Freddie Gavita is a fabulous trumpeter and we go back quite a few years now… he appeared on my first record Tangent and at Emulsion III & IV. He’s just about to bring out his debut record Transient so I thought I’d get him to answer a few questions for my blog…
So Freddie, what are you up to today?
Hey Trish! I’m travelling back from France today, having a lovely time on the Eurostar! I’ve just made my debut with Kyle Eastwood’s band, depping for the dapper Quentin Collins.
Any interesting youtube finds?
The signal is a bit poor here, and I haven’t really had time to get on YouTube. I always download the Spotify ‘discover weekly’ playlist to inspire my record collection, and I can safely say I’ll be purchasing the Brad Mehldau / Chris Thile duo album.
Yes, that album is brilliant… My husband was lucky enough to hear them live in Ireland a few years back so he’s been on the look out for that album for a while…
For the uninitiated, can you give us a quick run down of the Freddie Gavita Story so far?
It began in the Norfolk and Norwich hospital in 1985. Teenage years were spent playing the trumpet and lamenting the fall of my beloved Norwich City football club. Not much has changed! I recently got married to the very beautiful and wonderful Emeline (a Swiss national) so my appreciation for quality cheese and promptness has increased dramatically.
It’s been an exciting year for you… Recording, crowdfunding, new album out soon… what’s the date of the launch?
The album launch is on April 19th upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s, and will be available to purchase on April 28th. If you can’t wait a week, come to the launch where it’ll be on sale in advance! I’m quite pleased with it if I may say so myself, Curtis Schwartz really captured the sound of the band perfectly and Carl Hyde’s photography and artwork is sublime.
Who’s on your record?
Tom Cawley, Calum Gourlay and James Maddren. Doesn’t get much better than that!
And how do you know these fine people? How long have you been playing together?
Well, I studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Calum and James (and YOU TRISH!), even living with them for two years. I don’t think they’d be up for it now. And Tom was our aural and transcription teacher, and was such a tremendous influence that we renamed Wednesday as Tom Cawley Day in his honour. The band has been together for 10 years (since my final recital) so we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary with a debut album!
Does the album feature your own music? Tell us a bit about your choice of repertoire…
Yes I wrote all the music (it’s cheaper than paying to play other people’s compositions). We recorded thirteen tracks and I had to whittle it down to ten, so there’ll be some extras to put on the vinyl reissue double album. I’d like to think it’s quite melodic music, I like to write in a way that gives us something to get our teeth into, create a framework for openness without alienating an audience. Basically the tunes are simple but the chords are hard.
What are you enjoying listening to at the moment?
Blossom Dearie and Shirley Horn. And always Bird, Trane and Miles…
Any particular albums?
Yeah! The Best of Miles Davis… only joking… Shirley Horn plus Horn, Bags and Trane (Coltrane and Milt Jackson) Live Evil (Miles Davis) and My Gentlemen Friend by Blossom Dearie (with Ed Thigpen, Ray Brown, and Kenny Burrell!)
Oooo at least 2 of those are on very recent listening lists of mine too…
When you’re not playing the trumpet, any hobbies?
Not really, it takes up most of my time to be honest! I’m trying to read more, I’ve always been interested in how the brain works, how we make choices or react in certain situations. Mainly pop science though!
I play FIFA on the XBOX to wind down, it’s a guilty pleasure, but it’s the only way Norwich will ever win the Champions League….
I also drink far too much coffee.
Me too…! What’s your favourite fairground ride?
I’m partial to the dodgers, but I’m getting old now, so maybe the tea cups? Rollercoasters are fun after the initial shock, but I get dizzy for days afterwards…
Strawberry jam or marmite?
Marmite in the morning, jam in the afternoon!
Do you believe in Unicorns?
I believe in miracles. And a unicorn would definitely be a miracle, so yes.
This year it has been a pleasure to work with composer-vocalist-harper Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian. I commissioned her, with support from the PRSF, to write a piece for My Iris & the Emulsion Sinfonietta, to which I wrote a response piece. Both works – Cevanne’s Muted Lines & my Tap Dance (for Baby Dodds) – both appear on my latest album and received their large-scale premieres at Emulsion V in January, broadcast by BBC Radio 3’s Hear & Now and available to listen to on iplayer until early April.
The whole process has been extremely rewarding and so I have invited Cevanne to do an interview for my blog…
So Cevanne, what are you working on at the moment?
My lunch, and also I’m writing an arrangement for LSO strings to play with the St Luke’s Gamelan (June 22nd). I’m slowly completing two albums – one with inventor Crewdson, and another with Calum Gourlay and Chris Montague.
Both of which I look forward to hearing in due course! You’ve just finished your residency with the LSO… I think you are the first composer to hold this post? And you were working mainly in a very unique place?
Yes, the LSO patron Susie Thomson established this residency in the house of her late partner, Khadambi Asalache. The house, 575 Wandsworth Road, is filled with his intricate wood carvings and paintings, and is now looked after by the National Trust as a work of art. Susie wanted me to create music for the LSO players to fill it with new life and ideas in response to Khadambi’s work.
Why, indeed. I often ask this question while dragging it around heavily populated areas. The harp, in general, is one of the earliest instruments invented. I love its simple structure – it feels essential, like how folk music, in the broadest sense, is essential to society. Hopefully, that doesn’t sound too pretentious. [not at all!] The celtic harp, in particular, has a beautiful, rich, ringing resonance (especially compared to classical harp, which has a shorter decay). However, it’s not my first instrument, and you have to work within the constraints of the levers which dictate modes. So I like writing for ensembles which can continue the tone of the harp, and extend its range.
Hmmm, definitely something for me to investigate and learn about… What were the earliest influences on your music-making? Any heros?
As a student, I was inspired by the music of Monteverdi and his team, particularly the blend of improvisation and strong lines which entwined soloists with large ensembles; and the practice of positioning of players to achieve spatial acoustics in breathtaking architecture (ahead of the trend for ‘site-specific’ performance today). I always return to Purcell for his mastery of voice and narrative…
A lot of 20th-21st Century American composers had a lasting effect on me too, especially those who embraced humour, rhythm, line and experiments…
So, it follows that my hero is Laurie Anderson. Her work can be simultaneously direct and abstract. She is fearless to walk among many forms of art and science in the face of potential snobbery, finding it easiest to describe herself as a ‘multi-media artist’. She’s an impressive electronic innovator, and engineer. When I sat in on one of her sound-checks with the Kronos Quartet, it was the calmest I’ve ever witnessed – she ran it all with such clarity, assurance and kindness.
This all inspires me to express powerful ideas in the simplest way possible. I think balancing subtlety with clarity is a greater challenge than layering complexity. In a funny way, some pieces which seem to be saying a lot, very loud and fast, and throwing ‘big words’ around, are actually saying very little of substance.
I’d say to audiences, if you don’t understand something, it doesn’t mean it’s clever. If it moves you, it moves you.
…I could rant about this more in terms of genre, and even gender, but that’s another post, I think!
Yes, quite!! And wow, a lot of music for me to check out there… You mentioned your album with Chris and Calum earlier… I believe this is an eye-music project? Can you tell us a bit about that? I think you sing in this project?
Eye-music is a general term for a branch of my work which is informed by visual art. Sometimes I create tactile scores where the music is structured by a visual form – my most recent one was ‘Inkwells’ for the LSO residency, where I’d cut fretwork holes into the manuscript paper to reveal layers of notes for the performer to improvise.
This specific project with Calum and Chris is called TRACES, for now, because we’ve been using tracing paper to derive notes from the work of visual artist Maya Ramsay. Her collection WALL OF SOUND began with my residency at ‘Handel & Hendrix in London’, where she made graphite rubbings of the wood chip wallpaper of Jimi’s flat onto manuscript paper. We’ve made cells of notes, and each of us has composed pieces from the same material, with very different results.
It’s a refreshing collaboration, because we’re all playing an equally creative role, and we feel liberated by working within restrictions, and without our usual patterns.
I sing, because that’s my first ‘instrument’ after composing, and for live performances I add live electronics with the laptop.
Calum has been playing electric bass, in addition to his usual acoustic – combined with harp and electric guitar it’s a lovely response to Jimi Hendrix ‘at home’.
Thanks to the PRSF funding our initial collaboration, we’ve now got material for an album…
CEVANNE’S LATEST EYE-MUSIC, INKWELLS (SOPRANO VOICE AND REEL-TO-REEL TAPE)
You regularly explore aspects of your Armenian heritage in your music and your commission for my band, ‘Muted Lines’, raises the issue of loss and silence, could you talk a little more about that, and why you chose this topic for the commission?
When you called me about the commission, you told me about how a trip to Canada had made you readdress the history of Jazz, with America’s roots in immigration and slavery. I suggested we could write ‘sister pieces’ on this theme, because while I can’t claim experience of American history, I do have some thoughts about the process of displacement following genocide, because of my Armenian heritage.
‘Muted Lines’ uses silence to represent how a displaced society gradually loses aspects of its history, language, art, cuisine, as generations progress. Sometimes this loss is enforced by new regimes, other times it is too painful to remember. However, I think that though this silence brings loss, it also provides space for new ideas, and new collaborations.
I represent this process by basing the piece on an Armenian poem by Nahapet Kuchak. The couplet, “Sing, although the exile’s heart fills with such unsingable songs” loses words to silence as the piece progresses, until an essential message remains with only the first and last: “Sing songs”. The silence is filled with music, including improvisation, which I find uplifting.
It is not productive to dwell on past injustices when it restricts new creative collaboration; when it constructs prohibitive borders, segregation, and negative concepts of ‘ownership’. However, it is useful to reflect on the past in order to know how to help those currently experiencing a mass displacement, and fleeing atrocities. The reductive process in Muted Lines addresses their potential future.
[you can also read the liner notes Cevanne & I prepared for the album in this recent post]
Do you have any favourite spaces for writing music?
The kitchen, because there is food in there, and people to distract me. [you also have an incredible view! my kitchen pales by comparison…] Also, Khadambi’s house is a wonderful place to focus or dream. It’s so full of detail that with each visit I spot a new scene to spark my imagination. But mainly, his confidence inspires me. His house is a work of art which is not designed for an audience, but for himself. He has not tailored or censored accordingly. He is free to interpret cultures on his own terms, without fear of appropriation. His fluent style embraces the similarities of lines from separate continents without reducing them.
What have you got coming up for this year? When can we hear your music next?
I’ve just got back from a short tour of galleries in Switzerland performing music inspired by the work of visual/performance art trio JocJonJosch. I’ll be recording it soon with field recordings of their work…
You can hear my music live at two LSO Discovery concerts – this month at LSO St Luke’s the Community Choir will perform my piece ’The Fence-Sitter’ with brass quartet, based on a poem by Khadambi Asalache (Monday 27th March); and on June 22nd, the LSO Gamelan will perform my arrangement with LSO Strings at the Barbican.
TRACES, with Calum and Chris, is planning gigs later in the year once we’ve finished recording…
Thank you Cevanne, it’s been a joy to hear your thoughts on music and beyond.
Camilla is a fantastic alto player based in West London. She’s releasing her debut album Isang – pronounced E-S- A-NG (NG as in song) – on Ubuntu Music on Friday 13th January (same as my release date!!) after honing and nurturing her craft by playing with Tomorrow’s Warriors, the Nu Civilisation Orchestra and Jazz Jamaica.
“Isang is an old Effik/Ibibio word which means journey and symbolises the musical journey that the CGQ have embarked upon. Effik is the language of coastal southeastern Nigerians and is of particular significance as it is where Camilla was born. The album aims to create a fusion of African, Caribbean and American influences. It will include some music inspired by West Africa but performed in the jazz medium such as Mami Wata- a driving blues written to celebrate Mami Wata a West African spirit often taking on the form of a mermaid which is deeply rooted in the ancient tradition and mythology of West Africa.”
I had heard a lot of saxophone when i was growing up as my Dad had an amazing vinyl collection and we used to listen to Sonny Stitt, Jackie Mclean and Cannonball together. I had my first go on a friend’s sax when I was 8 and that was it I was hooked!
Does your sax have a name? Mine’s called Shirley…
No! I feel left out now! I’ll have to have a think about a suitable name!
You can get back to me on that one then… 😉 Let’s do the saxophone thing…. what’s your set-up?!
I have a 1959 Mark VI Selmer and a Meyer 6 mouthpiece with a ligature that I got ages ago in Italy. I use Vandoren Java reeds strength 3.
For those new to your music, who or what has inspired you the most in your career so far?
Probably the music I heard when I was growing up which was a blend of afrobeats, calypso and jazz. Playing with Jazz Jamaica has been a massive inspiration too!
What’s your favourite practice accompaniment? Coffee or tea? Smoothie? Wheatgrass?… Vodka?!
You can’t beat a good cup of tea!
If you could have absolutely anyone – dead or alive – to a dinner party at your home, who would the invitees be?
Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Coltrane, Kenny Garrett and Nelson Mandela
Where can we buy the album?
From Friday 13th Jan the album will be available to buy from all good record stores and online from iTunes and Amazon.
Joe Wright is a true individual. Saxophonist is merely the beginning of how one would describe his activities and contribution to music and art! We met through the jazz scene in London and have had many conversations, shared listening experiences (both big ‘Food’ fans) and more recently some playing. Joe is launching his EP ‘Yarrow’ tomorrow night at the Red Door Gallery in Greenwich – an event I look forward to immensely!! – more details below.
Where shall we start Joe? Can you introduce us to your Soprano Sax, what’s his/her name? Any curious features?
Hah! Sadly the poor thing doesn’t have a name, perhaps I ought to have given it one by now. It’s quite an ugly saxophone, with a weird matte gold colour body and shiny gold keys (I’m not a fan). The saxophone also has a silly detachable bell that Borgani put on their saxophones. I came to it on a long search for a soprano I liked. Having tried everything else in the shop I thought I’d give it a go just in case, and I loved the sound and feel of it. I’ve been playing it for years now, and thankfully that strange matte lacquer is starting to wear off.
When/how/why did you choose solo soprano for this new EP, Yarrow? When did this musical journey start for you?
Recording my first solo EP was a big learning process, and made me think a lot about my approach to the saxophone. Since releasing it last spring I have been thinking that it would be a good thing to do again, possibly making small recordings on a semi-regular basis. It’s also a lot easier to have an ongoing recording project when you only have yourself to worry about.
I knew I would be staying on a narrow boat for some time as part of a tour in the autumn. Being away from London and my regular collaborators, I thought this would be a good time to focus on a new recording. Choosing the soprano was a practical consideration really, those boats are pretty small!
Oooo, a small boat – canal boat? What were you up to? I’m intrigued!
I was on tour with Under Foot, a movement/music show that I worked on last year. We were working in a children’s theatre and a special school in Bath for a couple of weeks and a friend of a friend had kindly lent us his narrow boat as accommodation. The shows were going on during the day, and in the evenings I was at the boat with no internet, dodgy phone signal and nobody to hang out with. It was good to have a project to keep me busy!
Is there any music that has particularly influenced or interested you in the creation of this EP (or the path to creating it)?
The EP has largely been created out of the desire to explore the possibilities of my instrument, and become a better improviser.
I have been attending Eddie Prévost’s workshop for the last few months. I have found the searching nature of the workshop really liberating, and have been greatly inspired by the musicians attending it. The regular workshop concerts at I’klectik, gigs at the Hundred Years Gallery and recordings on Matchless and Earshots! are good places to hear them play. Listening, talking and playing with people at the workshop as made me re-assess a lot of what I think about improvising. I wanted some of this process to be reflected in the music I planned to record that autumn.
Alongside the workshop I have been playing regularly with Tom Taylor and James Opstad in the trio, duck-rabbit. Our music has shifted towards a much more textural aesthetic. I felt that my ability to play quietly with more unpitched material in this group was greatly lacking. Recording in the evenings, isolated and needing to keep volume at a minimum was an ideal limitation for exploring such sounds.
Perhaps tell me a bit more about Duck-Rabbit… How did the 3 of you start playing together? Do you set objectives (musical or other) for yourselves or do you let your minds wander and see what you come up with? Any recordings out there?
The group came about by chance, James had invited me to join in with a play he had organised with Tom. We were all getting into playing free improv at the time. That was a couple of years ago now. As soon as we had played, we all agreed that we should continue playing as a group. From then we have been playing every week. Our aim is to be able to improvise with our instruments and electronics, and have a band that could transition between acoustic and electronic worlds within the same improvisation. We had kept the electronic and acoustic sides of the band separate until the beginning of last year. It was too much to try and learn about everything all at once. We have always just played when we’re rehearsing, but we also talk about improvising, go to gigs and listen to music a lot as a group. Much of our development has sprung from this shared experience as well as the playing. We have a few EP’s out now. Part IV of our electronic series Scattered Voices, has just come out, using sounds recorded at a working grain mill. Our first electroacoustic EP, Accretion, is also on our bandcamp, along with some videos from the recording.
Who are your heroes (musical or other)?
As someone who came to improv from playing Jazz, many are the usual suspects. John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman come instantly to mind. But I feel really lucky to be living in the UK, with its rich heritage of improvising musicians. John Edwards, for instance, never ceases to amaze me with his musicality, and creative use of his instrument. I really admire the sheer energy and commitment he brings to every gig (or at least the many I have seen), something which I will always aspire to do as a musician.
I have visited many special schools over the last few years. In these visits I have been lucky to work with some of the most energetic, caring and kind people I have ever met. Outside of music, these people have been some of my biggest role models.
What would be your definition of “noise”?
That’s a tricky one! I’d probably need some context to give a more meaningful answer.
As a saxophonist I am interested in ‘noises’ which are outside of the expected sound-pallete of my instrument. This could be outside of my own expectations too. ‘Noisy’ sounds in music, or sounds which defy usual musical expectations often force me to hear music differently, exciting the visual imagination and heightening a sense of what’s happening in the moment. At least, that’s what happens when things go well. If I’m trying to avoid emphasising pitch over the course of an improvisation, I often also think of ‘noisiness’ as a measure of how unpitched a sound might be.
Have there been any pivotal moments in your life (meeting people, decisions, anything really) that have led to where you are/what you do today?
That’s a tough one to answer really. I still do quite a range of things, but I wouldn’t say my own work comes as the result of a handful of moments. Lots of small things have a small impact which accumulate over time. I’ve always wanted to try and find my own way to play, and to feel like I’m really improvising. It’s not something I feel I’ve managed yet but I’m very slowly getting closer. It’s hard to pin down individual moments, but my lessons with Iain Ballamy, James Allsopp and Julian Siegel, my time working with Oily Cart and duck-rabbit, and attending Eddie Prévost’s workshops have all been really significant in making me think differently about what I do.
I know you are a keen inventor and adapter of instruments… Last time we saw each you were playing a curtain pole! How’s all that going?!
I don’t really know yet. I had gotten into a bit of a rut with my saxophone playing (again!), and decided to make things that would fit my mouthpiece but force me to play differently. The curtain pole was just the first of many monstrosities. I have since made some more out of various plumbing materials from the local DIY shop, in various shapes and sizes. I’m trying to see if I can intuitively learn a bit more about where instabilities come from with reed instruments, and perhaps bring some of that back to the saxophone. Though I have to admit it was also a nice excuse to play with the new drill I had bought.
Now… jazz hats – would you wear one?
Emm, no. I think you have to be quite a special person to pull of a jazz hat. Perhaps one day I’ll develop the visual panache of Joe Lovano, but I doubt it.
It’s been wonderful to chat Joe… thanks so much for your time!
Now, if you’re free tomorrow night (21st January 2016) this is where you should be in time for 8.30pm:
Red Door Gallery, 10 Turnpin Lane, Greenwich SE10 9JA
Featuring: Joe Wright Solo + Dan Peter Sundland Solo
Joe Cutler is a fantastic, versatile composer, clearly a really open-minded kinda guy! He is currently Head of Composition at Birmingham Conservatoire and is a founding member of NOSZFERATU, a contemporary music collective with Dave Price, Finn Peters and Ivo De Greef. For his full biog, have a look at his website: http://www.joecutler.com/
I met Joe very recently after Cheltenham Music Festival commissioned him to write a piece for the Emulsion Sinfonietta, who are performing at the festival with Food (Iain Ballamy & Thomas Stronen) on July 4th – gig details here: http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/music/whats-on/2015/emulsion-sinfonietta/ We also have some lovely mutual friends in the forms of Percy Pursglove and Hans Koller!
Joe has taken a few minutes out of his busy schedule to answer a few of my questions…
So are you a football fan then Joe?
I used to be a big football fan and as a teenager would go and watch the local teams where I grew up, mainly Watford and QPR. I don’t watch as much these days but I’m still intrigued by different formations and the way that individuals function within the structure of a team. My new piece, Karembeau’s Guide to the Complete Defensive Midfielder for Emulsion and Food looks at the “floating” role of the defensive midfielder where the player is giving a much freer role within the overall skeleton of the team, moving between defend and attack.
I noticed your piece for the New Music Biennial includes a table tennis match – are you a massive sports fan?
I grew up in a table tennis-mad family, and my brother went on to represent England so when the Cultural Olympics came along in 2012 it seemed the perfect opportunity to put music and table tennis together. The result is a piece called Ping! for string quartet and 4 table tennis players.
Which instruments do you play?
My first instrument is the violin and I improvise a lot especially when composing. I also play piano and have a trombone floating around in my studio which I blow when I’m procrastinating.
Your record Boogie Nights is fantastic, can you tell us a bit about that?
Thanks! Well Boogie Nights is also the title of the first piece on the album which was written for the Dutch group Orkest de Ereprijs and one of the world’s largest mechanical barrel organs called the Busy Drone, made in Belgium in the 1920s. It’s a sort of concerto with lots of interplay between the “live” band and organ. The musical material draws both on dance music from the 1920’s and 70s funk.
What’s been your musical route through life so far?
It’s been very varied with lots of twists and turns. I grew up in North London playing both in orchestras and bands. In the late 1990s I spent three years studying at Huddersfield Polytechnic which was fantastic as we were exposed to so much new music and had lots of opportunities to write pieces and work closely with musicians. The festival was in full swing and was packed with the legends of the avant garde like John Cage, Messiaen, Ligeti etc and we would see them wandering around, and sometimes meet them too. I went to Warsaw to study for three years in the mid 1990s. Being surrounded by a very different musical scene was really liberating and made me challenge all the things I had taken for granted. Then, in 1997, I won a prize at the Gaudeamus International Music Week in Amsterdam which opened a new door. I work a lot in Holland now and find the scene there really open with a very flexible attitude towards genre which I really like. Then there’s Noszferatu, a group I’ve been a member of since we formed in 2000 (with Finn Peters, Ivo de Greef and Dave Price) which has been very important for me, working closely with close friends. Teaching too has been an important part of the journey and working with composition students at Birmingham Conservatoire. That’s something I find really inspiring and I learn as much as the students.
You have a really refreshing open attitude towards the performance of your music, really working with the musicians. Do you have a preferred setting for your music or do you like evolving with each project?
Composing is much more fun when there’s collaboration. Hearing an orchestra play something you’ve written is quite amazing but that’s usually one of the least collaborative situations. I enjoy working closely with musicians and allowing surprises to happen.
What has been your most rewarding commission/project to date and why?
They’ve been so many rewarding projects that it’s hard to single one out. Projects where I have to step outside my comfort zone are always interesting, like Ping! and Boogie Nights (and the new piece!).
If you had to write a piece with only 3 notes, which 3 would they be (including octave)?
Right now, B below middle C, middle C and the D a ninth higher. But tomorrow it’ll be different.
Thanks so much for the interview Joe – can’t wait to play Karembeau’s Guide to the Complete Defensive Midfielder on July 4th!
In conversation with guitarist extraordinaire Mike Walker…
You say “——“, I say “——“
You say yes
I say no
You say Bye
I say hello
So you say…
…do whatever you want!
T. rex octave pedal. Gives you octave up and octave down with a ton of control of how we use them.
If you had a time machine which year would you go back or forward to?
I think maybe I’d go back to Dinosaur times.
[Nice connection with the T-rex pedal there…]
I’d be armed with a pepper spray and a gun that shot a love potion so that love, not war, would be on that funny, crazy bifurcated, creature’s mind. Also, my time machine would be voice activated so I would just say the year and I’d immediately go to that year. I’d also go back to the 8th Century. That century gets a raw deal. When did you last see anything about the 8th century on prime time telly? I’d leave hidden notes everywhere telling my kids how much I loved them and telling them not to invest in the Stylophone or Balaclavas. Then I’d go to the future, when they’re around 60 years old to see what the latest trends are…. then I’d go back to the 8th century and add those trends to the notes so they could invest in those trends before those trends trend then I’d come to the present and give them clues about the notes I’d left but I’d be enigmatic about it. I find it difficult to stay on track with these questions, Trish. My mam said I was a gawp sometimes.
Would you ever agree to a reality television appearance? And if so what would be your terms?
I was asked to do this for Channel 4. I refused. But if I did agree to do it, my terms would be as follows;
No pairing me off with girlies only after one thing. You let them into your life and suddenly your hairnets disappear.
Copious amounts of Wrestling reading material. ‘Wrestler’ is good …. and ‘Wrestler’s of Rhyl and the Surrounding area’ is also excellent.
My own Dave Attenborough wind up robot doll but with jumper and linen pants and loafers…. No suits…. and it would say stuff like….. ‘here’s a Llama, don’t be alarmed’ and in a tiny tiny whisper, ‘here’s a jungle’, and’ I’m hiding in this termite mound, look at the state of my hair’ .. and stuff like that.
No sharing my sleeping space with a superstar of yesteryears Crossroads episodes – Unless it was the great TV personality, Tony Hatch. My sleeping space is sacred. Nobody would understand my bedroom, especially the Vincent Price posters and my Arthur Lowe pillow. I love that pillow. It has Captain Mainwaring’s face on it and when you lay your head down it says ‘stupid boy’….. I love that pillow, again.
People can only say nice things about me when I’m away from the camp doing Butt-thwacker trials … why would anyone say not nice things when your back’s turned?? I don’t get it… you’re munching on the sweaty socks of a shit-soaked slug, almost croaking for the team, and some back-stabbing Barabbas is throwing poison verbals in your ‘not yet tainted by life’ direction. Swerve around the horrid people, I say.
Those are my terms.
What’s your favourite guitar string and why?
My fave guitar string is the B string. It’s a maverick. A lone Wolf. A Kodotic (that’s a word that means – ‘a word that should exist but doesn’t’. The actual word, ‘Kodotic’ doesn’t exist. I love that. The meaning exists but the word doesn’t. Have I gone off piste?
Mike that is quite brilliant! Such a fantastic antidote to all the meaningless things that we’re stuck with! Like…. well, the appendix – no one knows for sure whether there’s any point to that.
So with all this discussion of ‘meaning’, can you explain the concept behind your project ‘Ropes’?
[see what I did there?
I saw what you did. And I wept.]
‘Ropes’ is a 3 movement piece that I have written as part of a broader work that I’m hoping to bring out as an album next year. ‘Ropes’ has a theme moving through it both Melodically and Harmonically. It also has a narrative theme etched into the sinews of the music. I always wanted to say ‘etched into the sinews of the music’, and now I’ve actually said it I feel a weight has been lifted but I also feel a loss somehow. This is how described my idea behind the project elsewhere…
“When I write music, I write for people in my life, both close and not so close. For me, the music is a reflection of the situations and events that make the beautiful struggle so rewarding. I called the suite ‘Ropes’ because I became interested in the lines that, musically, spiritually, physically and metaphorically bind us together or pull us apart. There are sea shanties here, cliff faces scaled, folks towed home and freedoms fettered. Ropes can be a help or a hindrance.”
Funding it will be tough. The logistics are complex. Music written for a Quintet of improvising individuals and 22 ‘straight’ string players is a precarious business as you know all too well. But I have to make the effort. I can’t have it lounging around in my brain ad infinitum.
Yeah, it doesn’t sound healthy to keep that music locked up – free the ropes!
So who’s in your quintet?
The quintet is Iain Dixon, a great Sax player who also happens to be a wonderful Clarinet player (the 3rd movement is for Clarinet and Strings) – I’ve worked closely with him for many years, although not so much these past couple of years, so it’ll be fantastic to work with him again. Les Chisnall is an under the radar piano player I’ve also know for many years. Beautiful player with one of the best touches I’ve heard. Adam Nussbaum and Steve Rodby I’ve been working with in the Impossible Gentlemen, of course, and both have experience in Orchestral situations. Steve is a post production genius as well as being a great player so it’s great to have him on board. Adam did the original concert and sculpted the music in such a beautiful way…. plus he’s just so encouraging…. phones me from the States just to say…. ‘Mike…ya gotta get ‘Ropes’ recorded, man’… I’ve had inspiring support from all the guys.
[That mention of the clarinet and strings in the 3rd movement makes me think of Still Slippy Underfoot…]
And where can we read about the string players? Are you going to encourage them to delve into the world of improvising in some way?
The String players are more like a bespoke collection of players from different ensembles/Orchestras. Ben Holland, a great lead Violin player got most of the string players together for the concert and if we get the go ahead funding wise, he’ll work on that side of things. Yes there is a piece where the string players improvise. I worked out a way for them to to get into Harmonic zones and asked them to respond to what they hear around them using their instruments in whatever way they felt was appropriate. They were unsure at first, the question hovering overhead, ‘is this right?’… they eventually got used to the answer, ‘it’s right if you heard it’.
Is this project an answer, or ‘episode 2’ or even a bizarre prequel (with our time machine) to your first album Madhouse and the Whole Thing There (2008)?
No, But I have written an album’s worth of material that will be a follow up to ‘Madhouse’. It’s called ‘The Things that make the Darklings sing’. I’ve been fascinated with the Darkling as a creature of the night ever since I discovered them in Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ some years back. They’re the opposite of ‘Sparkling’.. they live beneath the earth and come out at night when the world’s asleep and I think are generally mischievous little things, though I’m not sure that Keat’s had these creatures in mind in ‘Nightingale’… this was more his love affair with Death, I think. Anyway, my aim was to make the Darkling sparkling. It harks back to the content of ‘Madhouse’… but it’s more what was born out of the situations that penned that particular music.
Yes, well, we’ve spoken about these Darklings before… You heard it here first folks! Sparkling Darklings coming soon to a listening device near you! Along with those tangled Ropes…
If you were a sparkler what word or sign would you make in the dark?
Easy. I would trace a picture of a look I was once given in a far off place. And, underneath, I’d write ‘Dazzlious’.
Mike will record ‘Ropes’ for 22 piece string orchestra and jazz quintet in 2015. You can now donate in support of the project via his Crowdfunder page here. Have a read about the project here.
Also have a listen to Mike talking about the project here on Youtube.
David Lyttle is a drummer, bandleader, composer and record label boss, based in Northern Ireland… Is there anything I’ve missed David?!
We met through a mutual friend, at Sligo Jazz Festival a few years ago… I remember sitting in with David’s band and then we all got to enjoy the incredible DJ-ing of Gilles Peterson!
Here, we talk about all things musical…
Did ‘Animal’ from Sesame Street get you into the drums?
What an opener! He possibly played a part later on but I first got into the bodhran and the lambeg drum (native drums of Ireland). I got my first drum kit when I was eight. My parents bought it off the church—I’d watched the church drummer play many times and I think that was significant.
So did you play in local folk sessions when you were younger then? I’m always a bit envious of people who have grown up with their traditional music around them.
My family had a caravan on a campsite in Donegal and we led the session in the site bar every weekend during the summer. That was a fantastic experience. I did that from an age of about four until the site changed ownership when I was thirteen and the whole scene dissolved. Those summers were a big part of my childhood. I still have dreams about the campsite site and the people there. Outside of this we played concerts as a family band throughout the year.
What an amazing way into music. And such a shame it came to an end…
It was but we continued to play and made a few trips to the US in my teens, which were great. I think all of those experiences just made music feel very natural to me.
Have you ever been through a phase of playing 6 hours of rock most days??!
I was never a rock kid really. I spent a brief period practicing three hours a day leading into my first big jazz tour. Greg Osby was my guest so the pressure was on. Three hours was the most I could manage though. I’ve never really been a drum nerd but I do listen to a lot of music. I spent four years listening, transcribing and analysing every day for my PhD so that probably made up for my lack of practice.
Which musician/record took you into jazz then?
Believe it or not I first truly heard jazz on TV. A Charlie Brown Christmas was on—I’m not sure if I had planned to watch it or it was just on. The soundtrack is played by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. It grabbed me instantly and got me checking out a lot of jazz. After a while I discovered Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and then Art Blakey, who became my idol.
Art Blakey is an incredibly successful leader from the drums – did that inspire you do to the same? Some musicians have this aura that inspires concept and ethos, as well as language/playing…
I think it must have. My first hero in music was a drummer and bandleader and that’s what I do now. I did have a few good experiences playing with influential Irish musicians, like guitarist Louis Stewart, but the majority of my development as a jazz musician came from challenging myself by setting up projects, sometimes as collaborations but mostly as a leader. Over ten years later I feel myself even closer to the Blakey school when I play jazz. Oddly I think I’m now focusing more on the very qualities that inspired me in the first place: the fire, soulfulness and sheer balls of his style.
It’s fair to say that you (along with a few key others) have been making a huge difference to the jazz scene in Northern Ireland. For the uninitiated, can you give us a run-down of what’s happening over there, and perhaps what has changed over the last 5-10 years.
When I started playing jazz there was very little happening here. It was either move somewhere else or try to make it work here. I’ve never really had a great desire to move away, though I wanted to live in New York at one point. I led a lot of weekly gigs and brought a lot of people in, starting with Irish musicians from around the island and then players from outside of Ireland. The weekly gigs were hard to sustain but I did a few years at various venues in Belfast before focusing on touring regularly with featured guests. To be honest, the scene isn’t much different now, except that people are maybe more informed as a result of the things that myself and a few others did.
That’s an interesting point. I do hope in time the increased awareness leads to more investment in the arts in NI. What would you like to see happening to move things forward?
I think there is definitely more interest in the arts, though it seems there’s less funding than there has been, but I think in general the world needs more music-passionate people in business. Music will never save the world but it makes it a lot more pleasant to live in. I remember going into a primary school to play a jazz concert. Before we started the principle said that the youngest children will sit in for the first couple of songs and then leave because they’ll get too restless and disturb the others. The whole school, 4-year-olds and all, stayed for the full 45 minutes of instrumental jazz. We kept the set varied put we didn’t patronise them or give them a watered down version of what we normally do. That was an interesting experience because in jazz we’re so used to the notion that it’s a more sophisticated music that’s not popular among the mainstream. Yet all those children were captivated by it. I bought my nephew an Art Blakey CD for his birthday a few years ago and he and his friends loved it. I would say that if I had waited until now—he’s a teenager—to buy it for him, we’d have a different story. So my point is that jazz and other ‘niche’ musics are less popular among adults because by the time they become adults they mostly haven’t been exposed to anything outside of commercial radio and television. If we can expose very young children to more challenging music we might find that their generation have a greater appreciation of ‘serious’ music. It might give the evolution of music a push too.
Of all the music you’ve been working on what are you most proud of, and what are you most excited for in the next year or so?
I think my last album has been the most original thing I’ve done. I hope my next one, which I’m currently finishing, will be a step forward. Although I started out playing jazz as a purist, I’ve become more diverse and have been enjoying collaborating with a broader range of musicians.
And to your record label… Can you give us a brief history? What made you want to start one?
I set up the label for my own music in 2007. Most musician-run labels start out that way. Some musicians I was working with then started asking me to release their music and by 2011 I had a catalogue, distribution and some recognition as a label.
The last few years have seen signings of people like Jason Rebello and Jean Toussaint. How have they been to work with?
Jason and Jean are heroes of mine. Ten years ago my goal was to play with them. Now they’re my friends and I’ve released their music. That’s a good feeling and I think those signings marked Lyte Records’ arrival in the jazz world. That said, I’ve never really been specific to one genre—I grew up playing folk music and was a house DJ in my teens. The label reflects that too. The last album I put out is by an Irish band called Moxie who are coming out of Irish traditional music but influenced by a lot of other genres. I think these days ‘genre’ is less important since the internet has opened things up a lot and we don’t need to rely on the media as much for exposure. I remember when I was seeking distribution a few years ago I was advised by a major distributor to split the label so that it wasn’t so diverse. I understand why that was suggested but I wasn’t into it at all. The label is an extension of me so it felt a bit like I’d be splitting my personality.
Your own label has inspired other ventures such as Tom Harrison’s Turaco Music…
Tom Harrison and I have worked together for a few years as musicians. We’ve become good friends and are alike in many ways. Like me, he’s ambitious and works hard, and has a lot of respect for musicians in the generations above. When I was talking to Jean Toussaint about releasing his album, Tom had already impressed me with his agency work. He’d also featured Jean in his own band. I recommended him to Jean and in the end Jean decided to work with him. The result was over twenty dates to promote the album and I think that’s when Turaco was born.
So what’s next for you?
My third album is coming out in February. This year has been all about writing and recording that. It’s a studio project like my last album and it features collaborations along with some of my own songs. I have a lot of interesting people on there, including most of the people from Interlude plus rapper Talib Kweli, Joe Lovano and Duke Special.
Fantastic, I look forward to hearing that in due course… thanks so much for the chat David.
So for this interview I get chatting to saxophonist Tom Challenger, a fine Yorkshireman living in the heart of South East London down the road (on the 185 bus) from me… I first met/heard Tom when he was studying at Guildhall, playing with all the people I was first getting to know when I moved to London.
So Tom, how did your saxophone find you?
I started on clarinet – by the time I was 11/12, it seemed the logical thing to do. My interests in music were developing, and I was a restless character back then. My first horn was a Selmer Pennsylvania. Completely out of tune, but looked amazing.
What’s your earliest musical memory?
Difficult…my old baby sitter and parents will say that my first musical ‘expressions’ if you like, were renditions of the Eastenders theme tune. My first memory isn’t this though – rather just the songs my parents played at home, and the songs we sang at nursery etc. Pretty standard.
What’s your favourite extended saxophone technique/comical sound?
I’ve a few extended things together, and I’m always trying to develop others (and also bury some…). I never really go out of my way to be ‘comical’ per say – maybe it sounds comical!!! however, I do have a penchant for a very sharp high B flat. Simple, but very effective. My Microtonal playing isn’t great, however it’s (albeit slowly) getting better. I find the potential for greater colour within one’s playing is enhanced by these ‘other’ notes, as opposed to a duck sound, or flutter tongue (which is a bit on/off).
What’s your favourite post gig food?
I’m not very good at eating after I play. People always get pizzas in after shows – I get really bad heartburn with pizza after playing. Im’ going to go forrrr…..hmmm……nuts.
Let’s now talk about your duo album with Kit Downes, ‘Wedding Music’. The information up on the web explains the concept pretty thoroughly:
“When discussing ideas for a potential collaboration, their mutual love of Organ works (Hindemith, Messiaen, Vierne), melodicism and durational concepts suggested that this initial idea could be something interesting and importantly a further artistic step forward for both musicians. Beautifully recorded over 3 days in the summer of 2012 in Huddersfield University’s St Paul’s Church (a space renowned for its acoustic qualities), the album is a selection of some of the music developed in residency.”
I think for me the whole process was a massive learning curve – or rather, a process that led to change in my focus as an improviser and composer. Kit and I have known each other for a long time, and played together for a long time – but not in an established context (it’s always been in other people’s groups, or where Kit stood-in in another group of mine – MA). This was the first time we really banged heads together (positively!), and I feel the music really stands alone – simply because WE developed it together. Before, I wrote traditionally (i.e. by myself), or simply work-shopped other peoples ideas (I do a lot of this with Dice Factory). However, this was a case of coming up with ideas together, developing them together and executing them together.
Your playing on that record is stunning Tom, your sound world is very inspiring to me, and I’m sure to any one who listens.
Kit and Tom play Wedding Music at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday April 4th at 5.30pm
Tom, can you take us on a little journey through the key musicians who have inspired you through your life so far?
There are key discoveries (some of which are musicians) for me.
Firstly was buying my own records. Not necessarily the best music (some is cringe worthy), but so important in the sense I was going out to TRY and find what I wanted – not just listening to my Parents’ discs.
Secondly: Funk, Hip Hop – this took me away from a lot of the indie stuff I listened to and into music closer to…
3) Jazz and specifically – Improvised music. My first record I bought was Live-Evil. I think this (despite its sound world) lay down markers for me which have been so important: Ensemble, Energy, Composition, Sound world.
4) lets move on…I could (and probably would) write for years about this…I like the look of the next question…
I know we both love Mr Shorter, so can you give us a brief rundown of favourite Wayne moments, perhaps the less well-known stuff…?
They change all the time. The best ever is his solo on Harlequin. I know it’s in the studio etc…but…I wonder how long it took him to play that? 1 take? I’m going to sell myself that for the rest of my life.
Atlantis is incredible because of how incredible the music has been prepared – arrangements like that don’t come cheap. I like (love) the latest instalment of the Quintet bootlegs. He was playing in a way at that time (with Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette) that really shows how he can bend. He’s so adaptable. And then…’Spring’ by Tony Williams. Don’t want to say many more – there’s a lot. Too much!!!
Your band Brass Mask (as opposed to Brahsk Mahsk) released their first album ‘Spy Boy’ last Autumn on the Babel label, how did this band start? How did you choose the repertoire?
I developed quite a lot over 18 months. I had a lot of inspirations going into this period – The Mardi Gras Indians, counterpoint lessons with Hans Koller and the music of Henry Threadgill to name a few. I developed the repertoire so as to provide contrasts to the other repertoire, but also to expand the sound of an ensemble like this. It’s quite easy to fall in to the whole ‘second line’ bracket with an ensemble like this – thankfully I think we avoid it! Not to say I don’t love that music (Second line), it’s just something I don’t want the whole set to be like.
Here is more info:
Final thought for now… How many times do you check the contents of your sax cases before leaving the house? (I do this about 5 times!!!)
Interesting question. I never really do, however I do tend to forget my strap sometimes. What people really need to be careful of is making sure to check what’s attached to the OUTSIDE of the case before leaving home. I once made for a gig with a Bra unfortunately caught in-between the two halves of the case. Some poor woman had to point this out to me in Archway tube station after I’d been out and about for a couple of hours. Obviously, IT WASN’T MY BRA.
Mark Lockheart is a beautiful tenor player, always involved in highly creative projects, be they with Kenny Wheeler, Django Bates or his own fine ensembles. I have known Mark’s playing ever since I was a teenager, first getting into jazz and listening to Loose Tubes… Here I chat to him about all things musical…
So, lets do the saxophone thing first – what’s your favourite note on the saxophone?
I love the top notes on the tenor so would say top E, perhaps I like the upper notes because I started on alto and hear the upper range more. Coltrane’s Ballads album was a big inspiration for a tenor sax sound and on that record Coltrane plays all the tunes quite high.
That’s reminded me also of that album Coltrane did with Ellington – with that famous version of ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ – more on Ellington shortly…
… If you could add one modification to the saxophone what would it be?
I wouldn’t its perfect as it is just needs lots of work to control it!
How can we ever solve the one-useful-reed-per-box problem?
Can’t see a way but I practice on crap reeds and keep the one good one for gigs. I’m hoping they’ll discover a new type of cane on Mars one of these days… 😉
Any other interesting thoughts about the saxophone you’d like to share?
Don’t know why so many people sound the same on the saxophone, you can do anything on it, it’s such an expressive instrument.
Food for thought indeed…
Where to go next? Let’s talk about your new release and go back to Ellington… whose music is a big topic – how did you approach the arranging?
I started improvising around some of the melodies like Satin Doll and Mood Indigo and followed my nose trying not to think of the original harmony but go where the melody led me. I was never interested in trying to recreate, so to me the end result sounds like new music – although heavily based on Ellington’s source music. I love Ellington and the way he writes so hopefully I’ve done it in a respectful way.
I think we’d all agree you have!! The themes of Ellington drift in and out of the music like motifs, the album tracks are like chapters in a book…
I think the writing was very instinctive and when I set off I purposely didn’t want to follow any lead sheets etc. as it might stifle the ‘following my nose’ approach I was enjoying at the time. I basically followed the melodies not worrying at all about the type of harmony the original had. Interestingly enough when the arrangements started to take shape I noticed that some of the harmony was nothing to do with Ellington’s and some other things were exactly Ellington’s harmonies.
I think sometimes people get too bogged down in harmony for the sake of harmony, counterpoint is the key to interesting harmony for me.
How did you decide on the order of the tracks, did that come later? Or did you have an idea of how you wanted them to flow between each other before the recording began?
The order of a record is always really important to me possibly as I was brought up on LPs. Whenever I got into a new record I’d listen from beginning to end following the story through the chapters. It’s a shame with CDs sometimes that they are so long as it’s really hard to write an epic and I would always prefer a CD under 60 minutes with no ‘fillers’ unless its completely earth shattering. With this album I knew what I wanted to start and finish with and felt keen to start with something that would draw people in so ‘Don’t Mean A Thing’ ticked that box. For the next track I wanted to immediately take the listener somewhere else, almost to force them out of their expectations of what was coming up next so ‘My Caravan’ with its worldly almost Bedouin sound world fitted that role perfectly.
Mood changes and solo order was important too and I wanted to finish with a ballad so Indian Summer worked for that.
From your liner notes I understand this started as a Trinity College of Music student project that evolved… That’s a really great story about how modern jazz education and its contribution to the UK scene has had a really positive impact on established players as well as the students.
It was great to be able to workshop some of these ideas at Trinity and it was a really important part of the process. For me as a musician it’s really important that I develop still while teaching otherwise I wouldn’t want to do it.
So ‘Ellington In Anticipation’ started as a bit of an educational challenge as a lot of students hadn’t listened to Ellington much before and saw little relevance to their development. I rose to the challenge and started fiddling around with the melodic shapes in Satin Doll. Through a process of deconstruction and manipulation this became my own composition (as I changed it almost beyond recognition!) Jungle Lady. Satin Doll was the first victim then I tackled Creole Love Call and Mood Indigo.
Let’s go back to Loose Tubes now (I guess part of your jazz education!), how did that group start/how did you become involved with it?
Graham Collier got the band together as he had the idea of forming a big band that was an antidote to NYJO, basically a band playing good original current music rather than bland generic big band jazz. I knew Graham a bit from working in his band and Roger Dean’s ‘Lysis’. Graham also knew that I worked with Django Bates and a band called ‘Lets Eat’ with Steve Berry, John Parricelli and Dave Patman. The idea I guess was getting like minded people together for the first rehearsals so when we all turned up in Queensway one night to rehearsal we were all sort of linked through various bands and friendships.
Have you been influenced by any saxophonists outside the Jazz world?
I get influenced by all sorts of music and jazz is just one strand of my listening. All the saxophone players I like best are from the jazz world though. I studied classical alto sax at college so appreciate the technique that goes into being able to play classical sax repertoire and try and impress this on my sax students as classical articulation and flexibility is really important to all saxophone players.
Which is the most surprising piece of music you have discovered you like (i.e. something you wouldn’t normally go for!)?
This is a hard one as I’m constantly discovering things I didn’t know about. I’m often surprised how good something sounds when its basically put together in such a simple way – Kind Of Blue for example. As I get older I realise more and more that its not how much you know but how you use your tools that makes really interesting music.
I’m really interested in different textures and use of space, recently been listening to music other than jazz for example John Adams, Burial etc. Polar Bear is a big influence on my music and the way things can be put together, I love the way we play improvised music in a way that avoids the typical jazz language but is still jazz. By that I mean that you can play jazz without being hung up with playing jazz language, why not put the language together in your own way? That’s always how jazz has developed.
That’s an interesting co-incidence as I’ve been listening to a couple of pieces by John Adams recently too! A friend put me onto ‘Gnarly Buttons’ and I’ve also been checking out ‘John’s Book of Alleged Dances’…
Moving on now… what’s happening with Perfect Houseplants?
Hoping to start working on another Perfect Houseplants record in the summer – it’s been a long while since we recorded something and its probably overdue.
And gigs-wise, what’s coming up?
Ellington In Anticipation project:
14th July, Swanage Jazz Festival (This Sunday!)
29th Sept, Scarborough Jazz Festival
23rd Nov, London Jazz Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall
I’m also working on new music for an album of duets that I’m looking forward to.
It’s been so great to talk to you Mark, I look forward to hearing all your future musical musings as always…
Huw Warren is a much cherished musician amongst the great British jazz players of his generation and it is a joy to see him receiving the ultimate recognition, an ECM release. His deeply considered piano playing, together with saxophonist Iain Ballamy and vocalist June Tabor make the exquisite Quercus… Here is a link to the ECM website: http://player.ecmrecords.com/quercus
How did music start for you? Piano?… Singing?( Being Welsh?!)
Like many of my generation, my first music was at primary school playing recorder and banging chime bars. I can remember trying to organise the other kids in a little ensemble, telling them when to play and not play etc. Worrying early signs of a rampant ego, but I honestly have no idea where that concept came from! I briefly played violin, then started cello and piano lessons when I was about 10. Right at the start, an accordionist friend of my dad’s showed how to make a pub style vamp on the piano-and from then on I was off; studying classical music alongside “made up” stuff (the word Jazz would crop up quite a few years later!) I still feel grateful for that little moment back then of being able to be liberated from the notes and dots….something I now see as an educator really holding some people back.
Absolutely, I hear young classical musicians speaking of a desire to start improvising and understanding chords/groove more and more…
So how did things move forward from there? As ‘jazz degrees’ didn’t exist until fairly recently…
My jazz education was pretty much self taught until I went to the Guildhall in 1983. Before that I took a music degree at Goldsmiths where I specialised in classical cello, contemporary music and composition! Looking back on it all now, I think definitely that all that diversity has fed back into my musical whole; as did working with such a wide variety of jazz and world music players in the years immediately following college. I remember being amused back then, when Jazz musicians would suggest making an arrangement more “modern”. I would be thinking Cage, Feldman, Partch or the like; they would be thinking post bop piano, maybe Kenny Kirkland! Studying jazz in a more organised way certainly brought a clearer focus to my playing and improvising, but like so many of us, I felt that I learnt more from my contemporaries and hearing the music happening in real time around me. Way before I got to play with them, I was completely blown away and inspired by the music and vibe of people like Django Bates, Steve Arguelles, Iain Ballamy and others. It seemed to celebrate its own independence in a particularly joyous way.
Those sound like some fairly pivotal musical influences, have there been any other defining moments for you or pieces of crucial advice at various points through your career?
My musical life has constantly surprised me, ranging from the everyday (gravitating towards other players with similar musical values and then forging musical relationships that in some instances have lasted ever since) to the other wordly (such as meeting Mcoy Tyner in 1983-whose beautiful parting words were “keep tinkling!”)
Could you talk to us about Perfect Houseplants? How it started, how to buy the CDs, is there new stuff in the pipeline?
Perfect Houseplants started in1989 when Mark Lockheart, Dudley Phillips and myself realised that we each had projects with each other and a different drummer. Not the most pragmatic of plans really! After playing with Martin France we realised that he was the perfect drummer to combine our joint visions. Co led bands are always interesting. In Houseplants we had the challenge of merging the music of 3 different composers who already had a pretty eclectic outlook and one way of dealing with this was by workshopping the material extensively. I think this brought a different kind of identity to the music, and made the compositions stronger than if we’d all arrived with fully notated pieces. We also seemed to be somewhat ahead of our time in the cross genre collaborations (which are now much more prevalent) that we made with The Orlando Consort, Andrew Manse and Pamela Thorby. The debut album Perfect Houseplants is now available as a download http://huwwarren.bandcamp.com/album/perfect-houseplants .Some of the other recordings are available via http://www.linnrecords.com, but the great thing is that we have remained very close friends; and despite being busy with numerous solo projects, we hope to record new music later this year for release in 2014.
I know that Hermeto Pascoal’s music is a passion of yours, what’s your favourite tune? And album?
Hermeto Pascoal is another of my musical obsessions! I just remember falling in love with the spirit of his music when I first heard it. It’s something to do with that mix of NE Brazilian earthiness and groove with crazy ideas- a sort of high art meets low art at a really funky party thing? Some of his slow tunes are just stunningly and endlessly beautiful – such as Santa Catarina (from his Lagoa da Canoa Município de Arapiraca record) or Desencontro Certo (from my own Hermeto+ record on basho) and then there are his traditional-but with a harmonic twist chorinhos such as Chorinho Pra Ele or Harmonia sem Chronologia, and the out and out groove madness of tunes such as O Galo do Airan or Viajando pelo Brasil (both from Festa dos Deuses). Music from the Heart not the head……
And moving onto some other hearty music – folk tunes… did you choose to explore them or were they something you were raised with?
My relationship with Folk music is definitely something I’ve grown into rather than being raised with. Having said that, there’s an emotional side to music making that guides our choice of material, and I’ve often said that I’m less interested in where the material actually comes from and more interested in “does it speak to me directly?” For me this has meant taking classical music, early music, world music, new music, standards etc all as equally valid starting points. Coincidentally, June Tabor – with whom I’ve been fortunate to learn so much about the power of song both traditional and contemporary – takes a similar view on lyrics (her starting point for the emotional connection she has with her material). I suppose looking back on some of my earlier influences such as Jarrett, Abdullah Ibrahim or Charlie Haden it’s not too hard to see the appeal of a simpler, direct musical language as a stepping off point for improvisation. I’m also attracted to ways of making music that might be able to connect in some shape or form with distant collective experiences without losing the integrity and here and now feel of improvising. This was something I felt in my Welsh Hymn project with Lleuwen Steffan (Duw Y Wyr on Babel) even though I certainly didn’t connect to the hymns from a religious perspective (as an ardent atheist!) or even really know them before making the record.
And so when did you first work with June Tabor? And how did the trio ‘Quercus’ come about/when did Iain join the picture?
Well, I’ve been working with June for 25 years! During that time we’ve worked in all kinds of formats from Duo to Chamber Orchestra, and I suppose have been gently but steadfastly creating a distinct way of arranging and performing the material. In a word this has been minimalism…..June only sings songs that really speak to her (and I mean REALLY speak to her!) so when we rehearse she already has a strong picture of the emotion of the song. Also, everything that she sings to me sounds completely mega unaccompanied! My challenge is how to add to it emotionally, not detract from it. One of the first things I learned was how to avoid anything that was just there for its own sake or for conventions sake – you really don’t need any of that. Hence the minimal approach, and allowing the voice to breathe; to tell the story. Of course I don’t want to be bland either, so it ends up being a balance between an understated approach to accompaniment that still has an interactive role whilst still respecting the emotional direction of the song. Welcome to my world!
One of June’s albums At the Wood’s Heart included Iain Ballamy (as well as Mark Lockheart) and soon after those sessions I was asked by Berlin Jazz festival to put a project together which featured June as well as my own material. The band included June, Iain, Tim Harries and Martin France and also played the following year in Poland. I think this experience lit the spark for Iain to suggest Quercus, linking June’s material with both our own music in a collaborative project.
In my personal opinion, the new album Quercus is pretty much musical perfection. What can you tell us about the making of the album? Was Manfred Eicher there for the whole thing? What was it like to work with him?
The ECM album is a live recording from a tour a few years back. The venue (The Anvil in Basingstoke) had a really great piano – lovely and rich – even when played so quietly. (I love being able to play like this with June, sometimes the better the gig the softer and softer I want to play!). Manfred Eicher was interested in the recording we sent him (miraculously, not only was the performance good, but no one coughed!) and after originally setting up a recording session to make the record he decided that the tape we had was good enough to mix and release. We went over to Oslo to mix at the famous Rainbow studios, and I have to say (once I’d pinched myself to check I wasn’t dreaming….) that working with Manfred and Jan Erik was wonderful. An easy experience, made even easier by Manfred’s evident enthusiasm for the project and the recording. He lives every note of all the records that come out on ECM, definitely an inspiring guy. It was also easy to forget whilst chatting to him over dinner, or coffee, that here was the man responsible for producing a huge amount of the music that had influenced me (and in some cases still does) for over 30 years.
Wow, I can’t believe that album is a live gig! And so wonderful to hear about your experiences with Manfred, and your thoughts shared in this interview. Thank you for your time Huw and all the best with the new album and all future endeavors.