bass player, pianist, tenor, conductor and broadcaster, who has worked with musicians as diverse as Dame Cleo Laine and Pierre Boulez? When London Jazz News describes him as ‘One of the most complete musicians, but freest spirits in the British music profession’, it perhaps categorises him differently from other artists.

It is no irony that Daryl cites Ronnie Scott’s jazz club among his early seats of learning. In the 1960s, being musical director of Cambridge Footlights Club and secretary of the University Jazz Club prepared Runswick for great things. Moving from chorister to double-bass player, he found himself, aged 20, inviting London jazz stars to perform in Cambridge – alongside him.

The way I gave Daryl the lyric of Song of the Double Bass Player, it was a good song. The way he gave it back it was a work of genius

In 1967 he met Clive James, who wrote Daryl a lyric for a revue. Runswick’s musical setting became a surprise hit. As James said, ‘The way I gave Daryl the lyric [of Song of the Double Bass Player], it was a good song. The way he gave it back it was a work of genius.’

Soon Runswick was playing in bands of stars like John Taylor; transforming groups such as the London Jazz Four; and leading his own bands. Daryl’s nimbly responsive bass and bass guitar shaped the discourse in Ray Russell’s free jazz and rock groups. Between 1969 and 1974, Daryl was player of choice for visiting Americans, most notably the free jazz innovator Ornette Coleman.

As accompanist to Sir John Dankworth and Dame Cleo Laine for 13 years, his phenomenal facility for speed-learning occasioned taking up the clarinet and later, the piano. Dame Cleo and Sir John speak warmly: ‘If there is a more brilliant musician with as much versatility at the fingertips – and of course the vocal chords – we have not made such a discovery.’ In that role, Daryl met another polymath: the pianist Tony Hymas, who will perform from Daryl’s new CD, ‘daryl runswick, dot music’ (Prima Facie Records) at the Gala Concert.

The chorister element wasn’t forgotten, though. The original King’s Singers turned to Daryl for song arrangements, and the relationship has blossomed since. This year, they’re celebrating a 50-year collaboration with Daryl, who has produced more than 100 arrangements and compositions that the group has performed worldwide.

In fact, Daryl sings himself. In 1983 he joined the avant-garde vocal ensemble Electric Phoenix as tenor and resident composer, led by Terry Edwards of London Voices (chorus for the Star Wars and Harry Potter films). Soon Daryl was adding jazz-tinged compositions to the group’s repertoire, incorporating extended techniques similar to beatbox.

And now, as he turns 70, Daryl’s output continues unabated. The London Sinfonietta recently recorded his dance piece Zany. In March 2017, Musical Opinion praised the ‘ingeniously contrived score’ of his Cycles for recorder and piano (Prima Facie Records). His forthcoming Gala Concert features his new piano concerto, premiered by Aleksander Szram. Daryl the polymath rises yet again – playing bass, piano and bass guitars in excerpts from his own One Man Show.

The striking current throughout is Daryl’s warmth. Take the composer Bob Chilcott’s view: ‘A brilliant musician, funny, gentle, uncompromising – just a beautiful person.’

And surely you can’t get better than Sir George Martin’s recommendation: ‘Daryl – what a fantastic musician and lovely guy.’

The Gala Concert with special guests including The King’s Singers, in celebration of Daryl Runswick’s 70th birthday, takes place at Cadogan Hall on 6 June. Tickets £35, £30, £25, £19. 

5 Sloane Terrace, Chelsea SW1X 9DQ. Box office 020 7730 4500; cadoganhall.com. See also darylrunswick.net