Q&A with Trio HLK

Trio HLK are one of the most distinctive voices to appear on the Scottish jazz scene in recent times. Their debut album, Standard Time was released in May, since when the trio have been touring widely. Fiona Mactaggart met with Trio HLK’s Rich Harrold and Rich Kass, to discuss the emergence of the HLK sound.

Fiona Mactaggart: Thanks very much for coming along. Can we talk about how the three of you first met, how the trio took shape?

Rich Kass: Rich (H) and I met through a mutual friend. Rich had just moved to Edinburgh and we just got together to play Rich’s music. It contained a lot of ideas which I’d been looking into at that point.

F: When was this?

K: 2014. A lot of rhythmic information and things, I started getting into, it kind of evolved from us playing Rich’s music in his flat. Then we went through a few different line-ups, and eventually needed a full-time member. I knew Ant (Law) from when he lived in Edinburgh. By then he was living in London. He’d already released his first album which had a lot of Indian rhythms and influences. So I thought he’d be a great fit for the music; it’s quite specific, demanding certain things. Rich got in touch with him, Ant checked out the music and like it. Then on New Year’s Day 2015, those two (Rich H and Ant Law) got together for a play, as we’d been booked for a gig with Troyka that February. We needed a guitarist.

Rich Harrold: It was part of the tour they were doing: each city gave different support and we gave the support here (Edinburgh). That was cool! We needed someone suitably ‘psychotic’. There were particular demands of the music. First of all, you’d need to commit a lot of time to it, and second, obviously, it requires an interest in a rhythmic way of playing and other things that the music explores. It’s not to everybody’s taste. Ant was perfect for that. He’s from a Physics background as well!

F: So quite complementary, there are different things you each bring to the group.

H: Yes, there are similar things we love about music: we like a certain level of complexity, and experimentation. But at the same time we all come from different musical backgrounds. So I think we share certain things, but also bring a lot of differences to the table.

F: Which segues into the next question: Ant’s obviously not here, but can each of you say a bit about your own musical backgrounds?

H: My parents weren’t particularly musical. My Grandma on my Dad’s side was an organist, not professionally. She plays the church organ now, as a retired lady in the village. I started lessons when I was just nearly six, mainly because my older brother had just started and I wanted to compete! Then I stuck at it and got really into it. I had classical piano lessons, with a private teacher in Manchester who teaches at Chets (Chethams School of Music, Manchester) and also at the Royal Northern (Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester). She lived just around the corner, it was really lucky, she was amazing. She got me into lots of really cool stuff and I stayed with her all the way until I went to music college. I got into jazz separately, and was doing composition stuff as well, then went on to study composition at the Royal Academy (Royal Academy of Music, London) and had jazz lessons while I was there. So I was doing a lot of stuff on the side, some piano lessons with (pianist and composer) Tom Cawley and was always interested in that stuff. But mainly I come from a classical background.

K: I think it’s quite interesting that you had the choice to study composition or piano, and your piano teacher was encouraging you to do performance and go down the concert pianist route.

H: Yeh, she was a bit miffed, she’d coached me all these years! I applied for Composition at the Academy and Piano at the Royal College. I knew that I wanted to be a composer, but I wasn’t really sure that I’d get in.

F: I understand you did a year’s study in New York?

H: I did two years there doing a Masters. It wasn’t New York, it was Yale (Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut), studying Composition.

F: So now you do composition and performance: do you see yourself nowadays as mainly a composer or a performer?

H: It’s an interesting question. I feel like I’m more of a composer and I believe I have more weaknesses in my playing than a lot of people who are full-time performers. But I definitely do more performing work than composing work. I see myself as a mixture, but am more confident as a composer. I love doing both, and the great thing about this band is being able to do both. One of the things as a composer in classical music, where the rehearsal time is so limited: I would quite often be pleased with performances, but (at other times) quite fretful as I didn’t fully realise what I was trying to do. Whereas with this group, we just rehearse and rehearse, until it’s right!

(Trio HLK rehearsing with Dame Evelyn Glennie – photo Rob Blackham)

K: In the classical world obviously there are people who are specifically composers, whereas in jazz, most people compose to some extent. Especially if they’ve gone through some kind of education system, they are encouraged to write and try to be a band leader even if they don’t go on to be band leaders. Obviously it varies, but in my opinion there can be a massive difference between composing a melody on a short ABA form, and composing an extended classical piece. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they are very different. My perception is that everyone in a lot of music is part performer, part composer. The line is slightly blurred. Rich is a great musician, a great player, who writes really interesting, very thought-out and very musical music.

F: (to Rich K) What is your background? Are there musicians in your family?

K: My Dad plays guitar and sings in the house, but other than that, not really. My Grandma on that side of the family is a published poet (who) did some stuff with Ivor Cutler. It went out under the name Patricia Doubell. A book (was) written about her called “At The Dog In Dulwich”.

F: A Creative!

K: Yeh, totally. I started playing drums in high school, though not actually in school, but in punk groups. Then I had a scholarship to go to LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science), but at the last minute decided to go to music college for a year, for what I thought would be a gap year. After that I auditioned for the Napier (Edinburgh Napier University) course, because my brother did it, and I got in. That was an undergraduate degree. The college course was at Stevenson College (now Edinburgh College). I hadn’t done any music at school, so I was doing the foundation course there. I don’t think I completed the course there as I got an Unconditional for Napier Uni. A friend was at The New School in New York, so I went over and hung out for a bit and we did some concerts, just small gigs, and went to see good gigs and met musicians. I think that was quite an eye-opener. Then I came home. I actually auditioned for a pop gig and got it, then ended up doing quite a lot of pop gigs for a while.

F: Were you still doing punk at that stage?

K: When I got to uni I got into Fusion and a little bit of jazz, and was doing as much music as possible. I did some musical theatre gigs. A friend was guitarist for someone who was signed to a label, so I got that gig, then got some auditions for some well-known boy and girl bands [laughs]. And then, funnily enough, got quite dejected with music.

H: You had quite a funny path. I’ve never heard it all linearly like this.

K: The whole time I’ve been playing some kind of jazz and I had a group, we played at festivals. But I was at a point when I thought I was going to sack off music. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but to be honest, after working in the pop industry for bands on amazing labels, where everyone was just an a------. Some of the people there were not massively into the detail of the music. For someone playing in a band, you’re there to serve a purpose and there’s not a lot of conceptual thinking going on. It’s like: “play the drums, don’t play it, disappear”. Wait three months to get paid.

F: So there were negatives as well as positives.

K: I think the positives were that I was doing things on tv and playing to large crowds, and I’d only just been out of school. I thought that was great. But actually I realised it wasn’t that great. What I thought was success was not, not really.

F: What was between then and joining HLK?

K: I was doing all kinds of different things, gigs around town, a musical theatre gig for quite a while, quite a lot of recording work. Then Rich and I started playing music.

F: So very different backgrounds, a real mix of experience coming into the trio.

K: We do all have quite different backgrounds, and the music has evolved with that in mind, but we all definitely share a love of rhythm and things to do with rhythmic allusions, or placing things in unusual places, or unusual metres. Hanging out both musically and socially when we’re in the van or travelling to gigs, we regularly listen to music: everything from the Goldberg Variations to rock to swing music, to...

H: It can be like a little whistling party because we bring something maybe the others haven’t listened to. It’s quite good because you’re doing nothing but staring at the road, so you get to discuss things in quite good depth.

(Trio HLK rehearsing with Dame Evelyn Glennie – photo Rob Blackham)

F: Do you use YouTube at all, to seek out different music, or historical stuff?

H: I know it’s really good for that, but not personally.

K: I probably use people more, and I find podcasts helpful. When my favourite musicians mention records, I check them out. I’ve probably come onto most of the things that have influenced me most strongly in the last few years, through friends and records, or listening to stuff together.

H: Ant’s a real source of obscure music, he’s got so much. He actually never switches off from music. Straight after a gig he’ll be listening to something else: it’s amazing actually.

K: I’ve got a very vivid memory of a gig in Birmingham where we listened to (dance/electronic artist) Noer on the drive back to Manchester. I was quite tired, it was at about 110dB, a tune called “In It For The Pizza”.

F: A snapshot! Your music’s obviously very rich. From both your social media sites, I see you both have an interest in the music of Gyorgy Ligeti. Can you each say a bit about whether his music has influenced you and what other musical influences you are aware of, including any which specifically bring Western classical and jazz together, as yours does?

K: I got into Ligeti primarily through Rich (H). Lemon’s a shared one, which again I think you (Rich H) introduced me to. Also Squarepusher’s a shared one we’d both checked out before we knew each other.

H: Massively, yeah.

K: Gonzalo Rubalcaba, a prolific Cuban pianist. His drummer is Horacio Hernandez.

H: Yeh, he’s unbelievable. I got into Ligeti since undergrad, via his etudes. I think the stuff that we write doesn’t necessarily sound much like him, but there’s things in there.. I think he was probably interested in similar things. There’s a lot of rhythmic stuff, polyrhythms, a rhythmic pattern with another one over the top, that then starts to shift. You’re constantly aware of these two things and they’re constantly shifting. That’s somethings that really interests me. Similarly harmonically there’s layers to the adjusting harmonies, and he often pairs those things up with other rhythms. So you get this ambiguity going on. He definitely seems to me like someone who is fascinated by rhythm. But there’s also a real playfulness in his writing, it can be really jocular. But when you go into the nitty gritty, it’s really well worked out as well. I like that balance of well conceived, tight nuts and bolts, but also humorous. I think Bach does that as well actually, to an even higher level, I don’t know how he does it.

F: So Bach would be an influence as well?

H: Massively, yes. Millions of influences really. I listened to a lot of Berlioz at uni; I prefer the later stuff. I’ve analysed the pitches of a lot of the earlier pieces, that were serial composed. But I feel the later music brings in more the French Impressionists’ harmonic language. There’s a lot of Debussy in there, Ravel. Sounds to me like Debussy with extended harmony [laughs].

F: So most of your influences would be from classical music?

H: A lot of them are, but in terms of compositional structure and pre-compositional process. But so much of the jazz I’ve studied and listened to, involves a rhythmic language of the writing. And the desire to have that mix of improvisation in there, I’m massively interested in this. The unpredictability of it. So yeah: maybe an equal mix of jazz and classical music.

F: In a way it can be a bit spurious to have strict definitions: the area can be very blurred between music genres, especially nowadays.

H: Yes. Look at a composer like Debussy. He was into jazz and he also spent a lot of time in the Far East, transcribing music. There’s a lot of influences in there and that’s what it (Debussy’s music) sounds like in the end.

F: Regarding Trio HLK’s composition, I understand you (Rich H) were the main composer and then you (Rich K) developed the percussion and drumming parts. Can you both say a bit about how that worked in practice?

H: Originally I wrote some charts, and gave them to Kass. For one or two of the early tunes I’d actually written out a drum part. It quickly became apparent that there were so many more things Kass could imagine and develop on the kit, that it was almost pointless me doing that any more.

F: So you would write something fairly simple..?

H: Yeh. I wrote a part I heard in my head, as a non-drummer. I just started giving Kass piano parts, and he would reproduce the piano parts in a certain way. Often he would spot some kind of rhythmic relationship or numeric pattern, build an additional layer on top that wasn’t even there. There’s a certain amount of analysis and development that comes from him doing this. It’s quite nice to just hand that over [laughs]. So there’s usually a first draft of the composition, which is from start to finish, and usually by the time we’re performing it, it’s quite different from that. Maybe structurally it’s basically the same, but it definitely evolves, some pieces more than others. Sometimes things can be completely taken out, or completely re-written, or we might stumble across something by accident in a rehearsal and decide that that’s a cool idea. And we’ll go away and work on it. So there’s a first draft that I’m responsible for, but after that it turns into something that’s a three-way process.

(Trio HLK with Dame Evelyn Glennie – photo Rob Blackham)

F: I see you don’t use Sibelius or any other notation software, but write the scores by hand.

H: I sometimes use it for some of the guitar parts, which otherwise are too small to read. I prefer to do it by hand. I don’t like how things sound on Sibelius: I push ‘play’ and I lose confidence in what I’ve written! [laughs].

K: There’s also a compositional reason for it.

H: I felt that it you write on Sibelius, the interface, the actual way of writing that you are forced to use, in my experience, affects what you can write. If you’ve got a piece of paper and pencil, then anything you can imagine, you can get on page. Even if it means writing some sort of vague instruction or drawing a symbol. It’s about being able to directly transcribe an idea onto the paper.

K: And less ‘cut and paste’.

H: Yeah.

F: And how long would you say ‘Standard Time’ took to compose?

H: It’s hard to say. Many of the first pieces have evolved constantly. ‘ESP,’ one of the first pieces, now has this extended vibraphone and piano introduction. Some of the middle pieces such as ‘Smalls’, has a free extended introduction with Evelyn on it. Probably several years.

F: So, a labour of love then?

H: Yes, absolutely.

F: And how did you (Rich K), develop the drum parts?

K: I think, much like the tunes, every one is different. Generally Rich (H) and I get together and we’ll play through it. I have some thoughts and Rich will say “that’s cool”. So I’ll go away and work on that, inhabit the idea for a while. I don’t see anything I’m doing as necessarily composition as opposed to working out how to make the instrument work best within the music, in the context of there being a lot of composed material. I do need to make some decisions about what I’m going to play and the approach, but in jazz most of what’s played by the drummer is not written, but is mostly interpreting the form, melody and rhythm. Whereas a drummer in a pit would play every note in front of them. In HLK it’s kind of a combo of both. How do I interpret those rhythms? I would improvise around those rhythms and have a loose approach. A dynamic, a feel. At other times it needs a part to unify two rhythms, or maybe it’s just too hard for me to begin with, to improvise on and make the music as good as possible. When I have written stuff out I don’t see it as a cop-out, because I’m just trying to unify the music and have a part which makes everything sound as good as possible. Whereas at other times, if I was to write out everything I played, it might be a bit contrived.

H: One of the things about Kass is, he has an amazing ear for orchestration on the kit, for example the bells on ‘ESP’. That was him saying “I imagine this could really work”. Basically he’s a very colourful drummer.

F: When you’re playing at gigs, how much freedom do you allow yourself to improvise? Rich Kass, you have said you have quite a lot of freedom to improvise as a drummer. Is this the same for the rest of the trio?

H: Some sections are very strictly prescribed and are more or less the same every time. Others are forms that are slightly different rhythmically and harmonically, but are essentially cyclical forms that you’d maybe have in a traditional jazz piece. So there are set rhythmic and harmonic structures and everyone’s improvising, but sticking to the form. And then there are some other sections that are somewhere in between. For example there might be a written rhythm structure that is underpinning everything, whereas the harmonic structure is a lot more free, textures can be experimented with, three-way.

F: Do you find that as time goes by you are all improvising more?

K: That’s an interesting question. There’s a certain amount of artistic licence whenever you’re playing, but I wouldn’t call it improv. At gigs in terms of time spent, it’s probably written: improv, 60/40 or 50/50. Over time the improv has become longer.

H: And more adventurous probably.

K: Yeh, it has the opportunity to go in more directions. It could stretch out, then on other nights it might be quite short if someone’s not feeling it. On the last gig for example, Ant played a line and Evelyn immediately played the line back conversationally. This was quite a new thing, them trading some ideas. That section became a sort of tracking improv section.

F: That’s very clear, thank you. Choosing Evelyn Glennie and Steve Lehman to play on the album makes very good sense, as you are referencing Western Classical and Jazz, and you are appealing to both audiences. Were there other reasons for choosing those two particular musicians?

H: Steve for me inhabits both worlds. He studied Contemporary Classical with Tristan Murail, the famous French Spectral composer, in Paris. I think he was studying orchestral classical music and jazz at the same time. So he brought that language to this stuff. You can hear it’s in there harmonically, the sound is innovative, absolutely mind-blowing. Listening to his first album ‘Travail, Transformation And Flow’ is one of the most inspiring musical experiences I’ve ever had.

K: What’s funny as well is: I had a conversation with him (Steve Lehman) about Boulez, and he told me he’d met Boulez when he was in Paris. It’s a funny link. There are shared things that he’s checked out, that you (Rich H) like. He knows so much music.

H: And because of what he’s doing, he’s so important in contemporary jazz. It was more like awe for these two figures, as far as we’re concerned. They are the leading lights of those worlds: the jazz or whatever you want to call that music as it’s definitely not just jazz, and one of the leading classical percussionists in the world.

F: They certainly both bring important elements to the (‘Standard Time’) album.

K: I think something that links some of the things you’ve asked about together: the one thing we share is the idea that the music should be as good as it can be. So from my point of view, all the decisions I made about how the tunes end up sounding, how much the drum parts are written or improvised, how much of a say I have with them, who guests on the album. I think we’re all just thinking: “How’s it going to sound? What’s the best outcome?” So at any point, anything that anyone says or has an idea about, could be respectfully shot down or respectfully encouraged. We don’t just let people be happy if the music’s not right. That’s not to say we’re not very supportive of each other; we are. But there’s a thought: “it’s OK to say what you think”. This approach doesn’t come from “this is the approach that works”; it comes from “this is the context of the piece or the album – what is the thing we all think is best?”

F: So you’re aiming for high standards, and you have the trust to challenge each other in order to achieve this.

K: We all agree 95% of the time. We want to make the sounds be as killing as possible; also being in an atmosphere where we’re supportive whilst being honest.

F: I’ve got your ‘Standard Time’ CD here. Will you explain the graphics on the cover?

K: It’s an exploded clock diagram. The artist is Craig McFadden, a graphic designer. We knew the title was going to be ‘Standard Time’ and we suggested stuff to do with time would be good, the idea of impossible objects which deal with symmetry and asymmetry, and distortion. Which is very related to the music. Craig had a pal who did jewellery design and she used watch parts to create jewellery. The CD cover started life as one of these exploded (watch) diagrams. Also there are references to the tunes, so a dagger for ‘Stabvest’. Spanish hat for ‘Pains’.

H: A guy doing a jig, for ‘The Jig’. There’s Ant’s guitar. Tarot cards. He hasn’t explained it all to us. I like it being his artistic creation. It’s a beautiful thing.

F: It’s certainly very well thought-through, the whole project. Thinking towards the future, are you able to say what direction the trio’s music might be moving in, compositionally and performance-wise?

H: We are assembling the music for the second album, some of which is written, some of which is in progress. We’re in discussion about collaborators. We would like to collaborate again, but maybe we shouldn’t say who with as it’s still early on in discussions. I personally, definitely like the idea of collaborating with people whose music and musicianship we admire and who we’d really like to work with. That for us is an exciting thing to do.

F: When do you think this next release will be out?

K: When we can play it!

H: [laughs] Yeah. Not immediately.

K: You will have heard one of the pieces from the new album at The Queen’s Hall (Edinburgh) concert: ‘Anthropometrics,’ which is a take on ‘Anthropology’. I think the music’s getting better and we’re getting better at understanding how to play together, and how to bring the right things to the right tunes. We’re really looking forward to making the second album. Hopefully I can play the music more expressively and communicate the ideas therein.

H: When I was writing the first draft of tunes for the first album, I tried to work on something new for each composition. Obviously there are things that are similar between the tunes, certain kinds of musical or rhythmic interest and certain harmonic devices, but often it’s about focussing on particular things. The same is true for compositions for the second album: I’m trying to work on a particular idea that I find interesting and trying to find a way of making that particular idea work. For example there’s a new piece based on old blues which has this speeding up and slowing down effect, all quite precisely annotated. The whole piece is a concertina effect. Also layering some more consistent rhythms over the top of that. It’s a constant battle of trying to make it interesting but not too complicated. But there has to be a certain level of complexity, as there’s a lot of stuff going on, but making it as clear as possible what’s going on. Every piece is a bit of a battle with how to most clearly realise this idea. So in terms of where it’s going, hopefully the tunes are getting more interesting!

K: Directions for the future? Being booked, and continuing to collaborate into next year. We always reflect, dissect, it’s constant. The thing about compositions, they’re never finished. We did that gig at Ronnies (Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London): we check the gig out every night, talk about it at rehearsal next day, say we should try doing this, and then that night, things come out. The whole thing is a constant battle to fully realise the music and make it as good as possible.

F: It sounds a big effort. ‘Standard Time’ was a fascinating debut, so we can only await the follow-up album with great anticipation.

Kamasi Washington: the return of the West Coast warrior

Following his critically acclaimed triple-album, 2015’s The Epic, LA saxophonist has circumnavigated the globe with a seemingly endless series of concerts that have cemented his reputation as the go-to spiritual jazz beacon for a younger generation of devotees. Now he’s back with a fresh double-album, Heaven And Earth, a record that further mines the flamboyant choral and string flourishes of its predecessor. Kevin Le Gendre discovers how the West Coast warrior has managed to keep his feet on the ground while still looking to the stars

Populism is a buzzword in resurgence. Generally speaking, in politics, the term refers to a cynical manipulation of nostalgia for the way things were, in an idealised world, as well as fear of what, or who might be in a position of power in an imagined one. ‘Take back control of Britain’, or ‘make America great again’. The rhetoric is short-sighted, the consequences far reaching.

Kamasi Washington is forthcoming on the subject. The tenor saxophonist and composer is an established international artist who spends months at a time away from his birthplace of Los Angeles, gigging across the Americas, Europe and the Far East. He defines himself as a citizen of the world, rather than one of ‘nowhere’.

“I feel like I have a perspective globally,” he says. “Musically, I kind of always lived that life, but in the microcosm of Los Angeles; now I’ve expanded out to the actual world, so it’s me going from Little Tokyo and Chinatown [in LA] to the actual Tokyo and Beijing. There’s virtually a ‘little’ version of every culture you can think of [in LA], and then there’s the cross-pollination of that; you find everything there.”

Washington pinpoints paradoxes for those who peddle a divisive ‘them and us’ agenda. There is a map in the human mind, as well as the blueprint of hard borders. “You come to Europe and there’s a bunch of different countries that are in proximity to each other. We’re not in proximity to others. There’s like Canada and Mexico,” he points out. “So if you think of world culture, we’re pretty far away from it. But most of the biggest, most populated areas of the United States are the most diverse places I’ve ever been. American culture is multicultural, there is no American culture as a singularity, it’s a mixture. When Trump…, or he who shall remain nameless, [insults other cultures], well, it’s embarrassing that we elected someone like him as a leader.”

Though physically imposing, Washington is softly spoken, and retains a degree of calm as he makes that last point emphatically. His despair at the current incumbent in the White House, and American politics in general, is offset by a belief that, “there are more people that want this world to be a beautiful paradise than those who don’t.”

In fact, his 2017 release, the six-track EP, Harmony Of Difference, was an explicit statement on the co-existence rather than conflict between, ‘every kind of people’. Musically speaking, it was largely in the vein of Washington’s 2015 debut The Epic, an audacious triple-album that wore its title well, and captured the imagination to become the story in jazz that year. Such was its snowball effect that Washington went from relative obscurity in January to headlining a Barbican show at the London Jazz Festival in November, even though the more discerning fans of Thundercat, Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamarr would have known his name. Washington’s contribution to their techno-soldered fusion, abstract electronica and politically charged, baroque hip hop, respectively, reflected a versatility that was consolidated by the ambition of his own recording. Featuring a double rhythm-section, strings and choir, The Epic was a dense work that had strong echoes of an expansive post-modal sound often dubbed ‘spiritual jazz’, patented by John and Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders et al in the 1970s. But there was at times a hard edge in the arrangements that betrayed his love of both funk and the history of film scores, with their urbane classical and jazz resonances.

If Washington looked big on-stage, then up close and personal he also cuts a striking figure. Clad in a full-length burgundy dashiki with gold trim, he has the aura of a village elder, if not Pharoah circa Karma, and his composure and warm demeanour confer a sage-like quality that belie his 37 years. We are in the airy west London office of Young Turks, the UK label that is his new home following his departure from Ninja Tune. Washington is more than happy to acknowledge that British audiences, and the media which serves them, have had a longstanding patronage of American artists, of which latterly Gregory Porter has been a notable beneficiary. “Yeah, there’s definitely a sense that our music is more widely appreciated here,” he concurs. “You know the US has so much art and so much expression and talent, there is so much happening there, but ironically there’s not always the appreciation for it.

“LA has never been deemed the Mecca or the second Mecca of jazz. New York is the place. I always found the scene… with the isolation there was a purity among the best musicians in LA that I really appreciated. I’d go to a jam session and people would say, ‘you sound great, where are you from?’ LA? And I was like, why would you say that? Some of the greatest musicians I’ve ever heard are living there, but people just don’t know about them. Some of the great musicians from LA, a lot of them went to New York and came back because they didn’t like it; they liked the isolation, the freedom here, and that pressure to conform to a movement wasn’t for them. So they went back home; there’s a lot of individualism in LA.”

Regardless of who didn’t make it out of the ‘city of Angels’, those who put something into it are big in Washington’s world. Looming large are such as pianist-social activist Horace Tapscott, founder of the Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, Roberto Miranda and Sonship Theus, both of whom visited Washington’s school to do workshops that were life-changing, as well as more recognised figures, such as Billy Higgins. They were among the revered elders from the 1960s who paved the way in the 1990s for the emergence of the hub of young players, the West Coast Get Down, which featured Washington as well as Miles Mosley, Cameron Graves and Brandon Coleman.

These musicians also appear on Washington’s new album, Heaven And Earth, which is a development of the template unveiled on The Epic. Again the sound is one of soaring orchestrations and choral richness that betrays his love of multi-layered composing as well as impassioned improvising. With that in mind, he is happy to discuss the ongoing influence of a legend, arranger-conductor Gerald Wilson, a seminal figure in west coast jazz, with whom the saxophonist spent a great deal of time in his formative years, often visiting his home for invaluable masterclasses.

“He wanted compositions performed as they were written, but he also always wrote into his compositions space and freedom to create,” Washington recalls with a smile. He raises a hand for emphasis, his fingers adorned by large, decoratively baroque rings that glint as afternoon light starts to bathe the room. “So, for me, it was a challenge to try to figure out how to do that as well, because the band I grew up playing with was very free. We weren’t good at being confined, but I had a love for the freedom that you got from colours of large ensembles. That’s how I got the idea of recording a smaller group, letting it be free and wild and go all over the place, then writing music around that to get the best of both worlds. Gerald was really the one that turned me on to that.

“I’ll write a tune with parts for the rhythm section and record and give the musicians what I think the music is. Especially on this new record, I didn’t write songs with traditional chord changes in mind,” he continues. “It’s just colours, the different possibilities of the harmony and melody rather than… an E-major flat ninth. There’s a period where we’re going over the music and I’m explaining. Then, at a certain point, the light goes on and they get it and we record the song and it goes where it goes. I don’t give too many directions on how many bars of this or how many times we do that. If it flows, it flows into something, and once that something is down then I’ll listen and write an orchestration to go around it. When it’s done well it feels like they happen simultaneously, but it’s really a case of I can’t put the cart before the horse.

“On Heaven And Earth there’s more strings, there’s like a whole orchestra…. they’re just colours really. They’re just colours where you can add to things. There are already so many timbres that are happening in the band, with the horns, keyboard, percussion, so for me somehow that orchestra sound is just able to mix in with all of that without clashing. I don’t know how to describe it… it’s like pouring water over stone. The water will form around it; I suppose that’s really kind of how I look at it.”

Although Washington’s breakdown of his working method has a step-by-step logic at its root there is, nonetheless, a considerable grey area in which he and his accompanists operate at various junctures of a song’s development because Washington is not keen on writing in a set key signature. His desire to weave together layer upon layer of sounds – from rhythm section to horns to voices and strings – is such that he does not always map out a framework of chords prior to entering the studio. As Washington previously explained, the ulterior motive is to accommodate a degree of freedom within compositional narrative. He likes to keep things open with regard to what might be a harmony that is perceived as proper or improper, ‘in’ or ‘out’.

All of which leads to discussion and negotiation when it comes to the finer details of a particular arrangement. Washington professes as much love for modal music as he does changes-based workouts and the central question he has to answer is how three, rather than one set, of ears can hear notes and tones in a way that actually satisfies all. “You’re telling a story and within that musically sometimes it’s primary, visceral. I’m not thinking of a key, but is it consonant or dissonant?” he argues, his eyes focused as he further sketches out his modus operandi. “What kind of consonance do I want? There are some pretty big debates between myself, Cameron [Graves] and Brandon [Coleman] as to what a particular chord is in some of these songs. Brandon likes to identify a key and chord, Cameron is really attached to the colour and I’m kind of somewhere in the middle. Together, though, we usually decipher the song.”

Committed as he is to the improvising tradition – Washington’s solos on Heaven And Earth are as bracing as anything he has thus far recorded – he has drawn much from the world of classical music, which is something of a building block, not just for scoring music, but in creating texture and dynamics. On The Epic he covered Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’, but the piece he cites as an essential ear opener is Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ for its “sense of breathing” as it builds, broadens and boils to climax.

The rich sound palette and the combined weightiness of the woodwinds, brass, timpani, celesta, harp and strings makes that an entirely appropriate reference for somebody like Washington, whose own music has a similar grandeur. But the other salient fact is that Ravel’s chef d’oeuvre was commissioned by the Russian actress and dancer Ida Rubenstein in 1928 and that it is a ballet as well as a composition.

Physical movement synergises potently with sound. Even a cursory glance at Washington’s aesthetic, from his style of dress to the artwork of his records, suggests he has a keen eye for forms of expression beyond the world of music, thus fitting into a lineage of polyglot musicians whose interests are not limited to all things sonic. Quite by chance we met a few days after our conversation at an exhibition by African-American artist Lorna Simpson at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in central London. The work was an intriguing creation that featured canvases depicting glaciers in saturated ink and palls of smoke, as well as collages and reconfigurations of pioneering black lifestyle magazines Ebony and Jet, and their super slick adverts, dislocated from their more habitual setting of the front room or the barber shop.

Simpson’s exhibition was astutely called ‘Unanswerable’, and in many ways the title pinpointed a central conundrum with regard to the enduring perception of individuals, communities and cultures deemed minority. What possible response can there be to the enormously complex history, with its endless value judgments, of people of colour at this point in time? Simpson sees the artefacts in her work as, “having a resonance in terms of how we are living now under the Trump regime as quite frightening.” More tellingly, Simpson also made clear in a recent interview that the thing she fears in the current climate is ‘apathy’, and that chimes with Washington’s whole outlook on life, from both a political and musical point of view. On Heaven And Earth, the song that loosely translates that is ‘Connections’, which was directly inspired by Nate Parker’s 2016 movie The Birth Of A Nation, a gripping account of the life of Nat Turner, a slave who led a bloody revolt against his masters in Virginia in 1831.

“Yeah, it really tackled the idea of complacency, because Nat Turner said he had a relationship with his slave master where he didn’t have it ‘bad’, not like Frederick Douglass did,” Washington states very calmly. “He didn’t really have that, but he still understood that the whole scenario he was in was wrong. And that, if that’s the case, things need to change. It’s about the connection he had between his mother and future wife. The funkier part of the song felt like the exploratory connection that two people have that are not family. The film was really powerful because it spoke about taking matters into your hands and not looking for someone else to do anything for you.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: http://www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

John Coltrane: the lost album

The unexpected news of the existence of an unreleased John Coltrane studio session, now issued as Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album, is sure to get the jazz world’s pulse racing. Featuring the classic line-up of Trane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, Stuart Nicholson assesses the importance of its place in the iconic saxophonist’s relentlessly creative canon on the Impulse! label

For some while now, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, son of jazz legend John Coltrane, has dedicated himself to raising sunken treasures from his late father’s recorded legacy. Thanks to diligent research he brought us One Up, One Down (Impulse!) in 2005, a live 1965 recording from New York’s Half Note that contains what many regard as one of Coltrane’s greatest recorded performances. Now, he has discovered a complete ‘lost’ Impulse! studio session from March 1963, a period where Coltrane’s Classic Quartet was hitting their straps. It is released this month as Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album.

In March 1963, Coltrane was booked into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey for two sessions, one on the 6th with his quartet, and another the following day for the session that produced John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Apparently, Coltrane took a ¼-inch reference tape of the quartet session home to study, a practice quite common in the recording industry. However, nothing further seems to have been done with the tapes, while at some point the studio’s multi-track masters were lost by Impulse!. There things remained until Ravi Coltrane discovered the reference tape in his father’s archive. At the time of the recording session, Coltrane’s career was in the ascendancy, his life a whirl of national and international touring, recording sessions and more touring. When he did get time off, he spent it with his then wife Juanita and their 13-year-old daughter, Toni, at his St. Albans, New York home, listening to his collection of records by harpist Carlos Salzedo.

In 1963, the Impulse! label was entering what many people now consider to be it’s golden period and it was saxophonist John Coltrane who was at the forefront of the label’s ambitions, the poster-boy who had come to personify the label’s slick marketing slogan: ‘The New Wave of Jazz is on Impulse!’. Each album was stylishly produced with a gatefold sleeve, trademark orange and black album spine, attractive laminated cover art and high-quality liner notes that enveloped a well-recorded product, all for $5.98 per album. The brainchild of producer Creed Taylor, the label created a stir from the very beginning with its first batch of releases in 1961 that included Gil Evans’ Out of the Cool, Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, and Ray Charles’ Genius + Soul = Jazz.

Uniquely, Impulse! was allowed to develop with the mindset of an independent label within a major label infrastructure since ABC Paramount bankrolled the production and promotion costs. In a market already saturated with high-quality jazz and eye-catching cover art – Blue Note, Verve, Atlantic, Contemporary, Pacific Jazz and more – Impulse! raised the bar even higher, and in so doing its sales began approaching those of successful pop recordings. “Within a couple of months Genius + Soul = Jazz had sold over 150,000 LPs and ‘One Mint Julep’ was Top 10,” said Creed Taylor later, “A few months later, Blues and the Abstract Truth did pretty well too.” By the end of 1961, Impulse! had captured the imagination of jazz fans, DJs (essential for radio play), record retailers and, crucially, jazz musicians.

After catching a performance of the John Coltrane Quartet at the Village Vanguard, Creed Taylor phoned Coltrane, who was then recording for Atlantic, and asked him if he would like to record for Impulse! However, the Shaw Agency, who were handling Coltrane at the time, felt the saxophonist should receive special treatment from the label, and a deal was eventually worked out that enabled Taylor to secure Coltrane’s signature for a $10,000 advance for the first year with two year options that rose to $20,000 annually thereafter.

Coltrane was contracted by Impulse! to produce three albums a year. His first was with his regular working quartet of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, augmented by a large ensemble. Oliver Nelson was picked as arranger, but didn’t show at the recording date, so Eric Dolphy hastily wrote some charts for the album, which was subsequently called Africa/Brass. It was at this point that Creed Taylor, after producing six albums for Impulse! and establishing the label’s identity in the marketplace, was approached by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to take over the Verve label, which it had just bought for $2.5 million from Norman Granz. This unique opportunity and a generous offer was enough to tempt Taylor, who completed the editing for Africa/Brass in his new office at Verve.

The man ABC Paramount picked to replace him was Bob Thiele, whose main experience was in the pop field, where he had brought Buddy Holly to Decca’s subsidiary Brunswick, followed by Jackie Wilson. He then moved to Dot Records, followed by Roulette Records, where he pulled off the collaboration between Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. He took over at Impulse! in November 1961, “I don’t think I was at Impulse! for more than a week when we decided to record Coltrane at the Village Vanguard,” he recalled. “The first night, as I recall, I was pretty shook up; I was confused. But by staying involved, the music began to make sense to me.”

Thiele hit the ground running with Impulse! – in the last two months of 1961 and through to the end of 1962, he recorded music for 25 Impulse! albums, carefully avoiding the pitfall of reinventing the winning formula created by Taylor and the label continued to grow. So too did Thiele’s association with Coltrane, whom he later admitted had taught him a lot about jazz during the three albums he recorded with the saxophonist in 1962.

Although Coltrane was in the studio only three times in 1963, he was also recorded live twice, at the Newport Jazz Festival on 7 July and at Birdland on 8 October. From these sessions Impulse! released four albums: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Impressions, Live at Birdland and, in 1993, Newport Ö63. Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album fits into this continuum. When looking at the circumstances of the album it must be remembered that Coltrane enjoyed special status at Impulse!. In practical terms this meant a degree of autonomy in the recording studio, where he was allowed space to experiment and arrive at an album in more or less his own time. This was quite different to the way jazz albums were usually produced – a studio would be booked for four or five hours with the expectation that at the end you’d have an album for release. As Bob Thiele later recalled: “People like Coltrane, or Duke Ellington, record so much they almost forget about what was recorded, and it literally piles up.” In such circumstances, it’s possible to see how the tapes for Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album, were overlooked and remained undiscovered for so long.

While it’s the first time in years an unissued Coltrane quartet studio session has been released, The Lost Album does raise a number of intriguing issues. The record company press release claims the session was unknown until 2004 and unheard until now, yet the session was cited on page 90 of the discography that accompanied The Classic Quartet – Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings box set which was released in 1998! Matrix numbers 11382 through to 11388 were even assigned to the seven numbers recorded that day, comprising four ‘Untitled Original’ recordings (two of which were subsequently identified as ‘Impressions’ and ‘One Up, One Down’), plus ‘Vilia’, ‘Nature Boy’, and ‘Slow Blues – Original’. ‘Vilia’ originally appeared on an Impulse! sampler LP back in 1965, The Definitive Jazz Scene Vol. 3, and was added as a bonus track to the 1996 CD, Live at Birdland with this brief explanation: “The bonus track ‘Vilia’ was the first tune recorded at a 6 March, 1963 session that also included the quartet’s first attempt at ‘Nature Boy’ and the five then untitled originals… no master of the other tunes has survived.”

The Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album recordings were made off the back of a two week engagement at Birdland but the question of whether Coltrane was starting to “push in new directions” at the time remains moot. Bootleg recordings of Coltrane at Birdland on 23 February (on the Ozone and Session Disc label) and 2 March (released on the Alto label) give little away in this respect. Equally, we are able to trace Coltrane in live performance during the intervening four months between Ballads, recorded on 13 November 1962, and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, recorded on 7 March 1963, by means of several authorised and unauthorised concert recordings during this period. Again, they do not betray evidence of any new direction, rather sticking night after night to a core repertoire built around pieces such as ‘Impressions’, ‘Chasin’ the Trane’, ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’, ‘Mr PC’ and ‘My Favorite Things’. Certainly the classic quartet was achieving a kind of relaxed cohesion, having performed together for almost three years and were beginning to take liberties with their repertoire (something that can be discerned in the quintets of Miles Davis during the 1950s and 1960s) and Coltrane’s playing seemed more questing as he became more confident in his surroundings, but “a new direction”? That’s a bit of a subjective judgement call, since we might have expected evidence of this on subsequent Impulse! recordings, such as the 29 April 1963 Impulse! date that year which appeared on Dear Old Stockholm or the Newport Jazz Festival recordings from 7 July 1963.

What we do know, however, is that Coltrane gave an interview in Paris on 1 November 1963 where he said he needed to get away from playing the “same tunes over and over” – something he had been doing for more than two years. If we allow ourselves a certain amount of rationalisation with hindsight, we might say that The Lost Album seems to anticipate these thoughts by several months since, other than ‘Impressions’, a staple of his live performances at the time, and a workout on the blues (it is often overlooked that Coltrane was a masterful interpreter of the blues idiom) called ‘Slow Blues’, the rest of The Lost Album is given over to new pieces – Franz Lehar’s ‘Vilia’, two new unnamed originals plus ‘Nature Boy’ and ‘One Up, One Down’. However, it was not until the Crescent session for Impulse! on 27 April 1964, just over a year later, that he introduced a whole new album of originals, and even in the run up to his magnum opus, A Love Supreme, on 9 December 1964, he was continuing to rely on his core repertoire in live performance.

Ultimately, then Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album perhaps should be seen as a valuable addition to Coltrane’s discography, part of a continuum, yes, but no less valuable for that, as he and McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones work with new material – as Coltrane himself put it in an interview just three months before the recording session, “I’ll only give a skeleton or a framework for a song and from then on it’s up to them to create their own parts to it. It sort of shapes itself, through individual contribution and effort. That way everybody can kind of develop, you know, develop in their own sense of musicianship, too, because they have to make their own choices and decisions.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: http://www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

Jazz in Mexico today: a beginner's guide

Filulas Juz

Patrick McMahon offers a guide to the thriving jazz scene in Mexico, including a list of artists to listen out for. You can enjoy most of these tracks in our Apple Music playlist 'Mexican jazz today'

When thinking about jazz from Latin America, how often is it that Westerners will think of Mexico? In fact, the country sends a steady stream of talented musicians to the prestigious US music colleges and has produced a number of internationally successful players. Two immediate examples are Antonio Sánchez, who regularly plays drums for Pat Metheny and composed the acclaimed soundtrack for Birdman (2014), and Tino Contreras, who has been touring and recording around the world since the 1960s.

The capital Mexico City is fostering an active jazz scene that is increasingly popular and exciting, which, as one of Latin America's most important cities, benefits from hosting many international musicians both passing through and settling permanently. Venues such as Zinco Jazz Club, Parker & Lenox and Casa Franca ensure there are numerous options for seeing jazz pretty much every day of the week in the city. Having seen so much great jazz here, I have put together a playlist of 10 pieces for Jazzwise readers that shows off some of the interesting music groups currently based in Mexico, which range from straight-ahead jazz quartets to marimba ensembles and modern electronic jazz groups.

Filulas Juz – 'V.R.H.'

Probably one of the most exciting and original jazz groups in Mexico at the moment, Filulas Juz combine together an eclectic range of modern timbres, grooves and even sound objects in their music. The result is a unique sound that evades categorisation with just one genre label. 'V.R.H.' is from their most recent album 3773, a carefully crafted collection that smoothly flows between each singular piece through intricately produced interludes. The group come from Querétaro, a city not far from the capital in the centre of the country, and they are gradually building up a following of fans who are intrigued by the group's inventive compositions and captivating live performances.

Héctor Infanzón – 'La Chipita'

One of Mexico's highly renowned jazz pianists, Héctor Infanzón has enjoyed a successful international career as a composer and performer. Currently based in his home town Mexico City, Infanzón studied at Berklee College of Music in 1985 and has shared the stage with such jazz greats as Wynton Marsalis. His album Citadino (2007) features the piece 'La Chipita', which is based around a pulsating afro-Carribean groove that makes a great base for Infanzón's solos. The album is filled with interesting tunes centred around these syncopated Latin-Caribbean feels, and neatly exhibits Infanzón's tight arranging skills and his virtuosic playing.

Diego Franco Quartet - 'No Tiemblo, Vibro'

Diego Franco is a young and promising saxophonist and composer who is already renowned on the jazz circuit in Mexico City. Born to a musical family, Franco originally trained in the country's second city Guadalajara before moving to the capital in search of more opportunities to perform and develop. His quartet have formed a really fresh sound where straight-ahead grooves suddenly morph into hip hop beats and warm ballads pick up into energetic Latin feels. A great example of this is his piece 'No Tiemblo, Vibro', which translates as "I Do Not Tremble, I Vibrate", where after nearly six minutes of energetic racing the quartet slip back into a slick groove that is well worth the wait.

Le Monqué Spazzuah - 'Cherry Trees'

If you have been wondering what a group that describes itself as 'panic nu-jazz' sounds like, then look no further. La Monqué Spazzuah come from Toluca, the capital of Estado de México, and have been popping over the state border to unleash their music on Mexico City jazz clubs for the last several years. Although they move between all kinds of different feels and grooves, the tracks which really stand out are those that ferociously jolt through uneven time signatures, such as 'Cherry Tree' from the album T3RC3R MUNDO (2015). Largely based around a 5/8 rhythm, Le Monqué Spazzuah perform this piece with a relentless intensity that demands the listeners attention, ringing true with the band's bold self-labelled genre.

Tambuco - 'El Devenir de la Noche'

There is not exactly a surplus of pieces written by jazz composers for percussion quartets, but after hearing 'El Devenir de la Noche' you might start to wonder why it is not done more often. Tambuco are a GRAMMY nominated percussion ensemble from Mexico who have performed and recorded with such acclaimed groups as Kronos Quartet and The Michael Nyman Band. Héctor Infanzón wrote the piece 'El Devenir de la Noche' especially for this group, which was released on an eponymous album that included compositions for seven other ensembles. Tambuco's performance stands out as the most intriguing on the album because of its unusual instrumentation of four marimbas, which blend seamlessly in and out of one another as they hammer out Infanzón's fast interlocking rhythms and colourful harmonic changes.

Xuc Trio - 'Little Tikes'

Xuc Trio (pronounced 'suc') formed a few years ago in Mexico City, and have developed their own distinct sound that delicately balances between being technical and accessible. Led by guitarist Juanjo Gómez, the trio pools together some great musical talent from the city, who are inventive with the limitations presented by playing a mixture of funk, groove, jazz and rock with just three musicians. Their album Semillas de Copinol confidently crosses through lots of different genres without the listener ever forgetting who is playing, and also captures the exceptional communication between the players that is so evident when seen live.

Xinto - 'Tricoma Son'

Son jarocho is the folk music of Veracruz, one of Mexico's states that sits along the Gulf of Mexico. Xinto is a project that aims to place this traditional style within a jazz context to give it a new edge. Folk melodies are superimposed over odd time signatures and extensive solos are given to instruments like the jarocho requinto, resulting in a unique type of jazz that is saturated in Mexican identity. Different players are invited to each concert, and occasionally the third wall is broken by asking audience members to come up sing their favourite son jarocho tunes, making each of their performances a fresh experience.

Alex Mercado Trio ft. Scott Colley & Antonio Sánchez - 'Wise'

Alex Mercado has attained a tremendous reputation in the Mexican jazz scene for his impeccable technique and inventive soloing, making him one of Mexico City's jazz giants. Another Berklee trained musician, Mercado began playing on cruise ships and teaching music before establishing his international career. He can now be found on the lineup of such prestigious festivals as North Sea Jazz, although is still a regular on the Mexican jazz circuit too. 'Wise' was released on his album Symbiosis (2014) and features the renowned players Scott Colley and Antonio Sánchez as its rhythm section. Opening with a growling bass riff in 5/4, 'Wise' is a great demonstration of Mercado's remarkable creative talent and improvisation skill, which soars as the piece develops.

La Orquesta Vulgar – 'Mambo 38'

Although this lively group of young musicians have not been playing for long, La Orquesta Vulgar have already built up a strong following in Mexico City and a reputation for putting on a good show. Its members are alumni from various music schools in Mexico City, who combine all their different tastes and musical interests together to form their energetic jazz-influenced music. The spirited playing by the group's drummer, Luis Flores, is a real highlight of their shows, as can be seen in their live performance of 'Mambo 38' for Cicuta Records.

Vladimir Alfonseca Trio - 'Modí'

You know that you are listening to Vladimir Alfonseca as soon as you hear his incredibly soft, warm tone enter. Some of his other pieces use a nylon-stringed classical guitar, and it is not hard to hear how his electric tone is a subtle imitation of that soft classical timbre. Having initially studied at Escuela Superior de Música, Alfonseca went on to further study composition and arrangement, and is now a regular performer in Mexico City. His piece 'Modi' sees his mellow timbre placed into an intricate, complex arrangement that sweeps in and out of different metres and time signatures, resulting in a unique sounding piece that is both driven and delicate.

Patrick McMahon completed his bachelor's degree in music at the University of Sheffield in 2016, and since August 2017 he has been living in Mexico City. As well as researching some of the traditional styles of music from Mexico, Patrick has been playing with local musicians and scoping out the best jazz that's being made there.

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