Saxophonist Andy Sheppard has been a constant presence on the British, and international, jazz circuit since he emerged as part of the late 1980s young UK jazz scene, yet for all his widespread popularity he’s remained hungry for exploring sonic pastures new. Selwyn Harris spoke to the saxophonist about how his self-taught artistic journey has always been about drawing on life’s lessons and not those of musical academia
How about this for a brainteaser: name a musician who’s recorded as leader for Blue Note and ECM? Andy Sheppard is one of the very few who has held the distinction of releasing albums on both labels. But working out what such an achievement really means, it’s important to put it into the context of the 58-year-old saxophonist’s career to date. For those who can remember back to the so-called jazz boom of the late 1980s, Sheppard – who previous to that had spent nearly all of his twenties leading a precarious existence as a jazz saxophonist in both Paris and London – was suddenly catapulted into the limelight with other gifted, hip young sax pretenders, including the likes of Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson and Tommy Smith. Sheppard would initially record for Island/Antilles before offering up a couple of albums with Blue Note at the start of the 1990s. Fast forward two decades to 2010 and Sheppard’s debut Movements in Colour as leader for ECM. Needless to say, it’s a very different Andy Sheppard now to back then. Those in-between years point to a highly eventful CV of richly versatile collaborations and commissioned projects that few British jazzers can match. Too numerous to list here, if one were to pick a highlight it would have to be his long-serving, fertile working relationship with the idiosyncratic pianist-composer Carla Bley in both her innovative big band and smaller ensembles over two decades. But as a leader, his new ECM release Surrounded by Sea for quartet – following the acclaimed Trio Libero in 2012 – feels like a defining moment.
“Carla [Bley] said something to me – we were talking about Lee Konitz – she said, ‘but the thing about jazz musicians is you get better and better and better and better, and then you die’. Very Carla Bley,” he says with a little chuckle down the line from his studio in his hometown of Bristol where he’s currently working on a new commission for a community choir and engaging with the local jazz scene. “I didn’t start playing the saxophone until I was 19 and I was lucky. I had a lot of struggle in the early years. But that’s good for your music and I’m completely self-taught. But I did always feel that I was suddenly making records and wasn’t ready to be making those records. I didn’t feel ready because I started so late. But I’m working at my music everyday and I think it’s natural you mature. And hopefully you get to say more with one note than you used to say with 20 as well as developing a voice, a sound, a concept, a musical world. I’m always playing in bands, different styles of music but this soundworld that I have with this quartet is my dream band because I would like people to know this is my music. This is my world.”
The current quartet marks a further stage of development for his free improvising group Trio Libero featuring French acoustic bassist Michel Benita and the London-based Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford. On Surrounded by Sea Sheppard adds the influential Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset (a sideman on Movements in Colour) who delicately infuses the music with his non-acoustic, effects-laden diaphanous sound. Compared to the previous release, Surrounded by Sea is also more grounded in simple song and groovebased playing. Trio Libero was formed in 2009 when Sheppard invited Benita and Rochford to improvise together at a four-day residency at Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh. Sheppard recorded it, went away and compressed, edited and transcribed the best ideas and the band met up again and improvised on them for the recording. It’s the kind of creative process not too far away from the one practised by the John Cassavetes-inspired independent British filmmaker Mike Leigh.
“I thought it was a wonderful record, but maybe a little tough for some people to get,” Sheppard says of Trio Libero. “It’s chamber music and it’s very delicate, very beautiful but to get that across sometimes people maybe don’t understand that music so well. The next album, I thought I so love playing with Michel and Seb and we have such a great rapport that I didn’t want to change everyone but I wanted to make a quartet record. I wanted to bring a harmony instrument in to change things up. Eivind is like an orchestral guitarist and he works in real time. He created all those sounds on the record in the moment as the music unfolds. And it’s in the nature of the instrument, the guitar that all analogue pedals and what have you, it’s timeless in a way unlike synth patches say which can date. It’s all guitar and fret noise. So then I had the idea and I mooted it to Manfred [Eicher], and he liked the idea, and then I started writing music this time instead of starting from a blank page and asking everyone in.”
In December 2013 Sheppard invited the quartet to a residency at the Opera de Lyon, not meeting again until a two-hour rehearsal the night before the studio recording in August 2014 in Lugano’s Auditorio Radiotelevisione Svizzera. If they didn’t get it down in two or three takes the tunes were abandoned: “Manfred [Eicher] did say to me years ago when I questioned him about how much time I would have to make Movements in Colour, he said, ‘if you can’t do it in two days why bother?’”
“You want something every now and then that comes out of the stereo and shakes you”
Aside from the originals, there’s an affecting version of Elvis Costello’s lesser-known ‘I Want to Vanish’ and a three-part rendition of the Scottish folk song ‘Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir’ that provides the focal point of the album, originally part of an aborted project of Sheppard’s with Scottish Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis.
“It’s basically a lullaby but it’s quite heavy,” he says. “The story behind it is something like waking up a child to tell them we’ve got to go to the hills. They’re coming from the North; they’re going to rape and pillage everyone so let’s get out of here! There’s a real history to that song and it’s so atmospheric, which is why I called the record Surrounded by Sea. I was listening to the record driving to the airport and it was like a misty morning. It made me think about where I come from and I come from an island, and then I thought this is the kind of record where you could be at sea or surrounded by sea. Every now and again a little storm comes along, not too heavy but doesn’t want you to get too comfortable. I don’t want to make music that’s furniture. I don’t want people to buy my music thinking I’m a piece of furniture. You want something every now and then that comes out of the stereo and shakes you.”
The new recording’s unexpected nuances and subtle shifts in tonality and sonic tension arising from the band’s atmospheric reshaping of themes owes something to the contribution of Eivind Aarset, a figure who’s been at the vanguard of progressive electronic-inspired Norwegian improvised music since the new millennium. It’s a music that’s had some impact on Sheppard’s work, especially as a solo performer.
“I’ve definitely been interested in the marriage of acoustic and electronic,” he says. “What I find so great with Eivind is it’s a very organic process. When you’re with him on stage sometimes it’s like an avalanche of sound coming out at the side of the stage. Then I look at him and he doesn’t seem to be doing anything! His fingers are hardly moving because he’s manipulating things with a laptop. But essentially it’s all these old pedals that he’s using and just the way it’s configured. It’s just an exquisite taste and understanding of harmony and he’s very intuitive. He’s not a jazz player. If I suddenly said let’s play ‘All the Things You Are’ he’d probably faint. But he has this other aesthetic that I love so much about the music of Arve Henriksen, the whole Norwegian thing, it’s a wonderful soundworld and then it’s great for the saxophone to be in that – like with the trumpet from Jon Hassell putting that acoustic thing with breath, brass, pig skin and bamboo in among this electronic stuff. It’s an exciting texture. I’ve always been intrigued by it. I get bored with beats. I did the Nocturnal Tourist album around 2000 because I was sharing a studio in Bristol, just 10 yards away was Massive Attack and they were making Mezzanine at the time. So I was in that world. These days I like music to breathe rhythmically as well as harmonically. The wonderful thing about people like Eivind is they can do that. They’re not earthbound with that quantising situation of beats. They can float but they can also groove. Seb [Rochford] too is an astonishing musician in that way and I think I get the best out of Seb. I make him do things I know he loves but you don’t often hear him playing in that way.”
In spite of the generation gap and stylistic differences, Sheppard and Rochford seem to share a few important characteristics. Both demonstrate intuitive, spiritual, non-cerebral aspects to their work that have resonated with audiences that might otherwise find jazz too unapproachable. Unlike the vast majority of young jazz musicians arriving on the scene these days, Sheppard isn’t formally schooled. In fact he tells me has never even had a proper sax lesson, let alone studied jazz.
“You couldn’t study jazz at the Royal Academy when I was 20, they didn’t exist.” he says. “Of course it does mean that there are incredibly gifted young musicians coming out of conservatoires all over the world. I guess when they come out they’re fully equipped harmonically etcetera but there are so few gigs. I think it’s very hard to get into the Royal Academy but it’s even harder to get into the street. You’ve always got to have an ear for the street because that’s where the music is happening really. It’s not happening in academic spheres, it’s happening in bars and pubs and jazz clubs. OK so you can play but how are you going to make it your be all and end all? Because if you really want to do this thing you have to be prepared to die for it. That sounds a bit heavy but that’s it. You can’t have a second bow to your string. ‘I haven’t got any gigs so I’ll do a bit of accountancy’. There’s only one person in a million who can be a musician and have a separate career. I’m not the first person to say that. That’s what the beboppers were saying, Parker probably thought the same thing, that the music is happening on the street. Going to a prestigious university to study isn’t gonna make you play great. Basically it’s not going to give you a story. I played with Charlie Haden and he was so wonderful on stage because he just talks all the time. People probably don’t realise that. He’s like behind you and like ‘I’ll tell you a story, man’. It was always about telling you stories, what you gonna play? How are you going to infuse it with your story, with your life? So I think university is a wonderful thing but once you’ve gone through university you have to go into the university of life and even getting into the university of life is hard, never mind getting through it. I guess you get through it when you hang up the saxophone.”
In terms of audience, Sheppard has had first-hand experience of its faddish nature in the UK through the late 1980’s ‘jazz revival’ period. In contrast France’s enduring love affair with Sheppard, demonstrated for example in his huge concert hall sell-outs as resident at the Coutances Jazz Festival, remains something that has largely eluded him back home.
“This country is particularly difficult it has to be said in terms of audience,” he says. “There’s not so much an audience for creative music here and jazz. It’s not the same in other countries. The music is put on more of a pedestal. Certainly in France. If you look in the jazz magazines and everything there’s always the photographs, everything is like ‘this is an art form we’re talking about here’. It’s not music that’s played in a back room of a pub. It’s art. And that’s the way I’ve always seen it. John Coltrane and Pablo Picasso are the same deal. But we’re all here and the flipside of that is there are incredible musicians and music happening in the UK. I always think about Vincent van Gogh and then it makes me feel OK.”
Cécile McLorin Salvant – Something Old, Something New
In a world obsessed with looking back instead of forward extraordinary jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant is something of a paradox: a deeply soulful virtuoso capable of taking 100 year old songs and making them sparkle anew. Possessed of one of the most remarkable voice’s in jazz today, she’s already whipped up a critical storm in her native US. With the release of her new album For One to Love, Peter Quinn discovers it’s the pitfalls and pain of falling and being in love that have inspired her most personal and powerful work to date
It was the lead-off song on her 2013 release, WomanChild, a guitar/vocal take on ‘St Louis Gal’, that first alerted you to the fact that Cécile McLorin Salvant was something out of the ordinary. Immersing herself in the early jazz and blues vocal tradition, the album’s eclectic track list marked the winner of the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition out as someone who was happily ploughing their own artistic furrow, from including the remarkable 19th century work song about the black folk hero ‘John Henry’ – which she first heard sung by blues guitarist and singer Big Bill Broonzy – to highlighting the singularly gritty timbre of the banjo on ‘Nobody’, Bert Williams’ signature song first publicly performed in 1906. Garnering a Grammy nomination and four Downbeat awards, including Jazz Album of the Year, McLorin Salvant was surprised as anyone by the album’s phenomenal critical success.
“It was crazy, I didn’t expect it at all,” she tells me, sipping tea in the lobby of Club Quarters, Trafalgar Square. “I’m still coming from a place where I feel like I never win anything. As a child I always felt that way – I always wanted an award, a shiny golden thing. So I’m really surprised and it takes me back to being a 10-year-old.” Attending the Grammy Awards with her father, mother and sister was, “a lot of fun, though if I’d known how long a day it was I may have picked some more appropriate footwear”.
If WomanChild deliberately eschewed songs about love, For One to Love does quite the opposite. “Absolutely, it is about love,” McLorin Salvant says. “It is about experiencing that as a woman, which is different, I think, from experiencing it as a man. I wanted to explore this because I had been, personally, going through a lot of weird, tricky feelings in my own life in terms of being in love, and not necessarily having it be mutual, or not being brave enough to tell the person that I love them. So it gets really, deeply, almost diary entry personal. All the songs I wrote, there’s not one that is a story. They’re all more or less concealed declarations – of love, or personal ponderings about how things didn’t work out, or how things can be miraculous when they do work out.
“It’s the first thing I’ve recorded where I’m actually, not proud, but happy about what I’ve done,” she continues. “And that’s really rare for me. I feel like, with this, I’ve gotten closer with the band to what I’ve been hearing in my head. It’s not quite there yet, but I am really happy.”
When we spoke previously, McLorin Salvant talked about the writing process as being a challenge. Having penned no less than five songs on For One to Love, I wonder if composing has got any easier for her?
“It’s probably more of an effort now,” she says. “On WomanChild I wrote essentially two and a half songs, because I didn’t write the lyrics for the one in French [‘Le Front Caché Sur Tes Genoux’]. This album was coming from such a personal place – things that I could have said, if I’d had the courage to say them – that it was relatively easy. Now what’s making it hard is that I’m trying to get away from that. I’m trying to tell stories and be a little less selfish in my writing: see the world, go out into the world, and tell those stories. And that’s hard.”
As on WomanChild, in which she covered ‘Baby Have Pity On Me’, the new album features a similarly compelling take on another song associated with Bessie Smith, ‘What’s The Matter Now?’ In capturing the honesty and authenticity of Smith’s delivery, the song strikes you with a visceral force. Having studied the entire recorded output of the Empress of the Blues, Smith still clearly looms large in McLorin Salvant’s aesthetic orbit.
“Her power, in every sense of the word, is the major thing that moves me,” she notes. “With her voice, she just cuts through everything. And, with such power, she was able to evoke so much vulnerability and tenderness. The first time I heard ‘What’s The Matter Now?’, she just got me with this line where she says, ‘Ain’t seen you honey since well last spring, tell me pretty papa have you broke that thing?’ I just laughed and said, I want to sing this, because humour is such an important thing for me in the music. She’s not apologising, she’s not particularly happy that he’s back in town, and she’s kind of giving him a hard time, and I like that. She’s being very ironic, and that’s so real and true.”
With only pianist Aaron Diehl remaining from the line-up of WomanChild, the tightly focused band sound, honed during an extended period of gigging and touring, features the rhythm section of bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers. “We’ve been on the road,” McLorin Salvant says, “and I really wanted it to be people that not only knew each other musically, but personally, who were friends who had been through things together, so there was a deep emotional connection.”
If the absence of James Chirillo in the lineup leaves banjo lovers distraught, there’s an encouraging silver lining. “The banjo is one of my favourite instruments, so I’ll always want a little bit of banjo. This time I decided I wanted to have one song in French with an accordion player [the melancholy song of lost love, ‘Le Mal De Vivre’]. For some reason, I like those instruments that for a long time had been mocked. Accordion and banjo: I love those instruments.”
Judging by the ear-catching, ever-changing backdrops created by Diehl, Sikivie and Leathers, the quartet is clearly pulling in one creative direction, as McLorin Salvant is quick to acknowledge.
“Sensitivity is key, and not getting in the way of the song’s meaning. As jazz musicians, when you’re improvising it’s easy to lose that core meaning of the song. Also, they’re swinging – that, I think, is crucial. It’s very joyful, and they’re people who feed me as much as I give back. And dynamics, too. I don’t think I’ve heard so many dynamics in another band. You realise it the most when you hear us live. That’s why I really want to do a live album with this band. They actually taught me the beauty and the effectiveness of dynamics, of having that range.”
But let’s not forget the most glorious instrument of all: McLorin Salvant’s voice. Listening to the way in which she endlessly sustains the first two words (‘Love appeared’) of album opener, ‘Fog’, you’re struck anew by the timbral richness and interpretative depth. Is she conscious of any changes in her voice since WomanChild?
“I’m more aware of what I can and can’t do. And I’m probably more aware of the value of certain textures for certain words. I can growl a little bit now, which I couldn’t necessarily do before. I think I still have a very young voice; I definitely can’t hit all the lows that I’d like. But I also feel like I have more endurance, that’s something I notice more on tour. I’m more aware of things so that I can make choices that are less driven by how pretty it sounds, and more driven by: what is the meaning of this? Why am I doing this? Can I do less? As I grow older, I’m realising more and more that I can do less – you’re doing too much, you’re sounding too much like somebody that’s not you, you’re pushing this for no reason, you’re trying to make a nice low sound there, why are you doing that?”
When it comes to other music that has been fuelling her creativity, McLorin Salvant’s overarching desire to continue soaking up the music of the greats who preceded her comes strongly to the fore.
“Right now, I’m getting back to some fundamental things that I sort of overlooked: the Gershwin Songbook. I went online and picked up this list of all their songs, whether together or separate. And, of course, there are some songs that we all know, but there are a lot of songs that haven’t been recorded. I discovered a great one called ‘Ask Me Again’ which has been recorded by Rosemary Clooney, Nancy LaMott, and Michael Feinstein, and that’s it. It’s a beautiful song, but there’s not really a pure jazz version, which is crazy because that song was written, I think, in the 1920s. Since the album’s been out, I’ve been listening to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, and Choose Your Weapon by Hiatus Kaiyote, an amazing future soul band from Australia.” The venerably old in the embrace of the freshly minted. That, in a nutshell, seems to encapsulate what this exceptional artist is all about.
There are few, if any, jazz triple albums that have made quite the impact that Kamasi Washington’s The Epic has had this year. Kevin Le Gendre spoke to the Los Angeles-based saxophonist about how his seismic spiritually-charged music came from his formative years playing in church and a deep well of like-minded forebears
Historically, the west coast of America may be synonymous with jazz that is ‘cool’, but many of its players also went straight ‘into the hot’. Certainly, the likes of Dexter Gordon knew how to burn and today there is a Los Angeles jazz scene that is ablaze with ideas as well as intense performances, producing artists such as 34-year-old saxophonist Kamasi Washington. His The Epic is arguably debut album of the year, a work whose earthy maturity is matched only by its fiery ambition.
At its core is a crack 10-piece band featuring electric bassist Thundercat, but it is the inclusion of a 32-piece string orchestra and 20-strong choir that makes the 172 minutes of the triple CD a digital age rhapsody. Unsurprisingly, its roots run deep. Washington’s mentor is none other than the big band legend Gerald Wilson. In 2006 the younger artist/musician had a very significant meeting with the veteran composer.
“I was showing Gerald a live recording of my band The Next Step and Brandon Coleman was playing some keyboard strings,” Washington told me in a recent email exchange. “Gerald and I had talked about classical music and orchestration a lot over the years and he really liked the sound of what Brandon was doing, and told me I should write some orchestral pieces that would include that band.”
Son of respected Angeleno saxophonist Ricky Washington, Kamasi, who majored in Ethnomusicology at UCLA and counts Jeff Clayton among his other essential tutors, was subsequently asked to make a record by Flying Lotus, the interstellar producer whose A&R policy at the fiercely progressive Brainfeeder label brought to light the aforementioned Thundercat. Significantly, Lotus gave Washington creative carte blanche. “That sense of freedom led me back to the memory of that day with Gerald,” Washington says. “It was my opportunity to do some things on that scale. I didn’t want to lock the musicians into a rigid arrangement of orchestrations. The magic of what we do comes from having the freedom to move the music the way the moment asks us.”
So Washington opted to record his bandmembers first to enable them to “do what they hear”, before arranging the strings and voices around “what we did spontaneously, so I could get the best of both worlds”.
The result was a series of sweeping, soul-stirring anthems that lean equally to jazz, gospel and classical traditions, and it was indeed an iconic composer from the last canon that acted as a key pathfinder. “My biggest inspiration on the choral side actually came from Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony of Psalms’,” Washington reveals. “I used to listen to that and dream of improvising over it with a live orchestra and chorus. But there are others as well, like the Charlie Parker With Strings album, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Norman Connors’ Dark Of Light and Donald Byrd’s Cristo Redentor. I listen to a lot of music!” Bigger is better on The Epic. Washington has a lot of musicians in his orbit and rather than diminish numbers he decided to augment when circumstances conspired to fill the rehearsal room to bursting. “My big band The Next Step came together in a way by chance. I’ve known everyone in my band since I was a kid, some as early as three years old. We’ve always played with each other and been in each other’s bands but we’d never had everyone on the same gig at the same time,” says Washington. “One night I had a gig at a club called 5th Street Dicks and Cameron Graves, Thundercat and Ronald Bruner were supposed to be the rhythm section. I forget the reason they all ended up cancelling on me the day of the gig, so I called Miles Mosley, Brandon Coleman and Tony Austin to come play and somehow they all showed up! My first thought was to have them do alternate sets, then I thought it would be interesting to see how they would all sound together. We sounded amazing, you would think we had been playing with a double rhythm section for years the way everything fit so perfectly.”
Musical osmosis aside, the emotional charge of The Epic can be traced to an experience Washington had as a boy that proved a turning point in his life as a musician. At the age of 13 he used his father’s horn without permission to figure out how to play his favorite song at the time – Wayne Shorter’s ‘Sleeping Dancer Sleep On’. “I ran and showed him and he immediately took me seriously. Literally, the next day he took me to join the band at my uncle’s church! At my uncle’s church they were so into the spirit of music. We never knew how we were going to play the songs or even what key they were going to be in, everything had to be, as the choir director would say, ‘led by the spirit’. All the musicians and singers would just flow and at some point every week we would reach these amazing climaxes! As I learned about other musical traditions, styles, and cultures I’ve always found that so much of the music that I really loved had that same kind of approach even if the musicians didn’t mean to make ‘spiritual music’.”
Kurt Elling’s richly resonant, subtly virtuosic voice is one of the most recognisable and celebrated in jazz earning him a Grammy for his 2009 album Dedicated To You alongside 10 other Grammy nominations, and seen him top numerous critics polls. Yet with the end of his 20-year musical partnership with pianist Laurence Hobgood, Elling is now seeking out new artistic territory, as heard on his latest album, Passion World, which sees his globetrotting tastes exploring music from Brazil, Ireland, France, Scotland, Iceland and Cuba. Peter Quinn spoke to the singer about his journey into the unknown, embracing change and his hopes and fears for the heart and soul of humanity
Kurt Elling is ringing the changes. On the business side, he’s with new management. On the artistic side, his latest release, Passion World, is an ambitious new project which casts its stylistic net far and wide, mostly from outside the jazz canon. But the most far-reaching change since our last conversation (‘Up On The Roof’, Jazzwise 169) is the ending of his long-standing musical relationship with pianist and arranger Laurence Hobgood.
When I spoke to the producer of Elling’s 2011 album The Gate, Don Was, at the time of the album’s release, he noted the following about the closeness of Hobgood and Elling’s musical relationship: “What I discovered as producer of The Gate is that Kurt and Laurence together form this kind of living organism that is rapidly evolving over time. The way they work off each other is really unique, and magnificent.” Sitting in the top floor bar of a central London hotel, surveying the city’s vastness, I suggest to Elling that to end that relationship – Hobgood had been a key collaborator for almost two decades, from the time of the singer’s 1995 Blue Note debut Close Your Eyes – must have been incredibly difficult.
“It was,” he replies. “And I’m confident that in the fullness of time we’ll be able to, and we’ll both desire to, revisit it. It’s a long, long time working with somebody like that, and him working with somebody like this. I’m certainly proud of everything we’ve done together and everything we learnt together and everything we taught each other. But I think it’s just a natural part of the adventure that you try different things with different people.
“God, I’m learning so much about skills I didn’t even know that I had developed,” he continues. “Putting the new record together felt like a much bigger risk: just the doing of it and the emotional support that I got from the guys in the band. They all knew that it was a new way of going about making a record, me not having Laurence there as a sounding board. Laurence needs to have the freedom to not be bound by whatever creative decisions I want to make on the stand. And while it’s true that we have been stronger together, I’m pretty sure we’re strong individually, and he deserves the time to find out where his trio thing can take him. And who wouldn’t want to hire this guy, right?”
Following this parting of ways, I wonder who Elling now looks to as his sounding board. “I don’t think that there is one at this point, it’s developing,” he says. “We don’t have a stable piano chair. It just makes sense, after 20 years, not to be tied down again. And it’s an open-ended question as to what the band sound wants to develop into. John McLean on guitar has been with me long enough that I know what kind of things he’s capable of and I want to play off of those elements. And that probably means getting a lot more B3 in the mix, so I’ve got to have a piano player with a slightly different skill set. And it takes a while for band personalities to gel and for things to become themselves. The important thing is to make friendships and value people and value the experience. I just want it to continue to open out. While I’m on earth and while I can do this stuff, it isn’t just going down the one track. I think that would be boring for everybody. I want to be surprised and I want to surprise myself.”
The impulse behind the singer’s eleventh album, Passion World, a stunning collection about how love and heartbreak is interpreted through song in different musical cultures, stems from a long-standing desire to perform with the French accordion maestro Richard Galliano. Elling vividly recalls the first time the accordionist crossed his radar.
“We were on a festival together in Brazil. The level of musical eloquence and dexterity was just thrilling. And, of course, the sound. As a Chicagoan I can go down the road of an accordion player: I can hears me some accordion, brother! Then I heard him in Paris a couple of times and started to dig into the recordings. Jazz at Lincoln Center invited me to do some nights and, as always, I’m trying to figure out where’s the road in my head leading me. And Galliano’s was the name at the top of my list. I didn’t even think it would be possible: the guy lives over in Paris, who’s going to pay for that? So Jazz at Lincoln Center, bless them, said OK let’s do that. Wow, well, I better get to work. I had heard him in enough contexts that I knew he was pretty omni-competent and ready to play in many different styles. So some of the things that we had been doing to reach a hand of friendship out to audiences came more into focus and then it became that kind of a show. It’s incredibly gratifying to have a friendly relationship with a guy that doesn’t even speak the same language.”
With new lyrics penned by Elling, including a particularly beautiful line in the Pat Metheny song ‘After The Door’ (originally titled ‘Another Life’) – ‘The songs I already know, lovely as they are, should grow into something more. There’s a world of love and music after the door’ – appears to sum up the entire ethos of the album.
“I was hoping it would,” Elling says. “I was hoping the message would get out. Life is the adventure; you want to find out what’s out there. It isn’t until you tie yourself to the bench that you discover: are you really willing to sacrifice? Are you really willing to have your heart broken? Are you really willing to risk it all? Are you dedicated enough? Can you figure out a way to be smarter than everybody else in the room at this one thing? And as you go down that road, you will have your heart broken, and you will sacrifice, and if you are dedicated enough you’ll find out. And as that happens, you’ll be out in the world and it isn’t just the music. But it’s the same road. And it also speaks a little bit to parting with Laurence. It’s like, well I know all these songs, what don’t I know? I know how to sing all these ways; can I also learn how to sing these ways? Can I work with these people?”
The album’s eclectic song list draws not only on Brazilian and Cuban music, but also on French chanson, Brahms, and traditional Scottish music, the latter remembered from time spent as a student in Scotland before his journey in jazz had begun. “I had this stupid ukulele along with me,” he recalls. “And I busked a little bit, which was just embarrassing. But it turns out you only need five or six chords to do just about any tune you want to play. And that song stuck in my head.” Kurt Elling busking traditional Scottish songs on a ukulele – no, I can’t imagine it either.
If Passion World represents a search for new sound worlds and musical relationships, with Elling’s voice now having reached its full maturity, I ask if the album also illustrates a desire to draw on new stylistic elements? “Oh yeah,” Elling says. “With Passion World I’m trying to sing believably in different languages and slightly different styles. I don’t want to just jettison my jazz identity or anything like that. I want to meet in the middle. But I’d love to learn how to sing some fado, because it’s so gorgeous and profound. Turkish music: I’d love to get over there and kick that stuff and figure it out. Because it’s beautiful. If I can investigate some other things and have some more friendships, that’s really what it’s about. I haven’t even touched on Asia or Africa on this record. I’m kind of thinking of this as volume one, although I don’t have specific plans for when a volume two would appear. But, God willing, I’ll be able to tour a little bit longer and learn some more stuff.
“That’s really the way that I like it to come. I meet somebody out there who’s another musician, like Galliano or my friend Toku over in Japan – a really great singer, flugelhorn player, a beautiful cat. ‘Well, hey man, let’s go out and hit Tokyo and show me what this is about’. In addition to having the friends in the band, there are a lot of people out there, there’s a lot of ingenuity. That’s one of the big rewards of being on the road. If you’re going to be away from your daughter, you better figure out a reason to do it beyond the soundcheck. I better, otherwise I’ll jump out the window.”
As one of the busiest jazz artists on the planet, performing 200 shows each year, Elling knows all about the road. His touring schedule, he tells me, has got a little out of control. “As a musician, it’s great to be out on the road, I’m grateful for it, I’m happy to be in London again. As a father and as a human being, it’s a little too much.” It’s one of the things he’s looking at with his new management team. And being away from the US so much necessarily means catching up on events back home via foreign media, which must give him an interesting perspective on the disturbing recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere.
“The thing about it is, that’s been happening forever in the States, it’s just that it’s coming to light now. There’s a cancer in the body politic – there’s so much fear, and there are so many moneyed interests playing off of that fear, and trying to increase the fear so that they can have more control. That’s really what it comes down to. People are trying to play it, and the Supreme Court hasn’t stopped the incredible money slush that’s just cascading in from these corporations and individuals. And they’re just trying to buy everything that they possibly can. The Senate and the House are totally corrupted. I could point you to some true idealists, people I individually believe in, but it’s quite a sick moment for politics in the US. We’re at such a dangerous moment in global history, and if you can’t have somebody who’s as sensible as Barack Obama, and dispassionate in the best possible way about logical choices, if you can’t have somebody like that truly lead the country as a unit, rather than this crazed, bombastic, downward spiral into greater and greater depreciation of the discussion, then I don’t know. All I can say is, there’s a kind of insanity.
“There will always be challenges, and there will always be pain, and there will always be disruption and destruction. Human nature and the world being what it is, we can’t escape ourselves and our fate. But if we actually wanted to, we really could make it a lot better. We really could.”
If Elling despairs about the political mess at home, he remains absolutely clear-eyed about his role as an artist. As one of the music’s preeminent practitioners, he sums up his task simply and succinctly: “To sing well and to create a beautiful experience for audiences. And that’s a big enough job.” And with Passion World Vol.2 already a twinkle in his eye, there’s clearly a lot more love, music and beauty to explore.
Since their breakthrough 2010 album, Alive, Scandi-Brit jazz trio Phronesis have been building an unrelenting momentum thanks to the special energy that sparks between bassist/band director Jasper Høiby, pianist Ivo Neame and drummer Anton Eger. Transmuting their visceral, highly kinetic live performances once again into a bristling, melodically-charged new live album, Life To Everything, Selwyn Harris spoke to all three members about the band’s success in Australia, America and Europe, their collective bond, their fight to get their music to audiences beyond the jazz world and, of course, their latest album
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is the Copenhagen-based, Swedish drummer Anton Eger’s response to my question as to why Phronesis has chosen to release another ‘live’ CD. Life to Everything follows in the footsteps of 2010’s Alive that was also recorded live onstage. That album was the one that propelled Phronesis to a whole new level. With their invigorating take on the art of the post-EST contemporary piano trio it grabbed the attention of critics and audiences alike, making most end of year jazz polls, including the top spot in both Jazzwise and MOJO. So it’s a valid point Eger makes. On the other hand it’s clear speaking to all three of them that Phronesis could never be the kind of band content just to rest on its laurels.
“I think we can just let go more ‘live’ than in the studio obviously,” says the pianist Ivo Neame, currently the trio’s only London-based member. “It just feels a bit fresher. There are more possibilities for interpretation of the music rather than it being tightly arranged. It just allows the music to breathe a bit more. It’s that thing about jazz as well; it’s best in front of an audience. It’s an interactive thing. The presence of the audience influences the course or direction of the music. It’s the oldest rule in the book in a way and doing that, improvising and playing in front of an audience, you’re going to be playing so differently to doing it in front of a studio microphone. And jazz musicians in a way need that, they need the presence of the audience to maybe give a weight to what they’re doing.”
“That’s where you get the energy from and in a way there’s a tension as well,” says the former London-based, Danish acoustic bassist/band director Jasper Høiby who’s sitting alongside Eger, speaking to me on a Skype connection from his home in Copenhagen. “We had three shows on two days and that’s it. If you really don’t get it, then you don’t even have an album. I think it brings the focus and some kind of nervous energy for everyone playing but also an extra focus I think that makes you really concentrate, bringing everything you can to it. It doesn’t need to be in the studio. The only thing is, you can’t really hear as you can in the studio of course. You can still do some edits but you can’t go and really tweak things around and chop things.”
“And that was the nice challenge I think in the whole process,” adds Eger. “Nowadays it’s so easy to edit everything into perfection and if you’re in the studio you use the studio as a tool in that sense as well. But a live recording is what it is. You can’t mess around with it. People were there to witness it and that’s what you’re documenting.”
But as well, as Neame explains, practical issues were a big factor in the decision to record the CD live at The Cockpit in Marylebone in a series of three sell-out gigs at the London Jazz Festival. “The trouble as well with the UK is there aren’t decent relatively low cost recording studios with a good piano,” he says. “The only one was Real World, Peter Gabriel’s studio. In my opinion that recording studio is the best, the conditions are optimal there in terms of making a good record in terms of sound, room, the quality of the piano and the booth for the drums. If you had the money to go to Abbey Road you could go there but no one’s got that kind of budget really so in some ways the conditions in The Cockpit are just as good if not better than a professional recording studio in the UK, I would say. That’s also the problem with the piano because a lot of these recording studios are rock and pop and they’re the ones with the budget and they don’t need a very good, well functioning piano. The thing is if there wasn’t piano in the band you’d be all right because there are lots of really good studios around.”
“The whole commercialisation of the US is a terrible thing and it affects jazz. It means the best jazz musicians are having to tour in Japan and Europe to get paid.”
Life to Everything is their third on the growing jazz indie Edition Records, and the fifth since their 2008 debut Organic Warfare, which was released on the recording offshoot of North London’s LOOP Collective, from which the band initially emerged. Taking their initial cues from Esbjörn Svensson Trio and the globally rhythmic jazz trios of Chick Corea and Avishai Cohen in particular, Phronesis has evolved into a piano trio with their own distinctive soundworld. Rather than looking outwards for inspiration and extending the sound palette with other instrumentation or electronica for example, as has happened with other piano trios, Phronesis has maintained a focus on developing a deeper, closer, more equal relationship between the members of the band. You can hear on Life to Everything how that focus has reached an entirely new level.
“I think you wouldn’t be able to change anything without actually changing one of the strongest, fundamental things about Phronesis,” says Neame. “There is the sound to the music, rhythmically the grooves and the whole approach and when you start tinkering with that too much, you lose the intrinsic qualities. In a way those are the parameters and it’s working and then that’s obvious in the way Jasper used to write all the tunes and now Anton and I are writing the tunes as well. We’re writing music for Phronesis or I’m writing for Jasper and Anton. The frenetic rhythms and polyrhythmic approaches, bass lines being very important and leaps in the register of what the bass plays. Jasper is good at orchestrating that on his instrument and obviously Anton with all the metric things that he’s good at, implying different pulses, playing one pulse over another, and exploring metric modulations, there’s a lot of that on the new album because that’s the way Anton approaches writing.”
Most of the writing was done on a whirlwind worldwide touring schedule in 2013. It included a range of international venues almost unprecedented for a young European-based jazz ensemble. The year started off in Europe, and then Australia. Both Neame and Høiby pick out Australia as a highlight. Says Høiby, “I remember playing Melbourne in a massive concert hall. It was so big and I thought no one’s going to come! It was just a great, great feeling to do that on the other side of the planet, it was just mind boggling.” In the summer the ‘tour bus’ arrived in Canada with appearances at the Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton Jazz Festivals followed by New York’s Jazz Standard and receiving a live review in The New York Times. This was followed by autumn dates on the west coast including the world-renowned Monterey Jazz Festival. Says Eger, “That’s also a box ticking adventure because it’s so hard for European bands to get a space there on the programme. Financially it doesn’t make any sense but it makes sense in the meaning of getting a new fan base and playing and reaching out to new people and spreading the music.”
Making inroads into the American jazz motherland is no small achievement for a European-based band. Traditionally a hard one to crack for any British band, let alone one playing under a ‘jazz’ banner, Get the Blessing, Empirical and the Neil Cowley Trio are among the very few to have given it their best shot when the opportunity has presented itself. Neame’s optimism is tempered by some frustration at the problems he perceives of keeping this momentum going.
“It was interesting in America because Phronesis went down really well over there,” he says. “It wasn’t like, what are these Europeans doing over here? It wasn’t like that at all. They were delighted. I think that’s because it’s a Scandinavian-British trio and there’s not many of them playing in America. My eyes were opened in that way because there’s a massive audience actually there for jazz from Europe because it’s different, of course culturally it’s always going to be different. It would be great in the future if there was some strong support structure for UK artists to be able to tour America and to play there regularly just to get round the funding issue because it’s difficult.” Høiby points to a few other obstacles. “You know what it’s like when Americans come to Europe to play, they pay like £10 and they have a sponsor who says he’s cool and that’s it you know. When European artists go to the States they have to pay like two grand in visa costs, then the travel comes on top of that, so that’s definitely a challenge. And also to travel with the double bass, airlines are really tightening up on the rules. That also makes it more challenging.”
European jazz festivals have increasingly been more open to scheduling homegrown artists in preference to those Stateside – especially with the imposition of tighter budgets of late. But Neame suggests that American musicians are still likely to be top of the menu in terms of programming.
“At the moment there’s a big imbalance I would say,” he states. “Because traditionally jazz is exported from America, and festivals book American artists because they’re thought of as the ones that are keeping jazz alive, and in a way they are, I’m not denying that. But it doesn’t really matter where you’re from, it should be valid wherever it’s from. Their music isn’t appreciated over there as well with the commercial music scene dominating radio. The whole commercialisation of the US is a terrible thing and it affects jazz. It means the best jazz musicians are passing round the hat in the 55 Bar and having to tour in Japan and Europe to get paid because it’s not appreciated and not subsidised by the state, even though it’s a very American artform.”
On connecting with new listeners outside what could be considered the core jazz audience, Neame thinks that “we’re getting there a little bit with Phronesis anyway after seven years. It’s so obvious there’s a massive potential audience but so many things stand in the way. It’s just the same old stuff, you know, trying to get rid of the prejudice that it’s an intellectual music, and performers not engaging with the audience.”
Part of the mission for Phronesis is to bring those barriers down. Their intoxicating energy and visceral onstage presence continues to draw in the kind of audiences the band speaks about reaching out to. But it’s the unswerving commitment and passion of what it means to be in this band, that has had the most positive impact on Neame’s other artistic projects.
“It would be great in the future if there was some strong support structure for UK artists to be able to tour America.”
“Some of the success can be counted in that we don’t do things by half and we don’t cut corners,” he says. “We just put a lot of effort in, Anton and Jasper both share these ideals. Taking things seriously. Not like this is an amazing thing we do but more like we’re just going to do as well as we can. It sounds very earnest but for me that’s actually important to give it as much of yourself as you can and to take it seriously in that respect but not in other respects like pretending we have huge opinions of ourselves. That’s definitely influenced what I do and it’s good in that respect if you’ve got people as well who are going to expect that kind of commitment and if you don’t give it to them they’re going to be very upset. That experience of being in a band where that shared responsibility exists, forces you to meet the requirements, to be on the same level. If you’re in something together if someone’s letting the side down or not pulling their weight or whatever it’s a natural way of everyone giving it the effort it deserves.”
In spite of having such close artistic and personal bonds to each other, Phronesis has always been split geographically. Having lived in London for years, Høiby moved back home last year, joining Eger in Copenhagen. Which leaves just Neame in London.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve had enough of London and I never thought I’d move back in some ways but all of a sudden I started feeling like it,” says Høiby. “To see and reconnect with old friends and be closer to my family, that’s been on my mind a lot. I’m not that old yet but I can really appreciate having a little bit more space too, he says. “Not having to drive around three hours of traffic from one side of London to the other to play a 50-quid gig or whatever. It can be really challenging and I’ve done that so much. I know England better than I know Denmark. So I’ve really fancied getting more time. In between playing and travelling around it’s been really hectic. At least when I’m here I have that focus where I have a little bit more time when I can write, practice and be close to my family and friends and Anton’s here so that’s not bad!”
Neame though hasn’t any intention of joining them, at least not yet: “It’s too cold and dark and everyone speaks Danish.” Joking aside the pianist tells me that now just isn’t the time. “With all the problems in the UK and the crap things about this country, I still like living here,” he says. “There are problems here especially in terms of the arts and jazz. But there’s loads of great stuff going on somehow. People are making interesting music and it’s inspiring and important to be in that environment. There was a gig at Cafe Oto recently, Fofoula, Brass Mask, Tom Skinner’s band Hello Skinny, all of that music is London-centric and if I’m really honest you don’t get that kind of variety in places like Copenhagen, it’s more homogeneous racially and I like the diversity in the UK on every level. I love Scandinavian people and their approach to life and culture and music in many ways, and in terms of politics the equality that is at the heart of a lot of Scandinavian people that we don’t have over here. Here you get millions of people voting for Boris Johnson. I don’t think he’d get in over in Copenhagen.”