Sons of Kemet – the supercharged double-drums, tuba/sax four-piece led by clarinettist and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings – arrived with a bang in 2013 with their aptly-titled, incendiary debut album, Burn. Winning a MOBO Award and a ton of critical praise the album’s dub-edged mash up of jazz, reggae, African and Caribbean sounds encapsulated a melting pot of music and cultural references in an organic sound-system assault. Selwyn Harris spoke to bandleader Hutchings about how the groups’s new album, Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do, takes these socio-cultural ideas into rawer, even more unfettered sonic realms
Shabaka Hutchings seemed to be in two places at once on the evening previous to our meeting in a café in the Dalston area of east London. On the same night as he was being presented with an award for ‘Instrumentalist of the Year’ at the Jazz FM awards, he was also leading his Spitalfields Re-Sounded project (he’s the current associate artist there) with his Afro-futurist psych jazz rock band The Comet is Coming at east London’s atmospheric alt music venue Village Underground.
“It was like mad,” he tells me, his tone of voice not rising above mellow, as we speak over a coffee on a humid summer afternoon in early June. “Do a soundcheck, across to the awards, get an award, go back to the gig. I got a cab.” While it’s hardly a typical ‘day in the life’ of the London-based saxophonist/clarinettist, it’s not an isolated example of the kind of acknowledgement recently accorded to him either. Other highlights could include his tenure as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation artist from 2010-12, working on platforms often the preserve of serious classical musicians, through to receiving a MOBO Award for his band Sons of Kemet in 2013 and most recently being named a Downbeat Rising Star on the clarinet. His searing spiritual-jazz sound on the tenor sax and clarinet has also earned him stints with the Sun Ra Arkestra, Polar Bear, Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra and Mulatu Astatké among others. As a band leader-composer his work is an organic synthesis of written and improvised music that draws from a very broad range of reference. He’s equally at home with various kinds of classical music, electronica and rock as he is with the cultural melting pot of music from the black diaspora that’s connected to his Caribbean upbringing.
“I treat music like an individualist thing,” he says. “Me as an individualist developing. Then I put myself in situations to allow that development to manifest in certain ways. I like the idea of getting influences but not having them be a pastiche. So you can tell the influences if you really go into it but on the surface the music I make is always evolving because it’s got different bits of everything I’ve been involved with.”
Formed in 2011, Sons of Kemet’s intensely sensual music hits you straight in the gut, though it’s balanced by an incantatory post-Coltrane intensity and nuanced rhythmic detail drawn from urban contemporary as well as traditional sources. The line up boasts a double drums Brit A-team of Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner and the tuba player Theon Cross, who replaced his mentor Oren Marshall at the start of 2014 and has previously impressed in his linchpin role for Tom Challenger’s Brass Mask. In Sons of Kemet Hutchings seeks to reinvent his Caribbean roots from the perspective of a London-based contemporary musician as well as by connecting to its African heartbeat. Drawing from among others New Orleans street grooves, Afrobeat, Nubian music as well as Caribbean dub and calypso, Hutchings has, with the assistance of ethnomusicologist friends, collected field recordings from Tanzania and other African nations as source material for Sons of Kemet, though he says, “it’s not about trying to mimic indigenous cultures or what other people do, but it’s kind of taking the ideas that I like from what they’re doing and trying to see what I make of it”.
“You’re not just here to be here. You’re here to further the thinking about what your meaning is”
Rare for a debut, Burn in 2013 had an immediate impact on a wide range of critics and audiences, appearing in many end-of-year jazz charts. The follow up, also on NAIM Jazz Records, is Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do, a title that puts a refreshingly positive and intelligent spin on aspects of the diaspora relating specifically to cultural immigration and assimilation.
“When I was thinking about the album and the very first tunes I wrote for it, I was thinking about the legacy of black people in England from the point of seeing my grandmother coming over two generations from here to my generation and how the priorities are different,” says Hutchings, who was born in London in 1984 but raised in Barbados from the age of six. “So I had lots of talks with her around the time I was recording the album about what it was to move to England from the Caribbean, what she was here to do. And it was like she was here to work. The conditions in Barbados at that time weren’t really conducive to making a living or furthering yourself. It was quite a non-enhancing environment. So she and her generation of immigrants came here to actually better their lives and also to make the lives of the people back home better.
“Then you find the next generation, which is my mum’s generation, they had the teachings of their parents in terms of you’re here to make yourself better. But then two generations down the line looking at unemployment figures, looking at lots of images, the media portrayals of black children of a certain socio-economic background it seems that those lessons haven’t been emphasised enough. Because we have been incorporated into someone else’s cultural situation, we’ve lost that sense of that we’re actually here to do our thing. Now it feels to me like we’re just here because we’re all British and we’re all in here together. But I think it’s important to remember that we’re not here just because we’re here. We’re here to actually, 1/ better ourselves and 2/ expand what culture means considering the fact that we are integrated into a multicultural climate. And that stems into Kemet. It’s not a matter of saying: I’m holding on to this culture. It’s a matter of saying I want to expand on the cultural aspects of where I come from and also incorporate it into the situation I’m in at the moment. I think it’s just important to remember the ambitions and the facts that you’re not just here to be here. You’re here to further the thinking about what your meaning is.”
In another way, Hutchings applies ‘meaning’ to a few of his new compositions on the album: ‘In Memory of Samir Awad’ and ‘The Long Night of Octavia Butler’, refer to an innocent young victim of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an African-centric science fiction writer respectively. But he emphasises that, “it’s not necessarily important to have a meaning but I find there just are meanings behind the songs. So if there is one then I let them have it. But there is meaning behind everything. It’s whether you want to address it and the expression of that based on an implication of that does serve the music. The guys in the band, we all are on the same page in terms of thinking about politics and life and stuff. Music is a kind of expression of what is happening, like the kind of zeitgeist, because we operate in the times we operate in unless we’re actively trying not to, as happens a lot in jazz. If we’re trying to be open and give a reflection of what we go through, then we give a reflection of our times. I think even that has value in that it allows people to get a mirror of what they’re seeing and going through. It’s possible to walk through today without actually seeing what’s happening.”
Hutchings is affable company but behind the boyish, diastematic smile is someone who takes very seriously indeed his responsibility as a creative contemporary musician to his forebears and to hopefully contributing towards a more enlightened ‘Kemetic’ consciousness in the present. Growing up in Barbados, from the age of nine Hutchings learned classical music to a high level on the clarinet, at the same time listening to reggae and calypso. Connecting the two came a lot later with the great opportunities offered to him as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation artist, studying orchestration in preparation for his composition titled ‘Babylon’ written for the BBC Concert Orchestra and Sons of Kemet, that was performed at the London Jazz Festival in 2012, and being commissioned to write a piece performed with the Ligeti Quintet in Cape Town in 2013.
“I didn’t really like jazz at first,” he confesses. “I think like lots of people of my age group at that time, I thought jazz was just old, rich people’s music. My mum was trying to make me listen to a Courtney Pine album and I was like ‘I don’t like it’. But when I came to England and heard Courtney Pine live then it blew me away. In terms of intensity, I like the feeling of the 1960s onwards. But I like the rhythmic conciseness of 1930s jazz. When I finally grasped what Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins were about it was a massive breakthrough. It’s only maybe in the last three years that I’ve really understood their music. I saw what these guys were about in terms of really digging into the rhythm and making the harmony functional to the rhythmic connection between the soloist and the rhythm section. The same with Sidney Bechet. It’s only been a year since I’ve got him but I think it was a mask. I’ve listened to Sidney Bechet and heard what I’ve seen written about him or hear what I thought he was about. When I really heard him I realised this was a guy blowing the crap out of the soprano saxophone pushing the rhythm section and creating an unbelievable amount of excitement and the tone and the choices of notes he plays. For me Lester Young on the Jazz at the Philharmonic sessions with Charlie Parker is the man of the match in that. He drives the audience so hard. People are screaming, it’s all playing on harmonic information but he does things to connect the audience to what he’s doing with the other members of the band. Earl Bostic had that perfect match of being someone who’s perfectly in tune to the audience, but technically and artistically he was completely demolishing the sax. Within that continuum there were still all the levels of artistry pushing the harmonic boundaries, creating ‘meaningful’ art that can stand up outside the context of people dancing. Audience response is a big thing.”
Sons of Kemet’s new album drives this point home with a rawer, more pared down ‘live’ sound than previous album Burn. “One of the things Seb [Rochford] who produced it, wanted to do was to make an album with quite a bit of production but in really subtle ways. In some ways in terms of the development from the last album to this one, the last album was quite cavernous; it sounds mysterious and murky. This album was trying to get some of the feeling back that we get ‘live’ just by recording techniques. The drums are mixed so you can hear everything that’s happening, but still has the conciseness of a studio album.”
For all of the welcoming warmth of her instantly recognisable voice, Cassandra Wilson has never taken the safe option in a career that now spans almost three decades. From her key phase with New York’s M-Base collective in the 1980s, she’s journeyed far and wide through jazz, popular song, country and soul. Yet, as she tells Stuart Nicholson, taking on the musical and personal legacy of Billie Holiday on Coming Forth By Day, required an aptly fearless approach to capture the true spirit of this most iconic of jazz singers
When Ed Gerrard,Cassandra Wilson’s manager, started talking to music business insiders about her upcoming record project he immediately sensed a buzz of anticipation, “When you say to people, ‘We’re going to do a Billie Holiday record – and by the way we’re going to use the producer for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and a couple of Bad Seeds are on the record,’ they go ‘What?!’” he recalled. And while Holiday tributes have been done before, and will certainly be done again, it’s hard to imagine a better realised hommage than Coming Forth By Day, Miss Wilson’s debut on the Columbia Legacy label.
Released in 2015 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s birth, the album has been a long time coming from the one contemporary singer who has consistently prompted expectation – perhaps unrealistically – of raising the sunken treasures of Holiday’s memory. “I think the most important thing about Billie Holiday is that she lived her life on her own terms, and her music and her style, her approach to her music is very singular, very unique,” Wilson reflects. “She had a voice she believed in, and she never swayed from that, she was able to interpret songs and place them inside her voice, her life, her story, and there was no compromise, it was always about being true to her voice and her genius, because she was an incredible musician, not just a singer, but a great musician.”
“The most important thing about Billie Holiday is that she lived her life on her own terms” – Cassandra Wilson
Following in Billie Holiday’s footsteps is not to be taken lightly – first there’s the burden of expectation such endeavours inevitably prompt (the majority of which ultimately disappoint), then there’s the way Holiday’s songs tend to swallow the identity of those who attempt to interpret them, and thirdly is the challenge of making songs that come date-stamped in a bygone era sound relevant today. Wilson effortlessly transcends these problems, imposing her own imprimatur on each song while simultaneously reinventing them for the 21st century. “That’s part of the gig, to have a fresh voice,” she says. “When you’re paying homage to a mentor, or someone who has influenced you, it’s very important you maintain and follow your individual voice because that’s always very important in this music. We knew we had to do something different, we couldn’t just revisit Billie Holiday and regurgitate the usual things that jazz musicians do. If you want to pay tribute to someone as radical as Billie Holiday was in her day, you have to be radical in your day. You can’t be safe, you have to take chances, and you have to reach for those elements in the music that are going to really help to create an environment that would represent her spirit.”
Just like her move to Blue Note records in 1993, when producer Craig Street helped redefine her artistic vision with the seminal Blue Light Till Dawn, Wilson’s move to Columbia Legacy sees Nick Launay’s production of Coming Forth By Day revealing fresh facets of her musical personality. However, despite his initial enthusiasm for the project, Launay hesitated before taking on the challenge, “Cassandra’s manager Ed Gerrard said Cassandra wants to make a really adventurous record and I thought, ‘I’m definitely interested but I don’t know if I can do that kind of record’ – I’d never done a jazz record,” he recalled. “I just didn’t want this to be an experiment for me, and totally mess the whole thing up. But then I thought to make this work in an unusual way it would be great to bring in musicians who are not of that scene cos’ we’re not going to prearrange, it’s going to be all about getting great people in the room and jamming.”
The musicians Launay lined-up included T Bone Burnett, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; two thirds of the Bad Seeds rhythm section with Thomas Wydler on drums and Martyn P. Casey on bass; and long-term Wilson collaborators Jon Cowherd on piano and Kevin Breit on guitar. Together they interpret 11 songs that span Holiday’s career, plus one original. They are a strong and powerful representation of Holiday’s oeuvre, ranging from ‘All of Me’, a favourite of homesick G.I.’s in World War II, to Holiday classics such as ‘Don’t Explain’ penned by the singer herself, and ‘Good Morning Heartache’ that was specially written for her by pianist Teddy Wilson’s wife Irene Higginbotham. Nick Launay then played a wild card, “I asked myself who is the craziest arranger I know, and it has to be Van Dyke Parks,” he said. Pop aficionados rightly hold Parks in awe for his work with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, The Byrds and Little Feat among others and Wilson readily praises Parks’ string arrangement of ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ as among the album highlights, “It’s mind blowing,” she says while also citing ‘Good Morning Heartache’ and the final track on the album, ‘Last Song’ as among her favourites: “‘Last Song’ is for Lester [Young] – that’s one we all wrote in the studio together,” she adds.
Significantly, Wilson also does her version of perhaps the most famous of all Billie Holiday songs, ‘Strange Fruit’. She had previously recorded this on 1995’s New Moon Daughter (Blue Note), but here she sounds less in Holiday’s shadow, reflecting more of her own emotional response to the lyrics that comes bound up in what she calls “ancestral imagery”: “Jazz grows out of a certain language developed in the Americas as a result of the slave trade, so there are pieces and snippets of information that arrive on these shores, although all names are taken, spirituality is taken away, history is taken but there are some things that remain inside – deep inside – and this is the part of the arcane information that we retain.”
It is perhaps here that Cassandra Wilson finally becomes the singer she has always wanted to be, a singer of the past, the present and the future. “It was a great honour for me to do this for Billie Holiday,” she says. “I want people to remember her as a great artist and I want them to enjoy the music and hopefully have as much fun listening to it as we had making it.”
Branford Marsalis has always tackled every musical challenge head on – be it playing arenas with Sting, freewheeling improvised rock with the Grateful Dead, primetime US television shows or leading one of the hottest quartets in contemporary jazz. Yet, as he tells Stuart Nicholson, the idea of playing a solo saxophone concert in San Francisco’s hallowed Grace Cathedral, was one that left even a saxophonist as gifted as him doubting his abilities
Given the astonishing breadth of Branford Marsalis’ career, not just in jazz but as a soloist with both symphony orchestras and chamber groups in the classical world and a session-enhancing guest on an array of pop and rock sessions, there has been one box in the 54-year old saxophonist’s curriculum vitae that has steadfastly remained unticked – the solo concert and recording. It’s an undertaking not to be taken lightly, since by Marsalis’ own admission, just 10 years ago he felt unready for the challenge. But then destiny intervened. “Like much of the things in my career that solo concert has that random feel to it,” says Marsalis, adding, “I do, however, believe in some sort of cosmic thing, force, that provides you with opportunities, not with success.” Thus when SFJAZZ contacted him in 2012 about a solo concert, he felt that maybe the time was right. A date and venue were set, 5 October 2012, at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, famously the site of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts in the 1960s.
Having agreed to the concert, Marsalis was characteristically philosophical: “When I knew I was going to do the concert, my manager let my engineer Rob record it – if it’s good we release it, if it’s shite, well, I have this big pile of shite that I can listen to – to remind myself how much better I need to be.” During his preparation Marsalis was well aware that the solo concert presents as much a challenge for the musician as it does for the audience, something he confronted head-on. “I started re-listening to solo saxophone records, and what is the thing I don’t like about them? The thing I didn’t like about them was the monotony. I have a good friend who is an actor, Roger Smith, and he basically does movies and all the other lines so he can subsidise his one-man plays, and they are incredibly difficult because you can’t simply walk into an environment with only your point of view because people will be completely bored listening to you for an hour and a half – it’s perfectly fine for 10 minutes but you have to find a way to be other people and different styles of music constitute greatly to that – that ability to become a different person or a different character within the sphere of instrumental music. So then I started putting together a list of things, like classical things that are well written in a solo context, and songs that have great melodies, because if you’re playing great melodies people don’t mind the rest of it. If an audience has to have a music degree to understand what your purpose is then it is not going to be a success. It is our job to learn all this music and distill this information down to a pithy narrative that audiences can understand.” In the event, the concert and the album of the event, In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral, his latest release and debut on the OKeh label, was both an artistic and aesthetic success, providing further evidence, if evidence is needed, of Marsalis’ continuing artistic growth and evolution as an artist.
Selecting a wide range of material and interpolating it with his own spontaneously conceived melodic extemporisations he forms a creative continuum within the overall arc of the performance – for example, Steve Lacy’s ‘Who Needs It’, gives way to Hoagy Carmichael’s classic ‘Stardust’ which gives way to the first spontaneously conceived interlude, which then leads into ‘Sonata in A minor for Oboe Wq. 132’ by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, performed on tenor saxophone, and so on. This creates a tension between melody (resolution) and improvisation (postponed resolution) and heightens audience anticipation as one section leads into the next creating a certain creative frisson whether audience expectation will be postponed or resolved. What emerges is a pretty complete performance as the narrative is driven forward by tension and release, with the improvised sections key to the album’s success. “I didn’t walk in there with the expectation we might have anything, I thought we might get half a record, and we could use it later, I didn’t think it would be one of those situations that when I would listen to it I’d say, ‘Wow, this whole thing is pretty good!’ So, I was pleasantly surprised.”
Coincidental to the release of In My Solitude is a three-album package Wake Up to Find Out by the Grateful Dead, a live concert recorded on 29 March 1990 with none other than Branford Marsalis as a guest. On it Marsalis frequently builds up a head of steam in context with the Dead’s unique brand of rock, so what does the saxophonist remember of that occasion?
“I remember a lot about it because the Grateful Dead, I mean they were really ahead of the curve with a certain understanding, a business model that was essentially theirs for a long time, they basically developed their own clientele, and this is pre-internet, so they had all these people who would sell-out stadiums, sell-out arenas and it was completely under the radar! Completely under the radar. I said, ‘Oh, the Grateful Dead, I’m going to play with them and have some fun.’ I didn’t expect it to be sold-out, 18,000 people, because you didn’t hear about it, it wasn’t in the media, it wasn’t on television, it wasn’t on the radio, and the place is fucking packed! Holy shit! So that part of it was super cool to watch, it really brought home to me the importance of trying to develop your own clientele. And the other side of it was you could just hear the musical influences of each person while you were doing it, like Bob Weir was a rocker, [Jerry] Garcia was like the blues and folk guy, Phil Lesh was the jazz guy, [Bill] Kreutzmann was the jazz guy, Mickey Hart was the world music guy, and at that time the piano player was Brent Mydland – I didn’t really get a feel for him, he died not long after the concert. But the thing that was really amazing to me was at that time they were on stage calling tunes, which I think is so beautiful and wonderful, like in the era of set-lists, they were basically calling tunes and it was impressive how wide their range was, because they played other people’s tunes without hesitation. A lot of bands today they just know their music and nothing else, and that regrettably includes jazzers as well, it was just a great experience, and contrary to popular myth, it’s easy for me to play that style of music with conviction, I was right on the heels of the Sting tour and I was good at it, it was a great night, it was fun!”
Mention of Marsalis’ association with Sting dates back to 1985, when the singer formed a ‘super group’ along with Kenny Kirkland on piano, Daryl Jones on bass and Omar Hakim on drums, Downbeat noting that “though 1985 was a surprising, and in may ways exciting, year for music, possibly the most exciting – and certainly the most surprising – development took place with the collaboration of a British pop star with four young, conscientious, open-minded American jazz musicians”. And it was an exciting band, so what were Marsalis’ recollections of this collaboration? “Those are more intimate memories because I was actually in the band, and I didn’t want to be one of those R&B sax players that constantly play and they just turn him off and turn him back on when necessary, so I needed to watch his mouth, study what he did, know when I could play and I couldn’t play.”
Perhaps the best representation of the band is on the two LP set Bring on the Night, with an extended title track notable for Kenny Kirkland’s piano solo and a rap interlude by none other than Branford Marsalis. “It started out – this was back in the era of The Sugarhill Gang, it was just a novelty. I kind of blithely said on the tour bus, ‘Shit, anybody can do that, man!’ And Sting says, ‘Really?!’ So, on the stage in Dallas, unannounced, Sting says, ‘I was talking to Branford today and he said anybody can do rap, so Branford’s going to rap for you right now!’ The audience applauded and I said, ‘I’m not doing that shit!’ And he says, ‘Oh yes you are, we have all night!’ And he folds his arms, and stares at me for over a minute and I can’t believe this shit is happening! [laughs] So I basically had to like – I used that minute to compose some corny words, I just did it and unfortunately for me it became part of the schtick for that song for the rest of the tour. How humiliating! [laughs] I learned a lot on that tour and Sting’s a wonderful person and a really incredibly smart guy and helluva song writer, it was a great experience and I learned a lot – like the songs I wrote for Buckshot Lefonque were definitely influenced by Sting’s music.”
Buckshot LeFonque, Branford Marsalis’ alter ego that combined jazz with rock, pop, R&B and hip hop, recorded two albums between 1994-97. And while it caused quite a stir in jazz at the time it was just one more facet of Marsalis’ range that extends from a three year stint as Jay Leno’s bandleader on the famous Tonight Show on American television, as a composer for film on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s film Mo’ Better Blues and as a composer for theatre with August Wilson’s Broadway production Fences that earned a Tony Award nomination. His last quartet album Four MFs Playin’ Tunes, was named Best Instrumental Jazz Album in 2012 by iTunes while this interview was conducted midway through a tour as guest soloist with leading American symphony orchestras. If there is one guiding light to this remarkable career it must surely be in the famous quote by Duke Ellington that there are only two kinds of music – “good music and the other kind,” the former celebrated throughout the 11 numbers that comprise In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral.
Right from her student days at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, when she also recorded her debut album Brain, Hiromi Uehara always stood out from the crowd with her molten mix of classical technique, compositional daring and rock-edged-fusion, all delivered with sky-high energy levels. The irrepressible pianist appears at the EFG London Jazz Festval on 18 November and talks to Andy Robson about how her latest album, Alive, features music that reflects a turbulent time for both her and her homeland of Japan
She strolls careless through the hotel bar bedecked in a Zappa t-shirt. Yet weighty affairs beset Hiromi’s gamine frame. Although she claims sexism isn’t one of them. “I never found any inequalities around being a woman concert artist. Well, not true. Festival artists t-shirts are always in men’s sizes. They look like pyjamas on me. Which proves all the musicians must be men! But being a woman, like being Japanese, is natural me. I don’t try to deny it, but I don’t feature it either.”
But what does concern her, a pro down to her sneaker tips, is the sound for tonight’s show. “We’ve not played the Cadogan before and I’m told it’s a classical hall. And we are definitely not an acoustic piano trio! I love extreme dynamics: that ride from fortissimo to pianissimo is very important to me. We play from loud to quiet and I hope the hall allows us to do that.”
That ride across extremities is one she enjoys in conversation. She’ll talk of wishing she’d been in Zappa’s band as readily as she’ll contemplate the pain of personal loss; she’ll enthuse about Brahms’ love for Clara Schumann, as she will be serious around the disasters that have befallen her homeland. But one thing she begs: “Oh, no, please don’t write ‘Hiromi thinks about death every day’, that all the time it is tragedies!”
There’s little chance of that: it’s hard to think of someone less possessed by death than the international pianist whose every recording, every performance brims with an energy, passion and commitment that is the essence of life. Indeed, her latest album’s title, Alive, asserts her thankfulness for every moment available to her. Yet, now 34, 12 years on the road, seven years married and a string of nine albums as leader behind her, there is inevitably a richer, more complex feel to her music. Life, as revealed by this album’s story, has many rooms, and being alive must, by its very nature, include a sense of loss, of leaving, of darker corners to be explored.
Alive is Hiromi’s third release with what is now her settled trio, Simon Phillips on drums and Anthony Jackson on contra-bass. They’ve played together for four years, yet, in one of life’s little surprises, that was never the plan. “No, I had no idea. It just naturally happened. For the first album (Voice) I had Anthony and Simon in mind, but the music was largely there. The songs brought the band together. But now the band brings the songs together.”
So although Hiromi is very much the writer and leader (or ‘captain’ as she likes to call her role), there is a greater confidence between this very experienced trio. Each voice is allowed to express itself with greater freedom amid Hiromi’s complex music. And the more they are able to express themselves, the deeper, more satisfying their musical conversations become. This is evident not only in the controlled context of a studio recording, but also in the unforgiving space of a concert hall. Live, this is a trio that truly larges it. Even in the open spaces of the Cadogan Hall, London, where the band played three successive nights, they threatened to raise the roof, such was their volume. And no, there was no problem with the sound.
On other releases Hiromi’s almost manic energy, her facility to write in multiple styles from Brahms to Erroll Garner to Gilbert O’Sullivan has led critics to share the opinion of Joseph II about Mozart that there are simply too many notes. But with Phillips and Jackson, in between the clatter and rush, there’s increasingly a sense of space. Hiromi admits, “there’s a risk in silence: in the musical ride there’s a place you want to breathe sometimes. You make silence and that lets the next note shine more.”
Those shining notes can be heard in ‘Firefly’, a solo song on Alive with a folkish feel. Its simplicity contrasts to the album’s dramatic opener, the title track that kicks in like Coltrane and Tyner on steroids. But where ‘Alive’ acknowledges the big bang of new life beginning, ‘Firefly’ witnesses the brief spark that is life too quickly extinguished. ‘Firefly’ is one of the songs with a sense of personal loss for Hiromi. But understandably, she’s in no rush to share that story.
“There’s darkness in ‘Firefly’, and ‘Spirit’ (a gospel driven blues): there are certain moments when you have to say bye to people. Life ends. There are many things that I personally went through. For each song there’s a hook, a personal event that relates to me. For ‘Spirit’ I shared my story with the band. But other stories I keep to myself. But people will have their experiences of life, and find their own meaning in these songs.”
“All these tragedies that have happened in Japan should be in my music”
Of course it’s not just Hiromi who has experienced life’s ups and downs. Her homeland is still re-building after the horrors of the Tsunami and Fukushima, while growing geo-political tensions with China and North Korea bring uncertainty into the lives of many in the region. “Everything you’ve been through in life will have an impact on you. So even without thinking about Japan, it will be part of my music. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but it should be in your music. I get asked ‘Is there a Japanese essence in your music?’ and I always answer, ‘It’s difficult to identify it’. But when I meet people, I always bow. Not because I’m interested in showing off that I’m Japanese but because it’s such a natural thing to me. In Japanese culture there can be a great sense of detail – mistakes aren’t to be made – and it can be hard to loosen up. All of that can go into how I express myself. So all these tragedies that have happened in Japan should be in my music.”
Hiromi was playing Louisiana the night of the Tsunami, in Lake Charles, an area, like New Orleans, that was struck by Hurricane Katrina. “The support from the people there for what happened in Japan was so encouraging. The first thing I thought was ‘What can I do?’ But there’s so little that you can do! All musicians thought ‘Can music help?’ I thought, ‘I don’t know, but that’s all I know what to do’. I found out that The Blue Note and a couple of Tokyo clubs were having a hard time because so many shows were cancelled. So I went back and did 18 shows and donated all the money to the earthquake benefit.”
“I don’t know how that helped financially but if I could make the audience happy, make the club happy, make the chefs happy then there was nothing negative about it. I still think about what happened. Before, the connection with the clubs was about work. I come, I play. But since the tragedies we became like family and whenever I’m in Tokyo I go and say ‘Hello’. It brought us together. There are so many parts in Japan that are still in the process of recovering: so I’m going back to play more shows in that part of Japan.”
But a return to Japan means confronting one of her biggest fears: flying. “I hate planes! Every plane ride I think about dying. Whenever there’s turbulence, ooohhh!” Yet with that fear comes opportunity. It provides the motivation for Hiromi to deliver the best show she can. “If I do have an unfortunate death, I want to die knowing my last show was the best I could do!” So Hiromi works hard at looking after herself: yoga and stretches are in the daily routine as are getting plenty of sleep and eating well.
“I have to be in the best condition for my audiences. I have to thank them that they have chosen to give two hours of their life to me. I feel like the captain of the boat and I invited them along for a ride on the boat so I have a great responsibility to provide the best possible ride on the boat!” And as musical rides go few are more exhilarating than those provided by Captain Hiromi. Alive? There was never a moment’s doubt.
Blue Note – the story of the best-loved record label in jazz
Beginning in an unlikely way in New York in the year World War II broke out with a boogie-woogie record, by the 1960s Blue Note had created an identifiable sound which has to this day continuing relevance in a world where most music is forgotten about just weeks after release. Brian Priestley traces the history of the best-loved record label in jazz
It seems almost bland to say that the Blue Note story is unique. But, in the history of recorded jazz, it certainly is and indeed, in the history of any kind of recording, it’s only challenged by a few of the early giants such as Victor and Columbia or Decca, an imprint recently revived by its inheritors at Universal.
Like most specialist jazz labels, Blue Note was originally a one-man venture and, in the person of co-founder Alfred Lion, it had both its impetus and its sustaining energy. Though the successful company was sold in the mid-1960s, the name has been kept in the public eye almost continuously till the present day. By contrast, a company set up around the same time, Commodore Records, ceased new recording in the mid-1950s, and its classic material has been leased to several reissuers in turn. Similarly, a slightly later contemporary, the enterprising jazz-blues-gospel label Savoy has seen a series of reissue programmes and even sporadic bouts of new recordings under successive owners, yet it’s basically dormant now.
Blue Note, on the other hand, not only has a seven-decade back catalogue that continues to sell. It also puts out a number of new albums every year, and among each batch there is usually something that helps to crystallise what’s happening at the time. Undoubtedly a unique brand, then, but whether the legendary “Blue Note style” is also unique is a matter for discussion. For a start, there are different Blue Note “styles”, each with their own fans and, though these help us in retrospect to define how the jazz scene was at various times, they also reflected the company’s awareness of and sensitivity to what was at the cutting edge of live music.
This is brought home in no uncertain terms, if we take a quick cross-section of the last year of each of the decades. When the label held its first session in 1939, the only artists involved were pianists Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, specialists who focused the growing interest in boogie-woogie. But, because of the simultaneously growing interest in small-group swing with horns, the two follow-up sessions later that year were by groups built around Ammons and Lewis respectively. When Lion’s fellow émigré Francis Wolff came on board, they knew the big white bands of the day were approaching a tipping point that favoured clichés and corny vocals whereas, for the handful of dedicated jazz fans then, boogie and small groups were where it was at.
By 1949, while continuing the previous policy and adding more trad-jazz, a reappraisal had brought some of the beboppers to Blue Note. A more sparse schedule than some previous years saw a total of two sessions fronted by Sidney Bechet, plus one R&B-leaning date and one classic bebop quintet marking the Blue Note debut of Bud Powell. A decade further on, thanks to the industry-wide LP boom, the company was doing over 30 sessions a year, resulting in two dozen albums and, not insignificantly, an equivalent number of jukebox singles. These included the Blue Note debuts (under their own name, anyway) of Jackie McLean and Duke Pearson, and strong entries by such stalwarts as Art Blakey (Jazz Corner Of The World) and Horace Silver (Blowin’ The Blues Away).
The hard bop feel of the latter virtually defines what some people call “the Blue Note sound”, but 10 years later its popularity had waned. On the back of a couple of huge “soul-jazz” hits by Silver and Lee Morgan, the label was bought out by Liberty whereupon Lion and Wolff, their services initially retained, cannily used their new finance to record figures such as Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Cecil Taylor, until economics pointed more in the crossover direction. Recording activity continued at a considerable pace, but 1969’s output is characterised by the last Blue Note releases by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and various attempts by such as Andrew Hill and Bobby Hutcherson to create music relevant to the anti-Vietnam war, pro-civil rights era.
Retirement for Lion, and death in the case of Wolff, virtually ended this gradual evolution of the original Blue Note approach, and eventually George Butler (later of Marsalis fame) became executive producer. Despite the sales success of some pre-disco efforts during the 1970s, the then owners wound down the operation so that 1979 saw the completion of a single album, Horace Silver’s last for the label. This was the year that Liberty fell into the hands of EMI but, while reissues in both the US and Japan kept the name alive, Blue Note only resumed new recording in 1984 after the recruitment of Bruce Lundvall. As well as the return of a few old faces, 1989 found people such as Stanley Jordan and Dianne Reeves on the roster, plus the first Blue Note work of John Scofield and, initially as his sideman, Joe Lovano.
When it comes to 1999, new projects were much more decentralised, with such as Erik Truffaz (contracted via EMI France), Caecilie Norby (EMI Denmark) and Chucho Valdés (EMI Canada), as well as American-based players such as Don Byron and Medeski, Martin and Wood. But also, in the previous 10 years, it became accepted that Blue Note’s depth of catalogue was in many ways the backbone of the business. Not only classic albums were reissued as such but also themed compilations of both classic and “rare-groove” material, much of the latter drawn from the initially frowned-upon soul-jazz repertoire and commissioned at EMI UK, as was the US3 remix hit ‘Cantaloop’. But, if there was any suggestion that the label was becoming fixated on the past, the 2000s entered yet another phase where the phenomenal sales of Norah Jones helped to finance the dreams of both freelance and staff producers.
Given the commercial success and the iconic status, it’s hard to appreciate just what a shoestring enterprise Blue Note was in the beginning. Lion and Wolff – both of them exiles from Nazi Germany – held down day jobs in the early days, and some of the initial money for the venture was provided by left wing activist-journalist Max Margulis. Along with everyone else interested in the music then, jazz was their hobby. The urge to document the boogie pianists arose from personal enthusiasm for the music, recently exposed to a wider public at John Hammond’s first Spirituals To Swing concert just a couple of weeks earlier, and was probably uninformed by any awareness that Hammond had also conducted his own studio session for Columbia. But there was also an urge to gain respect for this underdog art-form, which led to issuing the first few tracks on the 12-inch 78s associated with “classical music” rather than the “pop” 10-inch format.
Sound quality was a priority from the start – so that, for instance, duet tracks of Ammons and Lewis at two pianos make their roles more audible than when Ammons and Pete Johnson were later recorded together for Victor. In a sign of things to come, Lion and Margulis created descriptive notes, full of serious discussion of the music. To get the word around, they also printed what would now be called a mission statement, claiming their intention was “simply to serve the uncompromising expression of hot jazz and swing, in general… Blue Note Records are concerned with identifying its impulse, not its sensational and commercial adornments.”
When the label’s third session gained some airplay for the Sidney Bechet feature on ‘Summertime’, proper distribution became necessary and was arranged via the famous Commodore Music Shop, where Frank Wolff actually worked behind the counter when Lion was called up after the USA’s entry into World War II in 1941. The next small step forward came when, despite the opposition of the major labels Victor and Columbia to the musicians’ union strike of 1942-43, smaller companies such as Decca and Capitol agreed terms with the union after a year and recorded new material again. This opened the way for tiny operations such as Blue Note and Savoy to restart recording too, tapping into the fairly brief wartime popularity of small-group swing, trad jazz and proto-R&B. Blue Note even scored another jukebox hit in tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec’s classic after-hours anthem ‘Blue Harlem’.
A key factor in the whole of the next 20 years was Lion and Wolff’s ability to keep up with subtle shifts in musical trends, while always gravitating towards their key representatives. Not exactly rushing into bebop, they waited to be convinced of its validity and then, two years after Gillespie’s and Parker’s first sessions as leaders, they consulted with insiders such as Quebec on who to record. By the end of 1947, they had cut sessions by vocalist Babs Gonzales, Art Blakey and, best of all, Thelonious Monk, who recorded 16 tracks in five weeks, some of them not issued for years, due to lack of interest. But the major factor was Lion’s attraction to the music, while his then wife Lorraine – later to become Lorraine Gordon of Village Vanguard fame – showed her enthusiasm for trying to publicise Monk.
Even though the renewed popularity of jazz in the 1950s tended to favour West Coast-based musicians at first, Blue Note paid almost no attention to them. There was, however, competition from West Coast labels such as Pacific Jazz and Fantasy, while in the mid-50s the new Riverside company and a resurgent Savoy started to surf the boom in sales caused by the introduction of LPs. Again, Lion and Wolff didn’t exactly rush in but, when they moved to the 12-inch format, they not only hit their stride with new recordings but began their first reissue series – just in time for the belated interest in people such as Miles and Monk, whom they had continued to record in the early-50s.
The earliest and strongest competition in this period, though, was from Prestige and its founder, former record shop owner Bob Weinstock, who began recording the new jazz in 1949. He became adept at signing musicians who had their first break on Blue Note, such as Monk or Sonny Rollins (a sideman on Bud Powell’s quintet date), and both labels recorded Miles until Weinstock put him under exclusive contract from 1954-56. Giving an added edge to the rivalry was the fact that, from 1953 (in Blue Note’s case) and 1954 (Prestige), both companies used the facilities of part-time engineer Rudy Van Gelder – who only gave up his own day job as an optician in 1959. His detailed and uncluttered sound registration was what drew these labels and eventually others to Van Gelder, but he himself was quite clear that, thanks to Lion’s demands and encouragement “the Rudy Van Gelder sound is really the Alfred Lion sound.”
In retrospect, there are clear stylistic differences between Prestige and Blue Note, but the difference most often cited is that the performances are invariably tighter on Blue Note. The comparison between Miles’ sessions for Weinstock and Lion makes the point quite convincingly, and the reason usually given is that Lion insisted on paid rehearsals. Producer Michael Cuscuna, who interviewed Lion extensively shortly before his death in 1987, believes the policy was certainly in place by 1953 but may have been instituted in 1947 with the move to bebop. This not only required more precision in ensembles than the kind of jazz Blue Note had previously recorded, but it was a style Lion was at first less familiar with. He also saw that it relied heavily for its effect on original material, rather than spontaneous versions of standards, and wanted the material presented to best effect.
‘In establishing and maintaining the standards of Blue Note for so long, the Lion and the Wolff set an example for all subsequent specialist labels’
Another result of this quality control was the existence, from the late-1950s until the end of the 60s, of numerous unreleased sessions. We’ve heard the same thing over the years about ECM Records, which of course is the nearest thing to a Blue Note successor in terms of having an immediately identifiable house style. The difference with Blue Note is that many of these sessions did surface later, often initially in Japan, on various reissue series that started in the mid-70s. Examples are Hank Mobley’s Curtain Call, the Jimmy Smith Trio + Lou Donaldson, and a raft of things from around the time of the Liberty buyout. Some unissued sessions were rapidly redone on another day, some were slated for release but somehow fell off the schedule (the legendary Tina Brooks’ Back To The Tracks, for instance) but there are a few sessions that still remain unheard today, even by such big names as Smith and Blakey.
Very likely the reason that those remained in the vaults was the discrepancy between what Lion was expecting and what happened on the day. As Van Gelder said, “Alfred Lion did his homework better than anyone. He’d come to a date with the musicians rehearsed and he’d know the precise routine for everything. Bob [Weinstock] was a lot looser.” Even Blue Note dates that sound like mere “blowing sessions” usually turn to be carefully structured, and to feature a selection of musicians already associated with the label. Clearly the influence of the returning Ike Quebec, and others close to the “family” like Blakey, was responsible for bringing many key musicians to Blue Note’s door. It’s notable how many who went on to do their own successful albums first recorded for the label as sidemen, whether it’s Duke Pearson (who later filled a Quebec-type role and even produced sessions in the early-70s) or Stanley Turrentine.
Another arena of competition was in the domain of presentation, both verbal and visual. When they got into 12-inch LPs, Blue Note had extensive essays by such writers as Leonard Feather, while Prestige usually had briefer notes, often by Ira Gitler (a Prestige employee at the time). But it’s the cover photography of Frank Wolff and the calligraphy that still stand out as the most innovative, mostly designed by Reid Miles during the classic era and capable of making an impact in even non-jazz-specific compilations of artwork.
That was one aspect that changed almost immediately on acquisition by Liberty, which of course had its own ideas about artwork, and albums by Lou Donaldson (for instance) show the effects of before and after, the “after” being still striking but not really Blue Note.
The reason for the bail out was, pure and simple, the problem of distribution posed by an excess of success. Within a year Blue Note had released the albums – and, of course, the chart singles – of ‘The Sidewinder’ and ‘Song For My Father’, creating rapid pressure from distributors to come up with further print-runs and more product just like that. This not only led to several years of LPs that led off with a track heavily dependent on a Latin-funk beat, it required an almost immediate injection of extra capital.
Liberty had previously bought Aladdin, Imperial and Pacific Jazz which explains why reissues from these sources have more recently appeared under the Blue Note imprint. Initially, they let Blue Note do its thing, but subject to control by the accountants and senior management – a new experience for Alfred Lion, who left after 12 months. After another year, Liberty itself was taken over by Transamerica which combined it with the United Artists label it already owned, suddenly propelling UA contract artists such as Jimmy McGriff, Chick Corea, Jeremy Steig and Thad Jones-Mel Lewis on to Blue Note.
So, what of the seemingly amorphous 1970s output under Dr George Butler? Even though Lion was out of the picture, there was still some evolution on the part of 60s signings who stayed with the label, such as Elvin Jones and Bobby Hutcherson.
But what stays in the mind, or sticks in the craw, is the work of the likes of Donald Byrd, who went hook, line and sinker for a watered-down version of 60s soul, complete with lumpy rhythms, naff string-sections and unfunky vocals.
The production team of Larry and Fonce Mizell also begat acts such as flautist Bobbi Humphrey, saxist Ronnie Laws and guitarist Earl Klugh, all of whom sold lots of records and are now largely forgotten, except by fans who are into that style. But we shouldn’t forget that there is always a need to have some funky jazz and it turned on listeners such as Gilles Peterson and Jez Nelson, who then became influential in more jazz-related ways.
The hiring by EMI of Bruce Lundvall, formerly with Columbia and Elektra, was obviously a stroke of genius, in terms of restoring Blue Note’s credibility as well as its catalogue.
As far back as 1985, Michael Cuscuna explained to me that “Bruce Lundvall is one of the only people to reach the top echelons of the music business and remain both interested in music and honest” – the fact that they still work together suggests that Cuscuna’s opinion hasn’t changed. Of course, you might argue that some newer material is further removed from the label’s roots than anything in the 1970s (Norah? Willie Nelson?) but that’s only the revenue earning tip of what’s still a very large iceberg.
The list of artists recently on Blue Note who are maintaining and developing the tradition of the label is long and impressive. If the business methods are unrecognisable from those days – for instance, the profit-sharing deal that landed a contract with the now departed Wynton Marsalis – the music is still pushing the boundaries, rather than running away from them.
It all requires the ancient art of keeping one’s ear to the ground, which is what Lion and his partner Wolff excelled at. Their business instincts enabled them to capture one-off classics with artists who were between contracts (such as Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else) and at least one who had promised them an album before signing with Prestige, namely Coltrane, whose Blue Train again underlines the superiority of Blue Note’s methods. In the 1950s, they were even open to the idea of jazz from Europe, leasing two albums’ worth of Cool Britons and one of Swingin’ Swedes, plus European recordings of German pianist Jutta Hipp and the then UK-based Dizzy Reece before they each relocated to New York.
Indeed, in establishing and maintaining the standards of Blue Note for so long, the Lion and the Wolff set an example for all subsequent specialist labels. Perhaps more importantly, in the process they left us with some wonderful music.
Photos: 1) Horace Silver (top left) and clockwise, John Coltrane (with Thelonious Monk at the piano), Hank Mobley, Bud Powell, Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion, Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk; 2) Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter 3) Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine