Life-changing albums: Talk Talk's 'Spirit of Eden'

Vocalist and songwriter Julia Biel talks about the album that changed her life, Spirit Of Eden, by Talk Talk. Interview by Brian Glasser

I heard this album during my first year at university. It was, shall we say, a difficult time for me. I’d been continually listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon; then a friend at my college, who I often talked to about music, introduced me to this record – and I had it on loop for months! I enjoyed how it luxuriated in space and time. I found it extremely comforting, and urge everybody to seek it out. I was living on the ground floor in a quad and I had my window open, so the whole quad heard this album – a lot!

I didn’t know then that the album had been recorded in darkness over a year. They got in a load of different people who were asked to play stuff in a dark studio – they must have been given a tempo and a key, I suppose – and then, Mark Hollis, the founding member of Talk Talk, and his producer [Tim Friese-Greene] pieced the album together from everything. Apparently, they tried every possible permutation of what they’d recorded. Mark then wrote lyrics over the top.

It was a bold move because they’d had a big hit with their previous album, The Colour of Spring, which was much more commercial. In the intervening period – and again, I found this out subsequently – Mark’s brother had committed suicide. So you can imagine, it goes quite deep, as he is trying to work through all of his feelings. Actually, he’s denied it has anything to do with his brother; but it certainly has a profoundly spiritual quality to it. This music seems to come from a subconscious place. I think part of what drew me to it was that it had this sort of religious ambience. Not that I’m a religious person, but the way music can be so spiritually moving is contained in that album. I don’t know whether it had such a big connection with me also because I was coming from having heard and performed a lot of choral music in my adolescence – Fauré’s ‘Requiem’, Handel’s ‘Messiah’, things like that.

There are lots of things on the album that you wouldn’t usually put next to one another – the marriage of driving rock guitars with overlaid oboe arrangements is quite odd! It was criticised for sounding like a free jazz album, because it’s got that element to it as well. There are long stretches where there’s just one instrument moving slowly and wistfully through its melody before it comes to a groove. But everything is very precisely placed, as you would expect from something that took so long to assemble. So when the grooves come, they’re extremely meaningful – every instrument, every sound is drenched in meaning – and at the same time, there’s a lot of restraint in it. It’s driven by an urge to go as deeply as possible into the realm of rock music, trying to make music with all kinds of instruments. It’s quite trippy – I’m drawn to things that are quite out there and take you on a journey.

 

‘It’s got such innate wisdom and a purity that cuts through to the essence of whatever state of mind I might be in’

 

I love the way it has space and also extreme dynamic shifts. That’s a real success of how the record was mixed. It’s difficult to handle extreme dynamics and it was done amazingly – the sound of this record is incredible. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t dated at all, and also probably because they were using real instruments. It sounds like a contemporary classical piece.

I should talk about his singing too. It’s clearly untrained, but very heartfelt, and emotive, and powerful. You mostly can’t hear what he’s saying, but you catch odd words like ‘salvation’ or ‘ascension’ or ‘flesh’ that reinforce the spiritual thing. I still listen to it now and it still speaks to me – not just nostalgically. It’s got such innate wisdom and a purity that cuts through to the essence of whatever state of mind I might be in.

I wasn’t making or performing music at that time; but I think it awoke in me the urge. It revealed to me that music could be very potent; and I think that attracted me subconsciously to music as a thing to pursue. I think the direct influence on my musical practice is through things like dynamics, which I’m very interested in; and also space in music – I try to bring that to my work. Plus, the attitude: the music isn’t afraid to tackle big subjects, to paint them using sound. For me, at least, this record set the bar very high!

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Jazzwize magazine. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: Subscribe

Life-changing albums: Gil Evans’ ‘Into The Hot’

Pianist Alexander Hawkins talks about Cecil Taylor’s seismic contributions on Gil Evans’ Into The Hot, in a tribute to the late pianist who died 5 April 2018. Interview by Brian Glasser

Into The Hot, officially a Gil Evans album, was a real epiphany, but it’s the Cecil Taylor aspect that really did it for me. Taylor contributed three tracks; the other three were by Johnny Carisi, with Gil Evans conducting the orchestra on those. The album was in some senses like a curated collection of Third Stream music

But it’s curious – I’m not sure this is even my favourite Cecil album: pianistically, that would probably be Silent Tongues; compositionally, perhaps I prefer Unit Structures; it’s not the most beautiful; it’s not the one I have the most sentimental connection to, which would be the one with Louis Moholo. But it’s absolutely gripping; and more than all of his other albums, it’s a Rosetta Stone for understanding where he came from, and what was to come, and how he fits into contemporary music generally – not just jazz. It’s got the characteristic of a manifesto. I can’t think of anything like it! It somehow shows directions he didn’t take, which makes it even more rewarding and inspirational. He’s so quixotic that you can’t say his entire language was mapped out – but there’s a lot here.

It grabbed me from the start. I’m a complete Ellington junkie, so I understood this record immediately – if not fully, then intuitively. It’s so Ellingtonian in concept as far as composition goes. Plus, there are definitely pianistic precedents in there – not just Ellington, but Tatum, Powell and Monk. It certainly wasn’t the first Cecil record I heard, but it was among the early ones, and for the uninitiated there’s enough in his piano playing to grab onto – it’s not completely alienating. You can hear him improvising over an explicit swing beat, which is interesting in terms of understanding his rhythmic language later on when it becomes abstracted from that.

I went back to the album recently when Kaja Draksler and I arranged these pieces for a septet featuring two pianos at a festival in Amsterdam, and had to transcribe them first. Exploring them in that mechanical depth renewed and deepened my understanding. So, though I’ve always loved them, going back over them in that way helped me appreciate technically how extraordinary they are.

 

‘He’s using everything to enable his imagination to go crazy – it all serves as a springboard, it’s not just a post-modern collage’

 

Above all, you have to admire his single-mindedness. That should be one of his main legacies – to inspire people to be single-minded. More specifically, there are lots of things that I’ve taken from it into my work, both in terms of playing and writing. I think the quantity of very explicit composition on it is what would be most surprising to those who know Cecil Taylor only by reputation. Endless column inches have been expended calling him a ‘free jazz musician’; but this is very organised music. There are not many 1961 albums with that volume of composition on them. Although it’s organised, structurally he’s doing things that you’re not hearing anywhere else, apart perhaps from the most sophisticated Ellington things. ‘Bulbs’, one of the tunes, feels almost palindromic – there are some very strange structures in that; and the way these units are used and moved within the composition gives a clue about how he would later use motivic and harmonic units in his more abstract music. You can already see his preoccupation with musical architecture.

It’s also been an influence on me because it shows a way that you can reference music you love and at the same time make that into something personal. So, for example, during ‘Bulbs’, you can hear the James Brown R&B music of 1961; but there’s also an almost shocking prescience of the funk, too. ‘Mixed’ has a passage that is reminiscent of classical music in how it’s scored; immediately following that, there’s a ballad where Jimmy Lyons plays Johnny Hodges to Taylor’s Ellington (and Shepp plays Ben Webster). All these influences are forged into something that isn’t at all derivative. That’s inspirational to me as a composer. As a free jazz pianist, he did create a licence for wildness – there are moments when he does use cutting loose as a device. But he deploys that language knowingly and sparingly. So, in my view, he’s using everything to enable his imagination to go crazy – it all serves as a springboard, it’s not just a post-modern collage.

Strangely, I don’t remember the first moment I heard the record! It was probably at my local record shop in Oxford – I’d have been a teenager. I’ve always been a student of the music. I grew up with the piano tradition; and because Taylor was so much part of that, this was just something I needed to hear.

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Jazzwize magazine. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: Subscribe

Life-changing albums: 'Bande À Part' by Masqualero

Pianist Tord Gustavsen talks about the album that changed his life, Bande À Part, by Masqualero. Interview by Brian Glasser

Different albums have been important to me at different points of my life – albums offering support in crisis, offering uplifting energy, offering comfort. For instance, Glenn Gould’s Bach: The Goldberg Variations, Emmy Lou Harris’ Wrecking Ball and Billie Holiday’s Lady In Satin. But if I have to name only one, it’s Bande À Part by Masqualero. That was a true turning point. I heard it in the early 1990s – right after leaving Hurdal, where I grew up, to start university in Oslo. So it coincided with that phase in my life – leaving home, when I was 19 or 20.

The weird thing is, I don’t remember exactly how I came to hear it. I think the link was probably ECM – I already had some albums on that label, including some Terje Rypdal and a Paul Bley that I got as a present. Seeing it was on the same label, I bought it. But it might have been the striking cover image.

 

‘The lyricism, and the open spaces and the mysteriousness and beauty, all combined at the same time’

 

I had it on CD, never on vinyl (I went directly from buying cassettes to CDs). Vinyl only became part of my listening habits more recently. Now I understand the magic! I was living in a small room in Oslo, that I rented from relatives. I bought large speakers for the first time, really good ones – I still have them, actually – and I was really connected to this stereo system. I listened to all the records that I liked repeatedly. I became totally immersed and felt every curve of the music.

This one really drew me in – the lyricism, and the open spaces and the mysteriousness and beauty, all combined at the same time. I liked it the first time I heard it, but it also grew on me. Some of the compositions took a little longer to stick. It contains fundamental lines to music that I have kept following. The saxophonist on the album, Tore Brunborg, has been in my quartet – it’s such a treasure and blessing to be able to play with him, and to connect with the roots that trace back to that record. Nils Petter Molvær does some of his finest work on this album, and I’ve played with him too. Then, of course, there’s Jon Balke on piano – along with a few stride players, he’s my main inspiration as a pianist. I even wrote a thesis partly about his playing during my few years in the academic world. The drummer, Jon Christensen, was one of the leading lights of European jazz at that time. From Bande À Part I went on to listen to the Jarrett-Garbarek albums with him on drums, which were amazing. So the links from this album, in addition to the album itself, have been hugely important to me.

It turned me towards… I haven’t put this in words before… a certain abstraction, but still with a sensual focus. The fact that you could open up harmony, open up the soundscapes rather than play stiffly on chord changes; the fact you can have dreaminess and great melodies at the same time. Before then, my musical orientation was already quite broad, because I played jazz, fusion, gospel and classical piano a lot. So, I was deeply into Ravel, Debussy, Shostakovich, Schoenberg and Bach; but this provided me with a vision where impressionist harmony and jazz sensibility worked together, where open harmony could come from improvised settings.

Technically speaking, this was all a bit beyond me at the time. That was part of the mystery. I understood a little, but there were parts I couldn’t get immediately. With other stuff, I was used to being able to copy it right away and understand the chord changes. I could do that with some of this; but other parts, I thought “Wow, what are they doing?”

Reflecting on it now, it also turned me away from something that I later had to go back to: after my years in the conservatory – actually in the transition between my first and second ECM albums – I started connecting again to the grounded simplicity of the lullabies and hymns. My composing took the experience of radical openness, but connected much more profoundly to the basic sensuality of the hymns and lullabies, and the gospel-tinged impressionist stuff. Bande À Part was a turning point, one which took me away from the spot to which I would later return, where I would find myself again…

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Jazzwize magazine. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: Subscribe

Life-changing albums: Paul Motian Band ‘Psalm’

Guitarist Jakob Bro talks about the album that changed his life, Psalm, by Paul Motian Band. Interview by Brian Glasser

‘I could have chosen Miles’ Four and More or Coltrane’s Live at Birdland – they were the first records where I realised how music can become a part of you if you learn how to listen – to feel part of it, as if you were actually inside there. That was why I started to become serious with music, and how it became the thing I started searching for all the time. But in the end, my choice has to be Psalm, by Paul Motian.

I was around 18, and I was playing more traditional jazz guitar at that time. Then I got involved with two young musicians who were listening a lot to hip hop music, as well as Wayne Shorter and Coltrane – some different styles! In other words, while I was listening to music from the 1930s and 1940s, they were listening to stuff from the 1960s and 1970s. One of those guys started listening to Paul Motian, and I heard this album through him.

Compositionally, soundwise, and in so many other ways, it changed everything for me. Even though I didn’t get it at first! I thought it was difficult to relate to this new music with my instrument – as opposed to Charlie Christian or Barney Kessel. At the start, I just heard the first song and didn’t understand. Compositionally, it has a super-simple melody. Paul is playing bells, Bill [Frisell] is playing with the synth sound. I thought, ‘Is this jazz music, or what?’ I didn’t listen to the rest straightaway. But I bought the CD from a good jazz store in Copenhagen that’s still there. I just kept listening to the first song and got used to the sound. I carried on composing and practicing and playing; and every once in a while, I found that I was drawn to that sound. I would go back and listen – and still not be ready! Then at some point – maybe a year later – I went back and the timing was right; suddenly I saw it. Now I think that the spirit in this record is an expression of Paul’s whole career.

I love Frisell obviously, but at that time I didn’t really think of his playing on that record as a guitar. I’ve never sat down and transcribed any of his playing on that album. It was just part of the overall sound for me; and it was that sound, of the group, that I was inspired by. And I just love Lovano – he’s one of my biggest heroes. I actually think I’ve listened more to horn players than guitar players.

 

‘He showed me how to go from song form and into harmony. I hadn’t heard that anywhere else’

 

The other main reason I chose this record is because later I got to know Paul in New York and worked with him, and his influence has been so big on my music. I went to New York mainly to be able to see Paul play – I didn’t dream of playing with him. I became friends with many of the musicians in his Electric Bebop Band. I took some lessons with Steve Cardenas, and met up with Chris Cheek, and became friends with Kurt Rosenwinkel. And all of that was to learn and get closer to the source, in a way. Sort of out of the blue, I suppose because I knew all the musicians around him, I was the one that got recommended when a vacancy came up. So I sort of engineered it, a little bit – I tried to be around it as much as I could – but as much for my learning process as anything else.

Paul’s way of putting bands together, of sort of creating a family of the musicians he’s working with, was very inspiring to me. Also his way of writing opened up a lot of things. He showed me how to go from song form and into harmony. I hadn’t heard that anywhere else. Then there’s the way he kept trying his compositions in new settings later on in life. He kept developing his music and none of the stuff he did earlier ever became stale, it was always fresh. That’s all very, very inspirational.

He was a step on a ladder for me. My way into ECM, to get to make records on that label, was because of Paul. I was very sad when he died, of course. I still don’t really believe that it’s happened. I had a period of time with him – I toured with him and recorded with him, and that was a highpoint for me. Actually, it has been the most important meeting for me in my musical life; and that’s non-changeable.

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Jazzwize magazine. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: Subscribe

Life-changing albums: Von Freeman's 'Doin' It Right Now'

Saxophonist Steve Coleman talks about the album that changed his life, 'Doin’ It Right Now', by Von Freeman. Interview by Brian Glasser

For me, it’s not really about records so much as live gigs. There was a guy called Von Freeman – not everyone’s heard of him! – in Chicago where I grew up. He didn’t formally give me lessons, but he was kind of like a mentor. Watching him year after year definitely changed my life. I would make private recordings and listen to them. I started off with stereo reel-to-reel, later on cassettes. I’d be in the audience, these were nightclubs so it wasn’t so much of a stage. I’d just be there recording, because I was trying to learn the music. I was 18, 19 – that’s when I started learning what the music was about.

When I played them back later, there was so much to get: the rhythm, the way it flowed, melody, harmony, saxophone stuff like fingering and breathing – there’s so much that you’re getting all at once when you see somebody live. The earliest album I heard of his was Doin’ It Right Now, but it’s different on record. I listened to records of course, but for me the much more important thing was seeing people live.

With the tapes, I had to work it all out myself – I didn’t understand anything at the beginning. These guys were older professionals in my father’s generation and they wouldn’t tell you anything – it wasn’t like a school situation where they’re telling you what the chords are and so on. They learned the same way – so I figured if they could do it, so could I. For me, it’s way better than going to jazz school – it’s not even close. Actually, it’s not even a matter of ‘better’ – it’s not the same thing. It’s a whole different kind of learning.

I’ve never taken one improvisation lesson in my life. I won’t say that I didn’t try to study with Von – but he said, ‘No – I don’t teach’. I asked another guy in Chicago for lessons – Bunky Green. And he told me ‘No’ too! They were my two favourite saxophone players in Chicago at the time; so, I thought, if these guys aren’t going to teach me, then forget it – I’ll just get it like they got it.

Primarily, what I did was this: there were people like Charlie Parker who I’d found out about; and I wanted to know how they learned how to play; and I wanted to copy it. Not mimicking what they were playing but how they learned how to play – their process. I knew that that process produced great musicians, so I wanted to know what it was. That’s what they’d done in their time – they didn’t go to schools like Berklee. I thought: ‘These guys didn’t learn to play in school – so I’m not going to learn how to play in school’. To me, that was kind of obvious.

Initially, I went to a particular concert to see Sonny Stitt, because he sounded like Bird to me, so I had that sound in my head. Von Freeman, who I didn’t know at the time, was the other saxophonist on the concert. But Sonny Stitt didn’t live in Chicago; whereas Von did. When I talked to Von afterwards he said, ‘I have these sessions that happen every week on the South Side’; and gave me the address. It wasn’t far from where I lived, so I started going. That’s how I hooked up with him. It wasn’t because I thought he was amazing – I couldn’t hear that in the beginning. I only heard that later, after I started hanging around. Even that took a while, because my ears weren’t developed.

I was always aware of death – I knew everyone wasn’t going to be around for ever; so I tried to get as much as I could from people while they were still around. Whether it was Thad Jones, Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson – I tried to see them as much as I could. If you want to be a master shoemaker, you hang around master shoemakers! It’s osmosis.

Having said that, when I listened back to the tapes of Von when I was young, I did try and emulate him – I tried to play the notes and transcribe them. You have to do that to know what they’re doing – you have to get into the detail. I listened to Von from 1975 – when I was 18 – till when he died. I only played professionally on a gig with him two or three times, and I made a couple of recordings with him. Usually he was playing with his group and I was playing with mine.

The learning part never stops – I’m still trying to figure out what people are doing! For me, ‘doing my own thing’ and ‘learning’ is the same thing, it’s not separate – learning is my own thing …

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