Omar Puente – fiddler on the hoof

Dazzling Cuban expat violinist Omar Puente will be performing as part of the Jazzwise 20th Anniversary Special Festival at Ronnie Scott's on 17 March. In a recent interview with Jazzwise, Puente spoke with Kevin Le Gendre about spanning the distance between populism and abstraction while maintaining his identity amid a collision of global cultures

In front of the billboards of branded images bursting into 3D life for the 5G generation in Piccadilly Circus, central London, two buskers, a double bassist and violinist mark out their pitch on a crowded pavement, immobile in the endless stream of smartphones. Omar Puente is momentarily distracted by the smaller of the two instruments as we log out of the hubbub in search of a chillout zone in this hyped and hyper part of town. In the relative sanctuary of nearby Golden Square the genial Cuban expat makes an interesting point about why he does not own an axe similar to the one he’s just hawk-eyed.

“To buy an acoustic violin may cost £20,000 to £50,000… to have a really good one,” he says. “With an electric one I can reduce the costs, I can afford one and I can also compete with the drums, with the trumpet, with the whole band, and it will cost me £2,000-3,000.

“It’s a very different experience playing and hearing the notes on an electric violin,” he continues. “On an acoustic there is the air between the instrument and the microphone. You are the one that creates the quality of the sound. On the electric it is really the soundman who creates the quality of the sound, so you have to know exactly what you want, to then create your own thing with the right engineer.”

Puente is very much true to his word on his new album Best Foot Forward, a thrilling work that is a significant step along the road of his creative development following his auspicious 2009 debut From There To Here. Although the common denominator between both albums is a robust eclecticism this new offering has, for the most part, a heavier, harder character in which a sharply-drilled rhythm section, topped by Al MacSween’s strident keyboards, provides a high energy backdrop to Puente’s violin, which has been so well mixed by Sam Hobbs that it sounds as if he is as close as the street players we just passed.

Although the leader makes liberal use of the kind of pedals, from the whammy to the crybaby, that one would expect to find in a guitarist’s arsenal the quality of his improvisations and the articulation of his phrases serve as a reminder of the enviably high-standard of training available to the vast majority of Cuban musicians. Born in Santiago in 1961 to a mother who was a nurse and a father who was both a doctor and violinist, Puente won a scholarship to study classical music at the renowned Escuela Nacional De Arte in Havana at the age of 12. He went on to join the prestigious National Symphony Orchestra Of Cuba, where he further consolidated his skills as a section player, and Puente eventually found himself drawn to jazz through Irakere, the revered Cuban band led by pianist Chucho Valdes that is defined by its patchwork of acoustic son, bebop, European classical music, electric funk and rock. Furthermore, Puente attended master classes in Havana conducted by trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie, but it was his attendance at a concert by other innovators that proved a turning point in his life.

“In 1979 Weather Report came to Havana,” he tells me, a broad smile lighting up his face as he sips coffee outside the chic Nordic Bakery. “By that time they were touring the world, and this was really another level. Wow! That was something… it had a big effect on us.”

Without pausing for breath the 55-year-old adds that during his formative years the listening policy was access-all-areas, from Nat ‘King’ Cole, an icon in Cuba, to salsa to jazz to pop, but there was something special in the way the Zawinul-Shorter-Pastorius-Erskine vehicle managed to negotiate the highways and byways of numerous folk traditions, be they African, Latin or European, all the while allowing the strength of character of each bandmember to come to the fore.

The combination of populism and abstraction was inspired and inspiring for Puente first and foremost because it brought home to him the necessity of retaining one’s essential identity amid the embrace of music from any culture and era. Whether his own songs have echoes of Senegalese mbalaax, Detroit soul or London techno, the sounds to which he has been exposed throughout his life as a global citizen, Puente is still intent on being a violinist from Santiago De Cuba.

“I can’t pretend to be a Brazilian or African musician. I’m a Cuban musician who has had the opportunity to play, see and learn and experience many things and all kinds of music,” he states emphatically.

“I don’t have to play salsa or guanganco, but there has to be something there that is me as a Cuban. It doesn’t have to be the sound of the clavé [percussion] because that is already inside the music in the overall rhythm. I just try to be as true to myself as I can in my playing and writing, to be honest to my roots. Every time you write you have the influence of other things, different instruments, bands, styles. But there’s still you, if you’re being honest.

“I think there are always elements of religion and belief in the music, not only through instruments like bata drums. One way or another, we as Cubans, well, everybody knows who is Eleggua, Shango and Yemenja… these orishas [deities]. Doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, it’s universally in the culture, you don’t have to be really religious, it’s your culture. The Afro-Cuban religion has made the most impact, everybody knows something about Santeria; they might not know all the details, but they know the basics. It is handed down from generation to generation, like the oral tradition. Unfortunately, our indigenous population was wiped out by the Spanish, so maybe we have just a few instruments or dances from them. But what the Africans brought to Cuba – culture, religion and instruments… that’s one of our foundations. Whether I’m doing Motown or funk or reggae I still have an element of Cuban music because it’s really strong. My first album From There To Here was the journey to Britain. Now it’s 20 years of being in the UK, with the modern sounds you get on the street.”

That move happened in 1995 after Puente had been living the nomadic life of an international touring musician. He had worked with the likes of Orqesta Enrique Jorrin and Jose Maria Vitier and ended up playing an extended residency in Singapore. It was there that he met and fell in love with the woman with whom he returned to England and eventually married, the late journalist Debbie Purdy. They settled in Bradford, Yorkshire but Puente soon came to the attention of saxophonist Courtney Pine in London who asked him to join his regular working group, and then the Jazz Warriors Afropeans big band. Through his association with Pine and other black British musicians he learned more about the folk and popular music of the West Indies. But he also notes that it was an unfortunate incident of racial stereotyping in the Far East that initially brought him into contact with Jamaican music.

“There I am in Singapore doing this residency, and the owner of the venue says to me ‘all the latin music and latin jazz is very nice but I need you to change’,” Puente explains. “What do you want me to play?’ He says, ‘I want you to play reggae.’ I say, ‘But I’m Cuban not Jamaican.’ “Yes, but you’re black, so you play reggae, right?” Puente says with a wry smile on his face. “I rang Debbie and I said to her if I don’t play reggae they’re not gonna pay me, and she sent me Legend, the Bob Marley compilation. So I was introduced to Bob Marley, me a black Cuban guy, by a white British woman… in Singapore!”

A sufferer of multiple sclerosis, Purdy would go on to be a valiant champion of the right for assisted suicide, and a high-profile campaign saw her take her case to the High Court. She challenged existing legislation to ensure that Puente would not be prosecuted if he travelled abroad with her should she chose to end her own life.

“This album is a new chapter in my life. I dedicated it to Debbie, she really named the album, ‘best foot forward’, meaning you have to keep going, no matter what happens. She was like my right hand. I am who I am because of Debbie Purdy. I can play the violin but the person who believed in me and pushed me was Debbie, so it’s really about her.”

Unsurprisingly, her passing in December 2014 had a devastating effect on Puente, who had very little appetite for playing music. “I went through a period where I didn’t wanna talk to anybody,” he recalls. “People wanted to help but I was just on my own, I didn’t practice, I didn’t play. But after a year I came back. Thank god I had the violin, thank god I had the music, thank god for that. Without that I really don’t know. She was a strong woman to have to go through pain all the time… it was tough. She was a young woman, but I’ve been using her spirit, and every single note I play is for Debbie.”

This interview originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit:

Soweto Kinch interview: "I see this real disconnect between the establishment bubble and what’s happening in society"

Saxophonist Soweto Kinch will appear as part of the Jazzwise 20th Anniversary Special Fesitval at Ronnie Scott's on 15 March. In a recent Jazzwise interview, Kevin Le Gendre got to the root of Kinch’s progress since the release of his critically-acclaimed 2003 debut Conversations With The Unseen...

Leon, the cafe franchise whose red-and-gold lettering appears aggressively bright in London’s sharply competitive fast food market, is a recent addition to the new mezzanine area at Euston train station. Yet it already boasts a roaring trade. The small shop unit and terrace are full of laptopped passengers, their computer screens flipped up like digital shields against any careless stares from fellow pilgrims about to exit the capital. Perhaps they need a moment of privacy to hide the shock at what they have actually paid for – the right to sit, eat and email.

Sporting a beige woollen cap and flame-red jumper bearing the logo ‘Smooth Jazz Sucks’, Soweto Kinch is not about to mince his words when asked to chew on his consumer experience. “It’s £1.61,” he says holding a small drink in front of me. “For a bottle of pop! I noticed on the menu that they had a ‘fish-finger wrap’ for… a fiver!!! I mean what are the profit margins there? Huge, presumably. But I think it speaks to a wider thing about a corporate elite, or people ‘gaming’ the consumer, and seeing how far they can push before these people realise they are being ripped off. That’s all over the place; it’s in our politics, our high streets… what’s the line? It’s ‘let me just push slightly beyond that.’”

The British saxophonist and MC, some 16 years into a career that is impressive in its negotiation of a range of artforms, from music to theatre and media (as presenter of Radio 3’s Jazz Now), is customarily outspoken, and the point about turnover by means fair and not so fair, is well made. One could say that it was ever thus. But in an age of social status granted to the ascending figures of a smart phone – does anybody want 5G or even 6G since the advent of 7G? – and property prices rising like the ratings of a hit TV show, Kinch is consciously engaging head and heart with all the digits that dot our daily lives.

“This has emotional resonance with us,” says the 38-year-old as we settle at a table, his schedule taken with meetings before he boards the train to return to his hometown of Birmingham later in the day. “A fiver! That triggers a memory of what you could get with a fiver when you were 12 versus what you can get now… so yeah, numbers definitely have an emotional and creative quality that isn’t often publicised in our education system and in society more widely.”

Nonagram, Kinch’s new album, focuses explicitly on the application of numerical systems to the world of sound, from the use of uncommon metres to frequencies and pitches that are based on equations inspired by geometric shapes. Featuring a transatlantic band – stellar American drummer Gregory Hutchinson, a key sideman for Joshua Redman among others, and two young Brits, pianist Ruben James and bassist Nick Jurd – the album is Kinch’s fifth to date, and marks an interesting progression since his 2003 debut Conversations With The Unseen. While that CD was the opening salvo of the saxophonist who could rap, or the rapper who could play saxophone, depending on the listener’s tribal allegiance, it also signalled the arrival of a strong personality. Like several of his British peers, London-born and Birmingham-based Kinch benefitted from the springboard of Tomorrow’s Warriors educational programmes, and went on to establish himself as a recording artist who was as interested in concepts as compositions, as one might expect from an Oxford graduate and largely self-taught player.

The life-in-a-day oratorio of 2006’s B:19 Tales From The Tower Block was noteworthy in this respect, and Kinch, who would make the tenor rather than alto his instrument of choice by the time he cut 2011’s The New Emancipation, has always been vocal on socio-political and personal issues. Nonagram also has rhymes, but the specific numerical basis of the work is prominent, the research for which drew Kinch deep into the music of some of the key pathfinders of the 1980s – Steve Coleman and Greg Osby – and also that of the former’s erstwhile sidemen, Andy Milne and Robert Mitchell. Kinch took an interest in the creative possibilities of music that was not based on 4/4, asking questions on ‘how?’ as well as ‘why?’ musicians count time as they do.

“You find things sometimes in completely disconnected cultures,” says Kinch scratching his beard. “For example 6/8 is tremendously important to African culture, Indian culture, West Indian culture, but yeah, you hear 6/8 all over the place. So there are some metres, like 4/4, that do appear regularly. Less common are nine and five, but they are still there. You’ll find them in Armenia, and there aren’t any watertight answers as to why that is. I just find it very interesting they exist.”

As Kinch started to investigate time signatures, from five to seven to nine, that gave his compositions what he felt was a new sensory stimulus, he got to grips with several puzzles on the relationship between a given shape and corresponding sounds. In real terms that meant composing according to strict maths, such as on ‘Triangle’, where the entire harmony of the piece is based on two pitches that match calculations on the internal and external angles of a pyramid. “Playing those notes together you get what the shape sounds like,” says Kinch breezily.

Translating the pictorial into the aural is no new undertaking in jazz, and the use of length, height and breadth in the visual arts and the addition and subtraction of elements in a tableau is a key part of the praxis of the painters and sculptors who have inspired many musicians. While Kinch feels part of that tradition, he also sees Nonagram in the wider context of the scriptures that underpinned his 2013 release The Legend Of Mike Smith, which referenced one of the Bible’s eventful cautionary tales. That story was also framed by a specific number.

“Yeah, the seven deadly sins are maybe now balanced by the nine fruits of the spirit (the nine in a nonagram),” says Kinch, leaning forward and pausing for thought only briefly. He picks up his flow soon enough.

“The number nine is sacred in all sorts of cultures. There’s all the idiograms that the ancient Egyptians produced, their harmony of the spheres, their hierarchies that often involve nine, and there is something about whether nine was discovered or invented, you know like the Alpha Numeric system; are we just discovering principles that are there in the first place? Nine is a fascinating number, really, I mean it’s based largely on the digital root system, with nine being the apex of that.

“Nine as a number itself is both invisible and ubiquitous, which is a powerful property. You can add anything to the number nine using the digital root system… you always get the number that you started with. So add six to nine you get 15 – one and five makes six, so it’s almost this number that’s in everything, and yet simultaneously invisible.

“I also wondered if there was any empirical connection between the way that savants associate the number seven with the colour yellow, or being in a bad mood. Nine is an edgy character, some see it like that, but…. numbers generally, it’s so individual, so personal, not everyone sees and hears a four the same way. That tells a story.

“I think that we all have our own ideas about odd and even, strange and normal, or the deep and the banal. The way I wanted that to happen on this album was an open door policy. You don’t have to know, you just feel moved and be, ‘oh… that feels ‘off’ slightly?’ Why is that off? Or why is that [seemingly] on? Does that feel balanced?”

Identifying the existence of bars of five, seven or nine beats on Nonagram may not be an entirely fruitless exercise, especially for those interested in jazz history where the use of 3/4 and 5/4 by artists such as Max Roach and Dave Brubeck, respectively, was deemed worthy of part of the marketing of their music back in the 1950s. But these metres are no longer talking points of any great import in a post-M-Base world.

For Kinch varied takes on time and tempo should affect, not distract.

Classical music uses terms such as adagio, moderato and presto, and pop music slow, medium and fast, but the common language between the two is numerical, something that can bind Italian and non-Italian speakers alike. Most understand 66, 108 or 168 beats per minute.

Perhaps it is so obvious that we rarely articulate it, but numbers are all over and within the human body, from limbs, to teeth to digits, to the rates at which substances circulate. Blood pressure and heart rate are measured in figures. We have a pulse. So does musical composition.

Exactly how the human mind and body processes a series of numbers, whether the patterns are considered inside or outside of convention, is a debate that has exercised able thinkers and doers for many years. If the conception and execution of odd time signatures is interesting then so is our spontaneous perception of and essential reaction to them. To tell people that they can dance in 11/4 might arouse a certain incredulity, but that won’t stop them doing so if moved by the music. As Dhaffer Youssef pointed out in Jazzwise earlier this year, the Viennese waltz might have actually been better in that metre.

As is the case with many in the world of jazz, Kinch reads as well as listens a great deal. There was a substantial amount of historical research that prefigured the composing process of Nonagram, and while the saxophonist is happy to broach the subject of music and mathematics he is keen to point out that the inquiry is part of the much bigger question of how an individual experiences sound both consciously and subconsciously. Of considerable help to Kinch in this regard was This Is Your Brain On Music, a critically acclaimed tome by Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, a fairly rare beast insofar as he is a successful rock musician and producer turned advanced neuroscientist and researcher.

“One of the big things that I got from that book is that music isn’t just processed in the outer cortex where language is,” says Kinch, his face brightening with a new flash of intensity. “In the primitive brain there is an area that processes sound, so syncopation is perhaps entertaining to us as human beings in the same way that a snake has to negotiate different terrain, well, we negotiate a sonic terrain, we’re imagining, ‘oh, there’s a rock that’s just thrown off this regular 4/4 beat that we were walking in up to that point’. There are things that transcend culture and the things that we’re told make our society what it is, like laughter, it’s understood all around the world, irrespective of any language.”

Universal as the debate on the use of time and numbers in music is, Kinch nonetheless points out that there is a political ramification in Nonagram that may not be entirely obvious to the listener. At a time when the question of immigration is high on the electoral agenda, to the extent that it was paramount in the EU referendum, there is much to be said not just about the numbers that designate a wage, but also the more existential question of the top 10 of social legitimacy.

“I can’t help drawing analogies with numbers and the way our society is set up,” says Kinch, his voice rising slowly, but markedly. He edges closer without so much as missing a beat. “I think about the number nine and what that metaphor of it being ubiquitous and invisible says about the history of poor people, the history of Africans all around the world. We’ve often been the engine drivers of economies, but very seldom credited as such. We’re ubiquitous; we’re in everything, moving economies and culture, so what does it mean to be British or French [and black], so where’s the power, where’s the visibility?

“It’s such a wide-ranging subject, but I think it’s not just that nines and sevens sound normal, that actually it does get people thinking with a wider consciousness. I’m pretty sure that was Steve Coleman’s intention and when you look at the very design of a pyramid it’s about connecting the microcosm and the macrocosm. What is the thing that gets our consciousness so we see the world for what it really is? Sound can do that without having to engage the cerebral part of us.”

Words still count though. If Kinch can compose a saxophone-led piece in 5/4 as a reference to the fish-finger wrap being sold just a few feet from where we are sitting then he might also write a lyric on the same subject. Even though Nonagram is largely instrumental it has vocals, as befits Kinch’s dual identity as a MC and horn player. The Legend Of Mike Smith might have had a lot more rapped verses than this latest recording, but the link between the two is contemporary politics.

“It’s a lot less lyrical,” says Kinch. “But I don’t think I can be less political, especially this year. Most of the pieces had their genesis from April to June; Game Of Thrones finished and the new Game Of Thrones became… Brexit, the real world, the future… the lack of future!

“I’m inspired, moved and incensed by how much nonsense, how much misinformation there is still. I’m reading a great book called Parliament Limited, which basically explains why there is this consensus on both sides of the house that Jeremy Corbyn is evil somehow, and the system is fine. Increasingly I see this real disconnect between the establishment bubble and what’s happening in society. They keep saying somebody’s unelectable, or we’ll never leave Europe, or Donald Trump is just a TV celebrity, and actually there’s this whole other planet that is disaffected with the solutions that are given to us.” 

This interview originally appeared in the December 2017 / January 2017 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit:

John McLaughlin – lighting the way

On 14 and 15 March, John McLaughlin and 4th Dimension will be playing at Ronnie Scott's as part of the Jazzwise 20th Anniversary Special Festival. In this recent interview with JazzwiseMcLaughlin speaks to Stuart Nicholson about the origins of the band, his music and how Miles Davis taught him the greatest lesson of all is to be yourself

The one eternal truth about jazz is that its most vivid life studies are realised in the act of live performance since they provide audiences with their most profound memories of the music. In the early 1970s, the one band in jazz that was giving audiences something to think about was John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. For two years they lit up the night sky. With the volume at 11 and everything played at 500mph their concerts became the stuff of legend. Then suddenly, after just three albums, they were gone. Though there was another Mahavishnu Orchestra in the 1970s, and another in the 1980s, you can only make a first impression once. Or so we’re told. Over the last couple of years, fans of electric jazz have been keeping a close eye on McLaughlin’s current band, the 4th Dimension with good reason. Since the band’s debut with Industrial Zen in 2006, McLaughlin has been weighing-in with some of his fiercest playing in years and, equally, the band itself has been getting better and better with each succeeding record. Now, with their latest release Black Light, the word is out. Fans and critics alike have been openly hailing 4th Dimension as the “Mahavishnu Orchestra of the 21st century”.

It’s a big call. Even pianist Chick Corea said the Mahavishnu Orchestra changed the direction of his band, Return to Forever, while Joe Zawinul of Weather Report said: “It was a helluva band, in John McLaughlin you had a master guitarist, no-one had ever played like that, you were into another music”. So how does McLaughlin himself feel about 4th Dimension being compared to his earlier, groundbreaking band? He smiles, “Well, I don’t know who said that, but if that’s what they’re saying, well, they’re part of my roots, aren’t they? In my experience, as I grow older, sometimes there’s two steps backwards for one step forward, I also think the musicians have a role in this, the way they play. With 4th Dimension now it’s wonderful really, they’ve got this marvellous passion which translates into energy – I see how deep they’re into what they’re doing and it’s very inspiring to me, because it’s right up my street. I know Mahavishnu was known as the loudest, fastest band in the world – not really what you might call a compliment! – but nevertheless it’s very much part of my history and as far as this particular band is concerned I would definitely see relations and analogies between the two bands, certainly.”

Those connections were not being made when Industrial Zen was first released nine years ago, but the evolution of the band into what it is today has been as steady as it has been inexorable, guided and inspired by McLaughlin’s creative energy. He may be 73, but his passion for playing seems to have grown over the years rather than receded. “Well, that may be true,” he laughs, “I know I get so much out of playing, from composing to performing. And the way the band has grown, that’s inspiring. I hear how the musicians are becoming themselves and how we relate to each other, because in the end we’re playing arrangements, we’re playing songs and whether it’s solo or as a collective what we’re really doing is relating to each other, and relating to the music and relating to ourselves, and, in a global sense – I know it sounds a bit hippie – relating to the universe itself. The fact that they feel so deeply about what they do is really wonderful – I want them to be able to say who they are and what they feel and how strongly they feel about it, and so in every record with a groove there evolves a certain complicity, or at least we should develop a complicity, and the relationship becomes unspoken because over time you get to know each other very well, and you get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. But nevertheless the whole point about music, as in life, for me, and I feel they agree with me, is we want to try and get to the unknown place rather than play what we know. Of course, the road to the unknown is through the known, so it’s already a contradiction in terms, but nevertheless, we try and get to that place.”

Black Light comprises eight tracks that are full of musical surprises, reflecting the sheer diversity of musical genres and influences McLaughlin has explored; from blues with Graham Bond in the 1960s to rock with Santana and Jeff Beck in the 1970s, jazz with Lifetime and Miles Davis, Indian music with Shakti, and Spanish music with Paco de Lucia. It has, as McLaughlin says, produced an album that is, “neither jazz nor rock, nor Indian nor blues, and yet all of these”. Opening with an attention getting ‘The Jiis’, part statement of intent and part prelude to what is about to come, it is clear the band have now developed a sharply defined musical personality. “‘The Jiis’ refers to the mandolin player in Shakti who we lost last year, U. Shrinivas, at the age of 45, of liver failure, devastating after 14 years of working together, and the other Jii – just to clear that up, in Shakti we basically refer to one another as Jiis. So U. Shrinivas and V. Selvaganesh are the Jiis, but when I think about it, this track is really about Shrinivas, who died, but I didn’t want to eliminate Selvaganesh. Even though this is a personal homage, at the same time I don’t want to be sad about it because he was such a joyful soul.”

The penultimate track on the album, ‘Gaza City’, is revealing of the charitable and educational work McLaughlin undertakes in the Middle East and in the continent of India, which he somehow manages to fit into a relentless touring and composing schedule – for example, in October/November he embarks on an exhausting Asian tour. “My wife and I, we’ve been actively involved with a particular NGO in Ramallah in Palestine for the last few years and I’ve done a couple of concerts there. You can’t do any benefit concerts, or whatever, because nobody has any money, so basically the most expensive seat is $5. So, ‘Gaza City’ – I had been invited to go there after the Ramallah concert last year, it was before the war, but it was so complicated for us to go from Ramallah to Gaza, and do the concert and get out, they gave us a rough estimate of about a week, which was physically impossible for us. The other thing is, of course, we don’t see through the media what really happens in Palestine. But the bombing of Gaza City was really behind this piece, it so upsets me to this day, it was just terrible. So I have a very direct relationship with that country and the people of that country, and to see that happening… OK, I can’t do anything, I can’t change the world, but I can just write music and try and express what I feel.”

McLaughlin fans will be particularly interested in ‘El Hombre que Sabiac’, since it is the first time in a long while he performs on acoustic guitar in what is a perfect marriage of electric and acoustic sounds which for many will be the album’s highlight. “The acoustic [guitar] piece is called ‘El Hombre que Sabiac’ which means ‘The man who knew’, which was for Paco [de Lucia], of course, [who died in February 2014]. This tune was one of a series of tunes that Paco and I planned to record last year, just two guitars, and he was particularly attached to this piece, so I really wanted to do it. I think the band did a fantastic job on it. Of course, I had to play acoustic guitar, there was no way I could play it on electric this particular tune. On another note, you’ll see there’s a tune ‘Panditji’, which is also a thank you to my old guru Ravi Shankar, with whom I studied in the mid-1970s. It was marvellous just to know him, and be with him, and he was extremely helpful to me in terms of Indian musical theory, just marvellous. So this album is full of personal affections!” This could well explain why McLaughlin’s playing on the album is so heartfelt and intense, which is the source of the album’s authenticity.

With 4th Dimension now established on the world’s touring circuits, with sell-out concerts wherever they play, it’s often overlooked that the band’s beginnings owed much to a bit of serendipity and the right people being in the right place at the right time. “Well, the story begins with Gary Husband, who plays keyboards, drums and percussion in my band, we go back many years,” reflects McLaughlin. “I would say I met him in the 1990s and we became friends at that point, and I made a point of following his career. He was playing drums with [guitarist] Allan Holdsworth at that point, I only knew him as a drummer, and I was touring with the Free Spirits in 1995-6 [a power trio McLaughlin led with Joey DeFrancesco on Hammond B-3 organ and Dennis Chambers on drums] when Dennis Chambers, the drummer who was with us at the time, who knew Gary – they had been in touch for a while – and Gary came down to the soundcheck, and Dennis said why don’t you jam with Gary? And it was wonderful, what a great drummer. I have known Allan, Allan Holdsworth, since 1971, something like that, and so whenever I had the opportunity I’d go and see him, so I already knew what a great drummer Gary was, but playing with him was great.

“Then, out of the blue, I get a CD of my music with Gary playing piano! I mean, what a dark horse! He was playing my music and he did Allan’s music too. And this really piqued my interest, very much so, which leads to the beginning of 4th Dimension, which must have been at least 10 or 11 years ago. Anyway, I got an invitation from La Réunion, a French island near Madagascar, to come over and do several concerts of anything that I wanted. And I thought what a great opportunity and, at the time, Gary had formed a little trio with Mark and Michael Mondesir. Mark was the first drummer in 4th Dimension and Michael the first bass player, but he was very busy, in any event I saw Gary and his little trio and I thought I’ll just take the whole lot! Take the package! I said ‘Are you interested in coming over to La Réunion to do some concerts together?’ And they said yes, and that really was the start of 4th Dimension, and Gary was there from the very beginning.

“Gary is one of the most modest people I have ever met, and with the most talent too. He is the most unassuming, self-effacing musician I’ve ever met – without doubt. He so impresses me with his musicality, his imagination, he’s wild, but this is what I want to hear, he just lets go, he doesn’t want to stay conventional, he just wants to be himself. That’s all I ever wanted, this is a great lesson I learned from Miles Davis. Miles, he didn’t want us to play what we thought he’d like to hear, he wanted us to be who we really are, and express that musically, and I got that great lesson from Miles and I just continue it to this day. I wanted the group to continue but Michael came out of it, and that was the point where shortly after I did the album Industrial Zen. You’ll hear Gary and Mark on several of those pieces, and Gary playing drums and keyboards, because that’s how much I dig his playing. Anyway, over the years we had Hadrien Feraud, the young French bass player, who is phenomenal, I think he moved to LA many years ago, and then Étienne [M’Bappé] came into the band. I had known Étienne from Zawinul’s days, about 11, 12 years ago, and it must be seven or eight years now he’s been with me, and Ranjit [Barot] on drums, who I knew because of my Indian adventures, playing at the festivals in Mumbai, and we got to play 10 years ago. Then, when I was over there again about eight or nine years ago, I wanted to make this record Floating Point, and since I’d played with Ranjit a couple of times I got him on the recording, and that was it. If you listen to that recording, how amazing he plays and then Mark left, so Ranjit came in. But Gary, he’s been there from the beginning and I’m his biggest fan, what more can I say? I think the whole point of making a record is that they all – the whole band – get integrated into the music and this has always been my goal and I think it was really important for me to let them shine on Black Light.”

This interview originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit:

Jazzwise: artists to watch in 2017


Tomorrow is the question: These are the jazz starts you should look out for in 2017

If you’ve been lucky enough to spend the last 12 months stranded on a desert island, free from wall-to-wall news, social media and the world going to hell in a handcart, you may be shocked on your return to the mainland at how the tectonic plates of society have so dramatically shifted. Indeed, with our own island set to become increasingly isolated, it’s time to dig out your favourite desert island discs (and a bottle of your favourite brew) and look to music, and in particular jazz, as a beacon of passion and creativity away from the bickering and bigotry that is becoming the new normal. Below we have asked leading jazz writers, concert promoters, club owners and jazz panjandrums to contribute thoughts on who will inspire, illuminate and ignite the year ahead.

Kevin Le Gendre, Jazzwise, Echoes, BBC Radio 3 Jazz Line-Up
Young Swedish guitarist Susanna Risberg was a highlight of this year’s Umea festival. A brilliantly expansive soloist with a rapier attack, the Berklee graduate could make a real impact if she translates her live shows into a coherent studio recording.

Richard Williams, Artistic Director of the Berlin Jazz Festival,
Every time I hear Anna-Lena Schnabel (pictured above, left), a 27-year-old alto saxophonist and composer based in Hamburg, I’m astonished by the emotional impact of her playing. She’s an original.

Paul Pace, Ronnie Scott’s Club, Spice of Life
Alto saxophonist Camilla George with her post-bop CGQ purveys a focused passion and charm, while recently evolved power quartet TriForce connect to a contemporary audience with their heady fusion of hip-hop, funk and spiritual jazz.

Eddie Myers, The Verdict Jazz Club, Brighton
So many great artists played at New Generation Jazz this year that it’s hard to pick, but pianists Joe Armon Jones and Ashley Henry (pictured above, right) really shone . We’re excited to hear what Zeñel are going to do when they visit us in Brighton in 2017 – a hip, cooking, super-talented trio of players who aren’t even old enough to vote yet!

Mike Flynn, Jazzwise
Young saxophonist Camilla George is not just a confident soloist but a gracious bandleader too, fronting her own quartet with cool authority. Also playing with great poise are her bandmates, with artful pianist Ashley Henry already causing a stir and Daniel Casimir’s wickedly stylish bass-playing is sure to make him one of the most in-demand low-enders around.

Jon Newey, Jazzwise
Whether with Nerija, Gary Crosby’s Groundation or the Arun Ghosh band, guitarist Shirley Tetteh is fast developing a highly individual sound and approach, inspired as much by Robert Wyatt and Ambrose Akinmusire as well as the usual jazz and prog guitar suspects.

John Fordham, The Guardian
The young Welsh double bassist and composer Huw V Williams’s debut album Hon (Chaos) was a very striking debut for him this year – a sophisticated but pungent merger of freebop, Laura Jurdlike lyricism, morphed Cuban grooves and a lot more. Young Manchester drummer-leader Johnny Hunter’s conjunction of 1960s hard bop, post-rock and middle eastern music on his While We Still Can (Efpi).

Spencer Grady, Jazzwise
Fire, water and spirit. Biblical essentials to throw off the 2016 jip, the source material of US saxophonist Jeff Lederer who, with his Brooklyn Blowhards, aims a harpoon straight to the heart by joining the dots between Albert Ayler and Herman Melville.

Steve Rubie, 606 Club
Guitarist Rob Luft has, in a very short time, established himself as a fluent and creative player with an impressive versatility. He has become a regular at the 606 with artists ranging from Gareth Lockrane and Byron Wallen to vocalist Luna Cohen. I see him as being a mainstay of the UK scene for many years to come.

Mike Hobart, Financial Times and Jazzwise
Binker and Moses: Lean and articulate MOBO-winning sax and drum duo with clear aesthetic, they deserve all the praise. Also check Yusef Kamaal: drummer Yussef Dayes and keyboardist Kamaal Williams head-up a killer band that keeps jazz contemporary, funky and relevant.

Jez Nelson, Somethin’Else on Jazz FM
Mansur Brown is a young South London guitarist and a member of ‘new fusioneers’ TriForce. He’s got chops to die for. Currently plays a few too many notes, but is going to be amazing!

Andy Robson, Jazzwise
Sometimes you can big someone up too soon, but Rob Luft’s guitar is straining at the leash to get heard more widely, especially in the Big Bad Wolf band. From Björk to Derek Bailey, that’s gotta be good.

Peter Quinn, Jazzwise and The Arts Desk
A previous winner of the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, Dallas-based Ashleigh Smith possesses a lustrous alto and a style that’s infused with R&B and funk. Her aptly-named 2016 debut, Sunkissed (Concord Records), also reveals a gifted songwriter.

Roy Carr, Jazzwise
He may well have a number of albums to his name, but New York saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s involvement in the making of David Bowie’s Blackstar amounts to much more than an artistic (and commercial) achievement. Hopefully it will attract a much wider audience to the all-encompassing jazz community.

Steve Mead, Manchester Jazz Festival
Keep an eye on Manchester saxophonist Kyran Matthews. He leads a local platform for airing new jazz compositions – The Manchester Jazz Collective – with his energetic playing, astonishingly mature writing and tireless organising.

Tony Hall, Jazzwise
The UK’s Quentin Collins and Brandon Allen are a world-class frontline team, as are Steve Fishwick and Osian Roberts. In the US, watch out for pianist-composer Victor Gould and the remarkably talented Pedrito Martinez.

Rob Adams, Glasgow Herald, Jazzwise
Glasgow-based pianist Fergus McCreadie has been on the radar since his mid-teens. Great ideas and the skill to bring them to fruition in any situation – solo, trio, big band – mark him out.

Jan Granlie, editor
Look out for the Danish/Swedish/ Icelandic/Norwegian band, Horse Orchestra, based in Copenhagen and their second album, Four Letter Word. Here you get everything from Fletcher Henderson to Sun Ra and free jazz, played by seven young men with a lot of interesting ideas and lead by piano player Jeppe Zeeberg, one of the most talented, young Danish jazz musicians today. A marvellous band!

Peter Bacon, the jazzbreakfast. com, Jazzwise
Birmingham Jazz Orchestra, formed by trumpeter Sean Gibbs to play bespoke material, comprises the richest cream of this city’s young musicians. Exemplary ambassadors for Birmingham and for jazz.

Robert Shore, Jazzwise
Norwegian singer-songwriter Jenny Hval and her album with Trondheim Jazz Orchestra and Kim Myhr, In The End His Voice Will Be The Sound Of Paper, is maybe the first of her projects to have troubled Jazzwise’s reviews pages. It’s a great invitation to check out her back catalogue of experimental art-house folk-tronica.

Nick Hasted, Jazzwise, The Independent
Moon Hooch: This Brooklyn trio’s self-described Cave music – you could also call it rave-jazz, or hammering, improv-heavy House – is following GoGo Penguin in further breaking down the barriers around jazz to a young public losing its wariness, by returning the music to the dancefloor.

Dan Spicer, Jazzwise, The Wire
Mancunian guitarist Anton Hunter is a key figure in quintet Sloth Racket, and half of the duo Ripsaw Catfish. Now his own 11-piece ensemble Article XI demands to be heard.

Jane Cornwell, Evening Standard, Jazzwise
Yussef Kamaal are longtime friends, drummer Yussef Dayes and multi instrumentalist Kamaal Williams (aka Henry Wu). They channel their raw energy into tracks influenced by Monk, Goldie, 1970s jazz-funk and the city of London itself.

Helen Mayhew, Jazz FM
I really enjoy the playing and writing of young guitarist Tom Ollendorff, recent graduate from the Royal Welsh College of Music And Drama, and recipient of a 2016 Yamaha Jazz Scholarship, definitely one to watch and listen out for.

Alyn Shipton, Jazz Now, Jazzwise and The Times
Guitarist Billy Marrows – winner of the 2016 John Dankworth Prize for Composition, and leader of an octet that is exploring ideas mingling Asian Gamelan music with what he describes as the “grooves, harmony and improvisation” of contemporary jazz.

Brian Glasser, Jazzwise
Racking up acclaim over the past few years, Laura Jurd is boldly going where no woman has gone before – especially with her band Dinosaur, but with other diverse collaborations too.

Tony Dudley-Evans, Cheltenham Jazz Festival and Birmingham Jazzlines
Elliott Sansom, a young pianist from the West Midlands and recent graduate from the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire. He was a finalist in the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition. Also check the Stoney Lane label, set up in Birmingham by Sam Slater to reflect the burgeoning local scene.

Meeting Georgie Fame: a rare and exclusive interview

Georgie Fame

Writer Mark Youll caught up with legendary singer and pianist Georgie Fame for a rare and exclusive interview

It's crazy to think that it's now been 57 years since Ronnie Scott's first opened its doors in the busy, effervescent heart of Soho. First, from a basement bar in Gerrard Street for six years, before switching sites to nearby Frith Street in the summer of 1965, where it still stands proudly today as the greatest jazz venue in London, if not the world.

In celebrating the big birthday of this grand establishment, four concerts from one of the club's resident fixtures over the years, Georgie Fame, were announced for late October. The shows sold out instantly and the 73-year-old Fame came and blew the roof off the place. Engaging and energetic, his distinct jazzy vocal soared across a packed room night after night, while his warm signature B3 Hammond whistled and purred around the brassy blare of Guy Barker's wonderful orchestra. The music selected for these special shows was naturally arranged for big band and drawn from Fame's five decades in the business. It also served as a reminder of just how much Fame - like Ronnie's - has always been open to musical change and the rich mix of blues, jazz, gospel, calypso, R&B, bop, bossa and bluebeat resonating from the stage luminously verified this.

Georgie Fame SurvivalShould you have missed out on the shows or are maybe new to Fame's work, a stunning new box set, Survival, is released later this month. A weighty set spread across six discs, it features a selection of nuggets from 1963-2015, beginning with some the first material he recorded as a leader following his formative years as a backing musician to such quiff-rockers as Tony Sheridan, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. Back then he was still a naive, 15 year-old Clive Powell, a passionate pianist having just escaped the likely prospect of labouring in a cotton mill in his native Lancashire by winning a singing contest at a Butlins talent show in Wales. His big win that day earned him a regular gig for a year playing with Rory Blackwell's Blackjacks, before he found himself in London, on the books of pop manager and impresario Larry Parnes and receiving some serious schooling, touring with all the aforementioned quiffs.

Powell's vibrant piano style flourished on the road and by 1959 Parnes had rechristened him Fame after hearing the boy could sing. It was also in that same year that he was introduced to the music of Ray Charles, a game-changing moment that would direct Fame down a new musical path, towards the blues and the music of the church, the combination of which would exemplify much of his work in the years thereafter. In the winter of 1961 another significant shift in Fame's career followed an incident in Paris while touring with Billy Fury and the Blue Flames. Friction had flared during a sound-check and Fame finished up as the band's new front man. It was a position he would hold and find great success with over the next three years, sweating his way through late night sets with the Flames, now the new resident band at the infamous Flamingo Club on London's Wardour Street.

It was at the Flamingo, discovering more Blue Note and bluebeat, and tearing through tunes by James Brown, Mose Allison, Booker T and Tamla Motown, that Fame would start to make his name, fusing together a sound from a myriad of influences and relighting his Flames as an all-out R&B outfit. The band was also by now represented by the club's promoter Rik Gunnell, who kept them busy touting their sound around the country, as well other popular London hangouts like Klooks Kleek and The Roaring Twenties. To top all the excitement of the band's live show, in which sludgy Hammond had replaced tinkling piano, Fame and his Flames found fame in the pop charts with a tune called 'Yeh Yeh' in early 1965. The song was a huge hit, eventually furnishing the 22-year old Fame with his first number one and dropping the group into a kind of screamy pop hysteria fleetingly, thanks to appearances on TV shows such as Ready Steady Go and The Scene.

But a change was gonna come, and a year later, despite more chart success with tracks 'In the Meantime', 'Getaway' and 'Sitting in the Park', Fame would be pushed by Gunnell to disband the band that helped make him a household name. He was signed to CBS and was, for the first time, now recording and touring as a solo artist. For a while the hits kept coming too, thanks to the seductive 'Sunny' and the banjo-twanging 'Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde', but they were to be his last major sellers. The seventies were around the corner and it become all too clear that the sixties dream was over and his days in the mainstream were numbered.

Not that this stopped Georgie from generating more great music. In fact, many still believed in his star quality. Notably Island records boss Chris Blackwell, and also jazz pianist Ben Sidran, who in the late '80s helped revive Fame's status by plonking him in the studio with some top New York sessioners (Steve Gadd, Will Lee, Robben Ford and Richard Tee) to record the groovy Cool Cat Blues album for his Go Jazz imprint. Fame even toured and recorded with Van Morrison for ten years around this time, a back-breaking schedule he somehow managed to squeeze into his own active solo pursuits into the noughties, writing more great music, establishing his own record label, forming a successful trio with his two sons and collaborating with Bill Wyman, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters and countless other great artists and musicians around the world.

Speaking exclusively to Mark Youll for Jazzwise the usually interview-shy Georgie Fame agreed to discuss his long, diverse career so far. The highs, the lows, the Ronnie's shows and where his motivation for the music lies now.

I'd like to begin by asking you about the birthday shows you did at Ronnie's. How did those go and how did you decide on material for these gigs?

The shows were a lot of fun. I called up some arrangements from my personal big band library that I did with the Harry South big band in 1965. I also included a lot of later stuff. One tune that I composed in honour of Mose Allison ('Go Down Moses') was arranged by Guy Barker and performed for the first time at these shows.

Do you remember anything about the first time you played the club, and could you tell about your relationship with the venue over the years?

I first played at Ronnie's in the late seventies I think, when I had a new version of my (Blue Flames) band. I'd done a recording for Pye records and we did a few nights there. When I moved further into the world of jazz and I'd recorded an album in England with Annie Ross of Hoagy Carmichael tunes (In Hoagland, 1981) I was then playing a lot in Europe with jazz combos. I remember I went back to the club around 1988 when I did an album associated with the songs of Chet Baker, this was with Peter King on alto and I think Ron Mathewson on bass.

Then I returned to the club later with a larger band with King, Alan Skidmore on tenor and Guy Barker. I think that was the first time I worked with Guy. It was basically the be-bop singing bit and some Chet Baker trumpet solos which me and a friend added lyrics to. The original idea was to do an album with Chet and I spoke to him about it, but unfortunately he fell out of a window, or was pushed, and we'll never know the truth. Anyway, I went ahead and did that album (A Portrait of Chet, 1989) with some fine musicians in Holland and this led me to working at Ronnie's every year after that.

Your music has taken many shifts stylistically, what do you enjoy about working in a big band situation?

Well, playing with a jazz orchestra like Guy's is a luxury. I financed the first big band album I did in England with Harry South's band (1965's Sound Venture) and that band contained some of the greatest musicians of the time – Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Stan Tracey, Phil Seaman. I was a kid but I wanted to try and sing with a big band, so Harry and I put that thing together. I remember my manager at the time (Rik Gunnell) was all against it, he thought big bands were dead, and that it would be a waste of money. It was like my parents saying "what do you want to go gallivanting down to London for?", like I should stay in Lancashire working in a cotton mill factory.

Music has always been at the centre of things for you. What was the first music you remember hearing?

The first music I heard was every Sunday in the chapel, singing hymns. We also had a piano in the front room and my dad played a little bit. We would have regular social evenings. Things happened in the church hall and then there was Sunday School where there was a stage and a band in which my dad played accordion. It was in the church that I also learned the popular songs of the day.

Would you say music was imposed on you at a young age or did you naturally gravitate towards it?

Music was part of our lives. In the days when I was growing up, in Lancashire after the war, there was no television, and every house, no matter how poor you were, had a bloody piano in the front room.

During your shows you always make an effort to explain the history of the material you perform. Why is this?

I think it's very important to educate the audience. A lot of people don't know where the music came from. A lot of people in their innocence think that 'Yeh Yeh' began with Matt Bianco in 1986. That was a very fine record and people think it started with me and it didn't, so it's important that I inform the audience. Especially nowadays, with the way the media is, and life being so fast and flippant, people don't have any depth to their knowledge. I think it's important that people know where I got my inspiration from.

Where did you get your inspiration from?

I was inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino, and by the age of sixteen I was touring with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent and I've never stopped learning. Colin Green, my first musical mentor and first guitarist in the Blue Flames, turned up at Ronnie's the other day, we worked together for donkey's years and we're both into our seventies now but still I'm learning. Ever since I left Lancashire I've been learning. So it was Jerry and Fats until I came to Soho and I started hanging out with other musicians, and then I heard Ray Charles and the sky opened.

Tell me about that time – how would you describe the impact Charles' music had on you?

We were called to a rehearsal in Gerrard Street, Soho by Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, and it was there, along with a pool of musicians that Larry Parnes employed and Marty Wilde's band the Wildcats, that we found out who was gonna play with who. Eddie was sat on a stool with a Grestch guitar and asked if anyone had heard of Ray Charles and nobody put their hand up. So he started to play the intro to 'What'd I say' on his guitar and we all flipped. As it happened, the Wildcats were chosen to play with Eddie and we were selected to back Gene Vincent, but that was not how it worked out. You can ask any of the Beatles that are still alive, or Tom Jones who remembers me playing 'What'd I Say' with Eddie Cochran in Cardiff in 1960. Eddie Cochran was responsible for introducing the music of Ray Charles to the masses of this country. The Beatles were in the audience when we played at the Liverpool Empire and within three months of that tour every guitar player in Britain was trying to play 'What'd I say', most of them were playing it wrong too! Eddie played it perfectly.

When we first heard that recording by Ray Charles we didn't know what the instrument that opened the tune was. We'd heard of a Wurlitzer piano, but we thought it was some strange guitar sound. Ray Charles was so deeply rooted in gospel and jazz and it was the kind of music I wanted to play from day one. We all know that rock and roll, as white people call it, came from black rhythm and blues, but you couldn't mention that fifty bloody years ago, people just didn't want to know. When my band had its first hit with 'Yeh Yeh' we couldn't get booked in America because I had two black guys in the band. They had integrated bands in America in the early sixties but with the British invasion they just wanted the guitar bands. They didn't know how to place me. I had an African conga player and a Jamaican trumpet player and they couldn't be bothered to find us a place to play.

Let's not forget Ray Charles commercialised the gospel. He mixed the gospel and the blues together. In America the blues was known as the devil's music and so Ray Charles made a fundamental shift in that he combined the devil's music with the gospel, the Lord's music. When you look back on it it's one of the most radical things you can do.

How would you say working as a backing pianist for the likes of Gene Vincent, Tony Sheridan and Billy Fury helped you later as a leader?

Well you have to wear a different hat. There is an old legend, that's partly a joke, that the band leader is the worst musician in the band, mainly because leaders need to concentrate on other things like logistics and who's going to be in the band. It's important that members of an orchestra or band get on with each other. To start with, we formed the band because we were all friends together. When egos are flying around left right and centre it can turn unpleasant and I don't want that, which is why in the last 25 years or so I've only worked with friends.

What happened exactly in Paris with Billy Fury that resulted in you leading the Blue Flames?

As I remember it, we were doing a sound-check and the Olympia theatre was empty. Chubby Checker was top of the bill and the Shadows played without Cliff Richard. Colin Green had persuaded us to learn a song by the Percy Faith orchestra called 'Summer Place'. Because Billy wasn't at the sound-check there was no need to play any Fury numbers and so Colin was cheering us on to try other things. So we were playing that tune and the road manager came rushing down to the front of the stage yelling "It's not rocking, it's not rocking!" We told him to get stuffed and that was it, we got fired. Billy Fury didn't fire us, the road manager did.

The journey from Butlins to the big time was a short one. How quickly were things happening in the early sixties and how comfortable were you with your new role as ambassador of R&B in the UK?

That was a journalistic thing, I never called myself that. We were out of work after we got sacked from Fury's band. I stayed in a friend's apartment for two months with no work. Somebody came round and paid for me to have a haircut one day, I was looking a bit of a mess I suppose. But this friend took me round to the Flamingo club and introduced me to Rik Gunnell who was running the all-night sessions there. We stood in for the resident band and ended up staying for three years. That's where it became Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. Before that it was Billy Fury and the Blue Flames. We were all in this together and we played with lots of musicians down there. We were all living and learning at the same time. Once we were in the Flamingo we were working regularly. Then the club scene started in London and later places like Manchester and Sheffield opened up and we were playing up and down the country.

So 'Yeh Yeh' took you into the charts and to Number One, did you enjoy your time in the pop limelight?

I enjoyed some of it. 'Yeh Yeh' is still a strong song and I opened my gigs at Ronnie Scott's with a wonderful big band arrangement of it that Tubby Hayes did for me in 1967 for my first tour with Count Basie. That song opened a lot of doors for me, as Ray Charles did. It gave me the opportunity to play outside the country and to witness other cultures and languages, forming relationships through the music. In music there's no language barrier. And that's what I've done over the years. I've made a lot a friends all over the world, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, America, South Africa, Europe and that's the kind of places I work and those are the people I play with.

Were chart placements important to you at that time?

I think they were important to my manager and the business. I got a brand new Jaguar S Type for my birthday in 1965, it was a gift from my manager, but of course he used my money to pay for the bloody thing. So I financed a lot of people's livelihoods and with building up a business chart placements were fairly important. Even John Mayall, who worked out of the same office as us, was convinced to get in on the commercial end of it all and composed what would be for him a commercial song called 'Something'.

How busy did that period get for you?

We used to rehearse once a week and put new tunes in the programme. We could play four one hour sets without repeating ourselves. I wasn't composing much at the time. I didn't really start writing until I started to make records and my first attempts weren't very good. One of my compositions, about leaving the Flamingo and six o'clock in the morning, was 'Dawn Yawn' which I sang at Ronnie's last weekend too and it sounded ok.

I read that Prince Buster would often be escorted from town to town by mod fans on scooters whenever he toured in the UK. Did you ever get preferential similar treatment from the modernist fraternity?

In Tokyo and Northern Spain there are still large mod movements these days and I get fated every time I visit. In the old days, the Flamingo at first wasn't a mod joint; it was full of black American GIs that were stationed in the US air force. There were also a lot of West Indians, Africans, even gangsters. The week after the US air force authorities put the Flamingo off limits to the GIs it was suddenly taken over by the mods, once it was safe to go in there.

How did the Blue-Beat influence come about with tracks like 'Madness' and 'Tom Hark'?

It was the Jamaican friends we had at the Flamingo. There was also a great West Indian disc jockey called Count Suckle (one of the originators of Jamaican music in Britain) who had the best record collection of anybody I've ever met. We used to do blues dances down at a club in Ladbroke Grove and Suckle would have his sound-system and the Blues Flames would play with hardly any PA system. We'd play at the Porchester Hall and places like that, it would be full of West Indians and a few Africans. Suckle found a place to play in the basement of a place on Carnaby Street called the Roaring Twenties. This was, I think, 1962 before it was a big fashion street. We opened it with him on a Sunday from Midnight to 6am. That's where I met Prince Buster, Rico Rodriguez and all those guys. My first recordings on Hammond organ were with Prince Buster.

How much of an effect did the breakup of the Flames have on your career?

Personally it had a very detrimental effect on my state of mind, mainly because it was the band that had led the way. It was the reason we all did it in the first place. My manager had different ideas from a commercial point of view and I was very upset with that and spent quite a while in the wilderness trying to resolve all that. My manager had other plans for what my image should be. He thought the R&B and club scene was dead. People like John Mayall had moved to America and onto greater success and he thought I should become a solo artist. He also wouldn't have had the over-heads of having to worry about a band (laughs).

The new box-set features, for the first time, a steaming set from the Lyceum from 1974. What was the hold up on the release of this recording?

The recording quality was a disaster. I can't remember who the engineer was but it was a pretty hairy band, a bigger Blue Flames. I put it all together for (Island Records boss) Chris Blackwell. Other musicians heard about it and I had people like (saxophonist) Elton Dean asking if they could be in the band. It got too big and the recording of the gig at the Lyceum was so bad that nothing was usable. My son Tristan is a fully-qualified engineer and so Universal passed the original tapes to him and he worked and worked to make them sound acceptable. The original set lasted about an hour and a half but what's on the box set is all that was salvageable. Most of it was unlistenable and unplayable.

How would you describe the 1970s compared to the huge success you had in the 60s? Was it a challenging time for you musically?

Not a challenging time musically, it was a challenging time commercially, just trying to survive. My friend in America (musician) Ben Sidran and I sometimes talk about how the seventies were a dead decade for us. The suits had moved into the business and certainly the recording industry. This changed the whole procedure. But I kept on going and was lucky to get some work in TV commercials which helped to pay the mortgage, and I wrote some music for a couple of films.

But it was decided by the powers that be that it was the end of that whole sixties era. Bands like Led Zeppelin came in and cleaned up, made loads of money, and good luck to them. Our managers were telling us what to do, but if you look back at it all historically our managers didn't know what they were fucking talking about. Simply because they were still learning to be managers at the same time we were learning to play. And that unfortunately is the hard truth of why John Lennon and Paul McCartney do not own the copyright to the great early Beatle compositions. Their manager wasn't advised properly. I remember we were all told to go to a publisher and get our songs published. The publisher would agree on a 50/50 deal and they would have the copyright. We didn't know about the business side of it and our managers certainly didn't. We didn't care; we were just interested in the music.

After the seventies my manager moved to America and I decided I didn't need a manager, I knew what I wanted to do and I've pursued that ever since. I've obviously done something right because I'm one of the few people that play for a week at Ronnie Scott's and it's sold out before I have time to think about it.

As well as Alan Price, another major figure you ended up working with was Van Morrison. What kept you in his band for what was nearly a decade?

I liked it and he liked it. He came to see the show on Saturday and said it was the best fucking band he'd ever heard. We have a great relationship and it was only due to other commitments that I had to quit his band. It just so happened that after I left the band Bill Wyman called and asked me to join his Rhythm Kings group. These people are all friends and working with them doesn't stop me doing what I want to do. There's something in the pipeline possibly with Van next year and I'd be happy to do it because he's a fantastic performer and also a wonderful poet, like Bob Dylan. He bares his soul on stage. He bares his soul through his songs and his poetry, and he's always been an inspiration. He's also one musician that's made me cry on stage from pure emotion.

The music you made with Richard Tee, Steve Gadd and Will Lee in the early 1990s was quite special, how did those sessions come about?

It was around 1989 and I was in Australia working with an Australian band. I met up with Ben Sidran who told me about his plans for the Go Jazz label and asked if I would like to do an album. We agreed, started sending each other material and I went to New York I we did it. The first (Cool Cat Blues) album with those guys didn't take long to make because they are serious players, they don't take prisoners. It was a wonderful experience and I ended up doing three albums with Ben in New York. I think they are included in some of the best albums I've ever done. I did 'Rocking Chair' on Cool Cat Blues and sang in the piano room next to Richard Tee and he was a fantastic musician, a really warm guy as well.

Is there a particular style or setting you prefer working in these days?

Not at all. At the moment I work with a fantastic jazz quartet in Sweden featuring a wonderful female soprano sax player that plays bebop. I've done Guy Barker's big band at Ronnie's because it's what was needed and I've worked with Guy for over thirty years now. Soon I'm going to Hong Kong with Guy and a Chinese guitar player who we met through our frequent trips out there. I've got four concerts coming up in Holland with one of the great European jazz orchestras on a par with Guy's big band. I also like to play on my own at the piano sometimes. I'm actually looking for a quiet little place somewhere that I can just play on my own without any publicity, just word of mouth kind of thing. Because that's how it was in the beginning. No distractions, you know?

How do you think you managed to encapsulate so many genres into your work?

Well it's all part of the same tree. Its different branches coming from the same root and they all belong together.

Looking at all the material amassed on this amazing new box set, is there a particular era and recording you feel most proud of or that best represents you as an artist?

I would probably say some of the best things I've done in my career would be on my own Three Line Whip label, tracks with the latest and last edition of the Blue Flames with Alan Skidmore and Guy Barker. Those recordings are at the back end of the box set I think. I wanted control over it all and when I had new songs I wanted to just record them and having now owned a label I could because I was my own boss. I think that material is more representative of where I'm at, and they do encapsulate everything that I've been involved in from day one.

Finally, after five long decades what motivates you to keep going musically?

The emotion of actually performing. I don't play anything or sing anything I'm not happy with and it's a wonderful experience to have that adrenalin running through your system. It's an emotional thing and when I'm working with my two sons there's an added dimension to that emotion. Playing with your own flesh and blood adds another dimension. As long as I have my health, my enthusiasm for the music and I can still remember the words to the fucking songs then there's no reason to quit. I'll just keep doing what I do and keep my head down. Like Van Morrison, I bare my soul on stage.

Survival - A Career Anthology 1963-2015 is released on November 25th through Universal.

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website

If you do not change browser settings, you consent to continue. Learn more

I understand

Call 0800 137201 to subscribe or click here to email the subscriptions team

Get in touch

Jazzwise Magazine,
St. Judes Church,
Dulwich Road, 
Herne Hill,
London, SE24 0PD.

0208 677 0012

Latest Tweets

RT @vortexjazz: VULA VIEL & VELVET REVOLUTION MON 19 NOV 8PM Trio Vula Viel continuing their unique musical journey centred around the Gyil…
Follow Us - @Jazzwise
RT @vortexjazz: James Brandon Lewis Trio + Anthony Pirog. Sat/24/8pm A journey through a soundscape raw, gritty, mind-bending… and full of…
Follow Us - @Jazzwise


© 2016 MA Business & Leisure Ltd registered in England and Wales number 02923699 Registered office: Jesses Farm, Snow Hill, Dinton, Salisbury, SP3 5HN . Designed By SE24 MEDIA