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.
Huw’s website: http://huwwarren.wordpress.com/
Quercus album tour:
14 April The Stables, Milton Keynes Box office: 01908 280800
25 April St George’s Bristol Tickets: £18; £15; £12 Box office: 0845 402 4001
27 April The Sage Gateshead Box office: 0191 443 4661
29 April Warwick Arts Centre Box office: 024 7652 4524
30 April LSO St Luke’s, London Box office: 020 7638 8891