Phronesis – Above and Beyond

Phronesis

Since their breakthrough 2010 album, Alive, Scandi-Brit jazz trio Phronesis have been building an unrelenting momentum thanks to the special energy that sparks between bassist/band director Jasper Høiby, pianist Ivo Neame and drummer Anton Eger. Transmuting their visceral, highly kinetic live performances once again into a bristling, melodically-charged new live album, Life To Everything, Selwyn Harris spoke to all three members about the band’s success in Australia, America and Europe, their collective bond, their fight to get their music to audiences beyond the jazz world and, of course, their latest album 

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is the Copenhagen-based, Swedish drummer Anton Eger’s response to my question as to why Phronesis has chosen to release another ‘live’ CD. Life to Everything follows in the footsteps of 2010’s Alive that was also recorded live onstage. That album was the one that propelled Phronesis to a whole new level. With their invigorating take on the art of the post-EST contemporary piano trio it grabbed the attention of critics and audiences alike, making most end of year jazz polls, including the top spot in both Jazzwise and MOJO. So it’s a valid point Eger makes. On the other hand it’s clear speaking to all three of them that Phronesis could never be the kind of band content just to rest on its laurels.

“I think we can just let go more ‘live’ than in the studio obviously,” says the pianist Ivo Neame, currently the trio’s only London-based member. “It just feels a bit fresher. There are more possibilities for interpretation of the music rather than it being tightly arranged. It just allows the music to breathe a bit more. It’s that thing about jazz as well; it’s best in front of an audience. It’s an interactive thing. The presence of the audience influences the course or direction of the music. It’s the oldest rule in the book in a way and doing that, improvising and playing in front of an audience, you’re going to be playing so differently to doing it in front of a studio microphone. And jazz musicians in a way need that, they need the presence of the audience to maybe give a weight to what they’re doing.”

“That’s where you get the energy from and in a way there’s a tension as well,” says the former London-based, Danish acoustic bassist/band director Jasper Høiby who’s sitting alongside Eger, speaking to me on a Skype connection from his home in Copenhagen. “We had three shows on two days and that’s it. If you really don’t get it, then you don’t even have an album. I think it brings the focus and some kind of nervous energy for everyone playing but also an extra focus I think that makes you really concentrate, bringing everything you can to it. It doesn’t need to be in the studio. The only thing is, you can’t really hear as you can in the studio of course. You can still do some edits but you can’t go and really tweak things around and chop things.”

“And that was the nice challenge I think in the whole process,” adds Eger. “Nowadays it’s so easy to edit everything into perfection and if you’re in the studio you use the studio as a tool in that sense as well. But a live recording is what it is. You can’t mess around with it. People were there to witness it and that’s what you’re documenting.”

But as well, as Neame explains, practical issues were a big factor in the decision to record the CD live at The Cockpit in Marylebone in a series of three sell-out gigs at the London Jazz Festival. “The trouble as well with the UK is there aren’t decent relatively low cost recording studios with a good piano,” he says. “The only one was Real World, Peter Gabriel’s studio. In my opinion that recording studio is the best, the conditions are optimal there in terms of making a good record in terms of sound, room, the quality of the piano and the booth for the drums. If you had the money to go to Abbey Road you could go there but no one’s got that kind of budget really so in some ways the conditions in The Cockpit are just as good if not better than a professional recording studio in the UK, I would say. That’s also the problem with the piano because a lot of these recording studios are rock and pop and they’re the ones with the budget and they don’t need a very good, well functioning piano. The thing is if there wasn’t piano in the band you’d be all right because there are lots of really good studios around.”

 

“The whole commercialisation of the US is a terrible thing and it affects jazz. It means the best jazz musicians are having to tour in Japan and Europe to get paid.”

 

Life to Everything is their third on the growing jazz indie Edition Records, and the fifth since their 2008 debut Organic Warfare, which was released on the recording offshoot of North London’s LOOP Collective, from which the band initially emerged. Taking their initial cues from Esbjörn Svensson Trio and the globally rhythmic jazz trios of Chick Corea and Avishai Cohen in particular, Phronesis has evolved into a piano trio with their own distinctive soundworld. Rather than looking outwards for inspiration and extending the sound palette with other instrumentation or electronica for example, as has happened with other piano trios, Phronesis has maintained a focus on developing a deeper, closer, more equal relationship between the members of the band. You can hear on Life to Everything how that focus has reached an entirely new level.

“I think you wouldn’t be able to change anything without actually changing one of the strongest, fundamental things about Phronesis,” says Neame. “There is the sound to the music, rhythmically the grooves and the whole approach and when you start tinkering with that too much, you lose the intrinsic qualities. In a way those are the parameters and it’s working and then that’s obvious in the way Jasper used to write all the tunes and now Anton and I are writing the tunes as well. We’re writing music for Phronesis or I’m writing for Jasper and Anton. The frenetic rhythms and polyrhythmic approaches, bass lines being very important and leaps in the register of what the bass plays. Jasper is good at orchestrating that on his instrument and obviously Anton with all the metric things that he’s good at, implying different pulses, playing one pulse over another, and exploring metric modulations, there’s a lot of that on the new album because that’s the way Anton approaches writing.”

Most of the writing was done on a whirlwind worldwide touring schedule in 2013. It included a range of international venues almost unprecedented for a young European-based jazz ensemble. The year started off in Europe, and then Australia. Both Neame and Høiby pick out Australia as a highlight. Says Høiby, “I remember playing Melbourne in a massive concert hall. It was so big and I thought no one’s going to come! It was just a great, great feeling to do that on the other side of the planet, it was just mind boggling.” In the summer the ‘tour bus’ arrived in Canada with appearances at the Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton Jazz Festivals followed by New York’s Jazz Standard and receiving a live review in The New York Times. This was followed by autumn dates on the west coast including the world-renowned Monterey Jazz Festival. Says Eger, “That’s also a box ticking adventure because it’s so hard for European bands to get a space there on the programme. Financially it doesn’t make any sense but it makes sense in the meaning of getting a new fan base and playing and reaching out to new people and spreading the music.”

Making inroads into the American jazz motherland is no small achievement for a European-based band. Traditionally a hard one to crack for any British band, let alone one playing under a ‘jazz’ banner, Get the Blessing, Empirical and the Neil Cowley Trio are among the very few to have given it their best shot when the opportunity has presented itself. Neame’s optimism is tempered by some frustration at the problems he perceives of keeping this momentum going.

“It was interesting in America because Phronesis went down really well over there,” he says. “It wasn’t like, what are these Europeans doing over here? It wasn’t like that at all. They were delighted. I think that’s because it’s a Scandinavian-British trio and there’s not many of them playing in America. My eyes were opened in that way because there’s a massive audience actually there for jazz from Europe because it’s different, of course culturally it’s always going to be different. It would be great in the future if there was some strong support structure for UK artists to be able to tour America and to play there regularly just to get round the funding issue because it’s difficult.” Høiby points to a few other obstacles. “You know what it’s like when Americans come to Europe to play, they pay like £10 and they have a sponsor who says he’s cool and that’s it you know. When European artists go to the States they have to pay like two grand in visa costs, then the travel comes on top of that, so that’s definitely a challenge. And also to travel with the double bass, airlines are really tightening up on the rules. That also makes it more challenging.”

European jazz festivals have increasingly been more open to scheduling homegrown artists in preference to those Stateside – especially with the imposition of tighter budgets of late. But Neame suggests that American musicians are still likely to be top of the menu in terms of programming.

“At the moment there’s a big imbalance I would say,” he states. “Because traditionally jazz is exported from America, and festivals book American artists because they’re thought of as the ones that are keeping jazz alive, and in a way they are, I’m not denying that. But it doesn’t really matter where you’re from, it should be valid wherever it’s from. Their music isn’t appreciated over there as well with the commercial music scene dominating radio. The whole commercialisation of the US is a terrible thing and it affects jazz. It means the best jazz musicians are passing round the hat in the 55 Bar and having to tour in Japan and Europe to get paid because it’s not appreciated and not subsidised by the state, even though it’s a very American artform.”

On connecting with new listeners outside what could be considered the core jazz audience, Neame thinks that “we’re getting there a little bit with Phronesis anyway after seven years. It’s so obvious there’s a massive potential audience but so many things stand in the way. It’s just the same old stuff, you know, trying to get rid of the prejudice that it’s an intellectual music, and performers not engaging with the audience.”

Part of the mission for Phronesis is to bring those barriers down. Their intoxicating energy and visceral onstage presence continues to draw in the kind of audiences the band speaks about reaching out to. But it’s the unswerving commitment and passion of what it means to be in this band, that has had the most positive impact on Neame’s other artistic projects.

 

“It would be great in the future if there was some strong support structure for UK artists to be able to tour America.”

 

“Some of the success can be counted in that we don’t do things by half and we don’t cut corners,” he says. “We just put a lot of effort in, Anton and Jasper both share these ideals. Taking things seriously. Not like this is an amazing thing we do but more like we’re just going to do as well as we can. It sounds very earnest but for me that’s actually important to give it as much of yourself as you can and to take it seriously in that respect but not in other respects like pretending we have huge opinions of ourselves. That’s definitely influenced what I do and it’s good in that respect if you’ve got people as well who are going to expect that kind of commitment and if you don’t give it to them they’re going to be very upset. That experience of being in a band where that shared responsibility exists, forces you to meet the requirements, to be on the same level. If you’re in something together if someone’s letting the side down or not pulling their weight or whatever it’s a natural way of everyone giving it the effort it deserves.”

In spite of having such close artistic and personal bonds to each other, Phronesis has always been split geographically. Having lived in London for years, Høiby moved back home last year, joining Eger in Copenhagen. Which leaves just Neame in London.

Phronesis

“I wouldn’t say I’ve had enough of London and I never thought I’d move back in some ways but all of a sudden I started feeling like it,” says Høiby. “To see and reconnect with old friends and be closer to my family, that’s been on my mind a lot. I’m not that old yet but I can really appreciate having a little bit more space too, he says. “Not having to drive around three hours of traffic from one side of London to the other to play a 50-quid gig or whatever. It can be really challenging and I’ve done that so much. I know England better than I know Denmark. So I’ve really fancied getting more time. In between playing and travelling around it’s been really hectic. At least when I’m here I have that focus where I have a little bit more time when I can write, practice and be close to my family and friends and Anton’s here so that’s not bad!”

Neame though hasn’t any intention of joining them, at least not yet: “It’s too cold and dark and everyone speaks Danish.” Joking aside the pianist tells me that now just isn’t the time. “With all the problems in the UK and the crap things about this country, I still like living here,” he says. “There are problems here especially in terms of the arts and jazz. But there’s loads of great stuff going on somehow. People are making interesting music and it’s inspiring and important to be in that environment. There was a gig at Cafe Oto recently, Fofoula, Brass Mask, Tom Skinner’s band Hello Skinny, all of that music is London-centric and if I’m really honest you don’t get that kind of variety in places like Copenhagen, it’s more homogeneous racially and I like the diversity in the UK on every level. I love Scandinavian people and their approach to life and culture and music in many ways, and in terms of politics the equality that is at the heart of a lot of Scandinavian people that we don’t have over here. Here you get millions of people voting for Boris Johnson. I don’t think he’d get in over in Copenhagen.”

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This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Sons of Kemet – Rhythms of Remembrance

Sons of Kemet

Sons of Kemet – the supercharged double-drums, tuba/sax four-piece led by clarinettist and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings – arrived with a bang in 2013 with their aptly-titled, incendiary debut album, Burn. Winning a MOBO Award and a ton of critical praise the album’s dub-edged mash up of jazz, reggae, African and Caribbean sounds encapsulated a melting pot of music and cultural references in an organic sound-system assault. Selwyn Harris spoke to bandleader Hutchings about how the groups’s new album, Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do, takes these socio-cultural ideas into rawer, even more unfettered sonic realms

Shabaka Hutchings seemed to be in two places at once on the evening previous to our meeting in a café in the Dalston area of east London. On the same night as he was being presented with an award for ‘Instrumentalist of the Year’ at the Jazz FM awards, he was also leading his Spitalfields Re-Sounded project (he’s the current associate artist there) with his Afro-futurist psych jazz rock band The Comet is Coming at east London’s atmospheric alt music venue Village Underground.

“It was like mad,” he tells me, his tone of voice not rising above mellow, as we speak over a coffee on a humid summer afternoon in early June. “Do a soundcheck, across to the awards, get an award, go back to the gig. I got a cab.” While it’s hardly a typical ‘day in the life’ of the London-based saxophonist/clarinettist, it’s not an isolated example of the kind of acknowledgement recently accorded to him either. Other highlights could include his tenure as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation artist from 2010-12, working on platforms often the preserve of serious classical musicians, through to receiving a MOBO Award for his band Sons of Kemet in 2013 and most recently being named a Downbeat Rising Star on the clarinet. His searing spiritual-jazz sound on the tenor sax and clarinet has also earned him stints with the Sun Ra Arkestra, Polar Bear, Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra and Mulatu Astatké among others. As a band leader-composer his work is an organic synthesis of written and improvised music that draws from a very broad range of reference. He’s equally at home with various kinds of classical music, electronica and rock as he is with the cultural melting pot of music from the black diaspora that’s connected to his Caribbean upbringing.

“I treat music like an individualist thing,” he says. “Me as an individualist developing. Then I put myself in situations to allow that development to manifest in certain ways. I like the idea of getting influences but not having them be a pastiche. So you can tell the influences if you really go into it but on the surface the music I make is always evolving because it’s got different bits of everything I’ve been involved with.”


Formed in 2011, Sons of Kemet’s intensely sensual music hits you straight in the gut, though it’s balanced by an incantatory post-Coltrane intensity and nuanced rhythmic detail drawn from urban contemporary as well as traditional sources. The line up boasts a double drums Brit A-team of Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner and the tuba player Theon Cross, who replaced his mentor Oren Marshall at the start of 2014 and has previously impressed in his linchpin role for Tom Challenger’s Brass Mask. In Sons of Kemet Hutchings seeks to reinvent his Caribbean roots from the perspective of a London-based contemporary musician as well as by connecting to its African heartbeat. Drawing from among others New Orleans street grooves, Afrobeat, Nubian music as well as Caribbean dub and calypso, Hutchings has, with the assistance of ethnomusicologist friends, collected field recordings from Tanzania and other African nations as source material for Sons of Kemet, though he says, “it’s not about trying to mimic indigenous cultures or what other people do, but it’s kind of taking the ideas that I like from what they’re doing and trying to see what I make of it”.

 

“You’re not just here to be here. You’re here to further the thinking about what your meaning is”

 

Rare for a debut, Burn in 2013 had an immediate impact on a wide range of critics and audiences, appearing in many end-of-year jazz charts. The follow up, also on NAIM Jazz Records, is Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do, a title that puts a refreshingly positive and intelligent spin on aspects of the diaspora relating specifically to cultural immigration and assimilation.

“When I was thinking about the album and the very first tunes I wrote for it, I was thinking about the legacy of black people in England from the point of seeing my grandmother coming over two generations from here to my generation and how the priorities are different,” says Hutchings, who was born in London in 1984 but raised in Barbados from the age of six. “So I had lots of talks with her around the time I was recording the album about what it was to move to England from the Caribbean, what she was here to do. And it was like she was here to work. The conditions in Barbados at that time weren’t really conducive to making a living or furthering yourself. It was quite a non-enhancing environment. So she and her generation of immigrants came here to actually better their lives and also to make the lives of the people back home better.

Then you find the next generation, which is my mum’s generation, they had the teachings of their parents in terms of you’re here to make yourself better. But then two generations down the line looking at unemployment figures, looking at lots of images, the media portrayals of black children of a certain socio-economic background it seems that those lessons haven’t been emphasised enough. Because we have been incorporated into someone else’s cultural situation, we’ve lost that sense of that we’re actually here to do our thing. Now it feels to me like we’re just here because we’re all British and we’re all in here together. But I think it’s important to remember that we’re not here just because we’re here. We’re here to actually, 1/ better ourselves and 2/ expand what culture means considering the fact that we are integrated into a multicultural climate. And that stems into Kemet. It’s not a matter of saying: I’m holding on to this culture. It’s a matter of saying I want to expand on the cultural aspects of where I come from and also incorporate it into the situation I’m in at the moment. I think it’s just important to remember the ambitions and the facts that you’re not just here to be here. You’re here to further the thinking about what your meaning is.”

In another way, Hutchings applies ‘meaning’ to a few of his new compositions on the album: ‘In Memory of Samir Awad’ and ‘The Long Night of Octavia Butler’, refer to an innocent young victim of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an African-centric science fiction writer respectively. But he emphasises that, “it’s not necessarily important to have a meaning but I find there just are meanings behind the songs. So if there is one then I let them have it. But there is meaning behind everything. It’s whether you want to address it and the expression of that based on an implication of that does serve the music. The guys in the band, we all are on the same page in terms of thinking about politics and life and stuff. Music is a kind of expression of what is happening, like the kind of zeitgeist, because we operate in the times we operate in unless we’re actively trying not to, as happens a lot in jazz. If we’re trying to be open and give a reflection of what we go through, then we give a reflection of our times. I think even that has value in that it allows people to get a mirror of what they’re seeing and going through. It’s possible to walk through today without actually seeing what’s happening.”

Sons of Kemet

Hutchings is affable company but behind the boyish, diastematic smile is someone who takes very seriously indeed his responsibility as a creative contemporary musician to his forebears and to hopefully contributing towards a more enlightened ‘Kemetic’ consciousness in the present. Growing up in Barbados, from the age of nine Hutchings learned classical music to a high level on the clarinet, at the same time listening to reggae and calypso. Connecting the two came a lot later with the great opportunities offered to him as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation artist, studying orchestration in preparation for his composition titled ‘Babylon’ written for the BBC Concert Orchestra and Sons of Kemet, that was performed at the London Jazz Festival in 2012, and being commissioned to write a piece performed with the Ligeti Quintet in Cape Town in 2013.

“I didn’t really like jazz at first,” he confesses. “I think like lots of people of my age group at that time, I thought jazz was just old, rich people’s music. My mum was trying to make me listen to a Courtney Pine album and I was like ‘I don’t like it’. But when I came to England and heard Courtney Pine live then it blew me away. In terms of intensity, I like the feeling of the 1960s onwards. But I like the rhythmic conciseness of 1930s jazz. When I finally grasped what Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins were about it was a massive breakthrough. It’s only maybe in the last three years that I’ve really understood their music. I saw what these guys were about in terms of really digging into the rhythm and making the harmony functional to the rhythmic connection between the soloist and the rhythm section. The same with Sidney Bechet. It’s only been a year since I’ve got him but I think it was a mask. I’ve listened to Sidney Bechet and heard what I’ve seen written about him or hear what I thought he was about. When I really heard him I realised this was a guy blowing the crap out of the soprano saxophone pushing the rhythm section and creating an unbelievable amount of excitement and the tone and the choices of notes he plays. For me Lester Young on the Jazz at the Philharmonic sessions with Charlie Parker is the man of the match in that. He drives the audience so hard. People are screaming, it’s all playing on harmonic information but he does things to connect the audience to what he’s doing with the other members of the band. Earl Bostic had that perfect match of being someone who’s perfectly in tune to the audience, but technically and artistically he was completely demolishing the sax. Within that continuum there were still all the levels of artistry pushing the harmonic boundaries, creating ‘meaningful’ art that can stand up outside the context of people dancing. Audience response is a big thing.”

Sons of Kemet’s new album drives this point home with a rawer, more pared down ‘live’ sound than previous album Burn. “One of the things Seb [Rochford] who produced it, wanted to do was to make an album with quite a bit of production but in really subtle ways. In some ways in terms of the development from the last album to this one, the last album was quite cavernous; it sounds mysterious and murky. This album was trying to get some of the feeling back that we get ‘live’ just by recording techniques. The drums are mixed so you can hear everything that’s happening, but still has the conciseness of a studio album.”

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This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Photos of Sons of Kemet by Tom Barnes

Cassandra Wilson – Sowing New Seeds

Cassandra Wilson

For all of the welcoming warmth of her instantly recognisable voice, Cassandra Wilson has never taken the safe option in a career that now spans almost three decades. From her key phase with New York’s M-Base collective in the 1980s, she’s journeyed far and wide through jazz, popular song, country and soul. Yet, as she tells Stuart Nicholson, taking on the musical and personal legacy of Billie Holiday on Coming Forth By Day, required an aptly fearless approach to capture the true spirit of this most iconic of jazz singers

When Ed Gerrard,Cassandra Wilson’s manager, started talking to music business insiders about her upcoming record project he immediately sensed a buzz of anticipation, “When you say to people, ‘We’re going to do a Billie Holiday record – and by the way we’re going to use the producer for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and a couple of Bad Seeds are on the record,’ they go ‘What?!’” he recalled. And while Holiday tributes have been done before, and will certainly be done again, it’s hard to imagine a better realised hommage than Coming Forth By Day, Miss Wilson’s debut on the Columbia Legacy label.

Released in 2015 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s birth, the album has been a long time coming from the one contemporary singer who has consistently prompted expectation – perhaps unrealistically – of raising the sunken treasures of Holiday’s memory. “I think the most important thing about Billie Holiday is that she lived her life on her own terms, and her music and her style, her approach to her music is very singular, very unique,” Wilson reflects. “She had a voice she believed in, and she never swayed from that, she was able to interpret songs and place them inside her voice, her life, her story, and there was no compromise, it was always about being true to her voice and her genius, because she was an incredible musician, not just a singer, but a great musician.”

 

The most important thing about Billie Holiday is that she lived her life on her own terms
– Cassandra Wilson

 

Following in Billie Holiday’s footsteps is not to be taken lightly – first there’s the burden of expectation such endeavours inevitably prompt (the majority of which ultimately disappoint), then there’s the way Holiday’s songs tend to swallow the identity of those who attempt to interpret them, and thirdly is the challenge of making songs that come date-stamped in a bygone era sound relevant today. Wilson effortlessly transcends these problems, imposing her own imprimatur on each song while simultaneously reinventing them for the 21st century. “That’s part of the gig, to have a fresh voice,” she says. “When you’re paying homage to a mentor, or someone who has influenced you, it’s very important you maintain and follow your individual voice because that’s always very important in this music. We knew we had to do something different, we couldn’t just revisit Billie Holiday and regurgitate the usual things that jazz musicians do. If you want to pay tribute to someone as radical as Billie Holiday was in her day, you have to be radical in your day. You can’t be safe, you have to take chances, and you have to reach for those elements in the music that are going to really help to create an environment that would represent her spirit.”

Cassandra wilson

Just like her move to Blue Note records in 1993, when producer Craig Street helped redefine her artistic vision with the seminal Blue Light Till Dawn, Wilson’s move to Columbia Legacy sees Nick Launay’s production of Coming Forth By Day revealing fresh facets of her musical personality. However, despite his initial enthusiasm for the project, Launay hesitated before taking on the challenge, “Cassandra’s manager Ed Gerrard said Cassandra wants to make a really adventurous record and I thought, ‘I’m definitely interested but I don’t know if I can do that kind of record’ – I’d never done a jazz record,” he recalled. “I just didn’t want this to be an experiment for me, and totally mess the whole thing up. But then I thought to make this work in an unusual way it would be great to bring in musicians who are not of that scene cos’ we’re not going to prearrange, it’s going to be all about getting great people in the room and jamming.”

The musicians Launay lined-up included T Bone Burnett, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; two thirds of the Bad Seeds rhythm section with Thomas Wydler on drums and Martyn P. Casey on bass; and long-term Wilson collaborators Jon Cowherd on piano and Kevin Breit on guitar. Together they interpret 11 songs that span Holiday’s career, plus one original. They are a strong and powerful representation of Holiday’s oeuvre, ranging from ‘All of Me’, a favourite of homesick G.I.’s in World War II, to Holiday classics such as ‘Don’t Explain’ penned by the singer herself, and ‘Good Morning Heartache’ that was specially written for her by pianist Teddy Wilson’s wife Irene Higginbotham. Nick Launay then played a wild card, “I asked myself who is the craziest arranger I know, and it has to be Van Dyke Parks,” he said. Pop aficionados rightly hold Parks in awe for his work with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, The Byrds and Little Feat among others and Wilson readily praises Parks’ string arrangement of ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ as among the album highlights, “It’s mind blowing,” she says while also citing ‘Good Morning Heartache’ and the final track on the album, ‘Last Song’ as among her favourites: “‘Last Song’ is for Lester [Young] – that’s one we all wrote in the studio together,” she adds.

Significantly, Wilson also does her version of perhaps the most famous of all Billie Holiday songs, ‘Strange Fruit’. She had previously recorded this on 1995’s New Moon Daughter (Blue Note), but here she sounds less in Holiday’s shadow, reflecting more of her own emotional response to the lyrics that comes bound up in what she calls “ancestral imagery”: “Jazz grows out of a certain language developed in the Americas as a result of the slave trade, so there are pieces and snippets of information that arrive on these shores, although all names are taken, spirituality is taken away, history is taken but there are some things that remain inside – deep inside – and this is the part of the arcane information that we retain.”

It is perhaps here that Cassandra Wilson finally becomes the singer she has always wanted to be, a singer of the past, the present and the future. “It was a great honour for me to do this for Billie Holiday,” she says. “I want people to remember her as a great artist and I want them to enjoy the music and hopefully have as much fun listening to it as we had making it.”

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This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Photos by Mark Seliger

Branford Marsalis – Spiritual Soliloquy

Branford Marsalis

Branford Marsalis has always tackled every musical challenge head on – be it playing arenas with Sting, freewheeling improvised rock with the Grateful Dead, primetime US television shows or leading one of the hottest quartets in contemporary jazz. Yet, as he tells Stuart Nicholson, the idea of playing a solo saxophone concert in San Francisco’s hallowed Grace Cathedral, was one that left even a saxophonist as gifted as him doubting his abilities

Given the astonishing breadth of Branford Marsalis’ career, not just in jazz but as a soloist with both symphony orchestras and chamber groups in the classical world and a session-enhancing guest on an array of pop and rock sessions, there has been one box in the 54-year old saxophonist’s curriculum vitae that has steadfastly remained unticked – the solo concert and recording. It’s an undertaking not to be taken lightly, since by Marsalis’ own admission, just 10 years ago he felt unready for the challenge. But then destiny intervened. “Like much of the things in my career that solo concert has that random feel to it,” says Marsalis, adding, “I do, however, believe in some sort of cosmic thing, force, that provides you with opportunities, not with success.” Thus when SFJAZZ contacted him in 2012 about a solo concert, he felt that maybe the time was right. A date and venue were set, 5 October 2012, at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, famously the site of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts in the 1960s.

Branford MarsalisHaving agreed to the concert, Marsalis was characteristically philosophical: “When I knew I was going to do the concert, my manager let my engineer Rob record it – if it’s good we release it, if it’s shite, well, I have this big pile of shite that I can listen to – to remind myself how much better I need to be.” During his preparation Marsalis was well aware that the solo concert presents as much a challenge for the musician as it does for the audience, something he confronted head-on. “I started re-listening to solo saxophone records, and what is the thing I don’t like about them? The thing I didn’t like about them was the monotony. I have a good friend who is an actor, Roger Smith, and he basically does movies and all the other lines so he can subsidise his one-man plays, and they are incredibly difficult because you can’t simply walk into an environment with only your point of view because people will be completely bored listening to you for an hour and a half – it’s perfectly fine for 10 minutes but you have to find a way to be other people and different styles of music constitute greatly to that – that ability to become a different person or a different character within the sphere of instrumental music. So then I started putting together a list of things, like classical things that are well written in a solo context, and songs that have great melodies, because if you’re playing great melodies people don’t mind the rest of it. If an audience has to have a music degree to understand what your purpose is then it is not going to be a success. It is our job to learn all this music and distill this information down to a pithy narrative that audiences can understand.” In the event, the concert and the album of the event, In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral, his latest release and debut on the OKeh label, was both an artistic and aesthetic success, providing further evidence, if evidence is needed, of Marsalis’ continuing artistic growth and evolution as an artist.

Branford MarsalisSelecting a wide range of material and interpolating it with his own spontaneously conceived melodic extemporisations he forms a creative continuum within the overall arc of the performance – for example, Steve Lacy’s ‘Who Needs It’, gives way to Hoagy Carmichael’s classic ‘Stardust’ which gives way to the first spontaneously conceived interlude, which then leads into ‘Sonata in A minor for Oboe Wq. 132’ by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, performed on tenor saxophone, and so on. This creates a tension between melody (resolution) and improvisation (postponed resolution) and heightens audience anticipation as one section leads into the next creating a certain creative frisson whether audience expectation will be postponed or resolved. What emerges is a pretty complete performance as the narrative is driven forward by tension and release, with the improvised sections key to the album’s success. “I didn’t walk in there with the expectation we might have anything, I thought we might get half a record, and we could use it later, I didn’t think it would be one of those situations that when I would listen to it I’d say, ‘Wow, this whole thing is pretty good!’ So, I was pleasantly surprised.”

Coincidental to the release of In My Solitude is a three-album package Wake Up to Find Out by the Grateful Dead, a live concert recorded on 29 March 1990 with none other than Branford Marsalis as a guest. On it Marsalis frequently builds up a head of steam in context with the Dead’s unique brand of rock, so what does the saxophonist remember of that occasion?

“I remember a lot about it because the Grateful Dead, I mean they were really ahead of the curve with a certain understanding, a business model that was essentially theirs for a long time, they basically developed their own clientele, and this is pre-internet, so they had all these people who would sell-out stadiums, sell-out arenas and it was completely under the radar! Completely under the radar. I said, ‘Oh, the Grateful Dead, I’m going to play with them and have some fun.’ I didn’t expect it to be sold-out, 18,000 people, because you didn’t hear about it, it wasn’t in the media, it wasn’t on television, it wasn’t on the radio, and the place is fucking packed! Holy shit! So that part of it was super cool to watch, it really brought home to me the importance of trying to develop your own clientele. And the other side of it was you could just hear the musical influences of each person while you were doing it, like Bob Weir was a rocker, [Jerry] Garcia was like the blues and folk guy, Phil Lesh was the jazz guy, [Bill] Kreutzmann was the jazz guy, Mickey Hart was the world music guy, and at that time the piano player was Brent Mydland – I didn’t really get a feel for him, he died not long after the concert. But the thing that was really amazing to me was at that time they were on stage calling tunes, which I think is so beautiful and wonderful, like in the era of set-lists, they were basically calling tunes and it was impressive how wide their range was, because they played other people’s tunes without hesitation. A lot of bands today they just know their music and nothing else, and that regrettably includes jazzers as well, it was just a great experience, and contrary to popular myth, it’s easy for me to play that style of music with conviction, I was right on the heels of the Sting tour and I was good at it, it was a great night, it was fun!”

Mention of Marsalis’ association with Sting dates back to 1985, when the singer formed a ‘super group’ along with Kenny Kirkland on piano, Daryl Jones on bass and Omar Hakim on drums, Downbeat noting that “though 1985 was a surprising, and in may ways exciting, year for music, possibly the most exciting – and certainly the most surprising – development took place with the collaboration of a British pop star with four young, conscientious, open-minded American jazz musicians”. And it was an exciting band, so what were Marsalis’ recollections of this collaboration? “Those are more intimate memories because I was actually in the band, and I didn’t want to be one of those R&B sax players that constantly play and they just turn him off and turn him back on when necessary, so I needed to watch his mouth, study what he did, know when I could play and I couldn’t play.”

Perhaps the best representation of the band is on the two LP set Bring on the Night, with an extended title track notable for Kenny Kirkland’s piano solo and a rap interlude by none other than Branford Marsalis. “It started out – this was back in the era of The Sugarhill Gang, it was just a novelty. I kind of blithely said on the tour bus, ‘Shit, anybody can do that, man!’ And Sting says, ‘Really?!’ So, on the stage in Dallas, unannounced, Sting says, ‘I was talking to Branford today and he said anybody can do rap, so Branford’s going to rap for you right now!’ The audience applauded and I said, ‘I’m not doing that shit!’ And he says, ‘Oh yes you are, we have all night!’ And he folds his arms, and stares at me for over a minute and I can’t believe this shit is happening! [laughs] So I basically had to like – I used that minute to compose some corny words, I just did it and unfortunately for me it became part of the schtick for that song for the rest of the tour. How humiliating! [laughs] I learned a lot on that tour and Sting’s a wonderful person and a really incredibly smart guy and helluva song writer, it was a great experience and I learned a lot – like the songs I wrote for Buckshot Lefonque were definitely influenced by Sting’s music.”

Buckshot LeFonque, Branford Marsalis’ alter ego that combined jazz with rock, pop, R&B and hip hop, recorded two albums between 1994-97. And while it caused quite a stir in jazz at the time it was just one more facet of Marsalis’ range that extends from a three year stint as Jay Leno’s bandleader on the famous Tonight Show on American television, as a composer for film on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s film Mo’ Better Blues and as a composer for theatre with August Wilson’s Broadway production Fences that earned a Tony Award nomination. His last quartet album Four MFs Playin’ Tunes, was named Best Instrumental Jazz Album in 2012 by iTunes while this interview was conducted midway through a tour as guest soloist with leading American symphony orchestras. If there is one guiding light to this remarkable career it must surely be in the famous quote by Duke Ellington that there are only two kinds of music – “good music and the other kind,” the former celebrated throughout the 11 numbers that comprise In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral.

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This article originally appeared in the Dec 14 / Jan 15 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Photos: 1) by Palma Kolansky; 2) by Tim Dickeson

 

Hiromi Uehara – Alive and Kicking

Hiromi Uehara

Right from her student days at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, when she also recorded her debut album Brain, Hiromi Uehara always stood out from the crowd with her molten mix of classical technique, compositional daring and rock-edged-fusion, all delivered with sky-high energy levels. The irrepressible pianist appears at the EFG London Jazz Festval on 18 November and talks to Andy Robson about how her latest album, Alive, features music that reflects a turbulent time for both her and her homeland of Japan

Hiromi UeharaShe strolls careless through the hotel bar bedecked in a Zappa t-shirt. Yet weighty affairs beset Hiromi’s gamine frame. Although she claims sexism isn’t one of them. “I never found any inequalities around being a woman concert artist. Well, not true. Festival artists t-shirts are always in men’s sizes. They look like pyjamas on me. Which proves all the musicians must be men! But being a woman, like being Japanese, is natural me. I don’t try to deny it, but I don’t feature it either.”

But what does concern her, a pro down to her sneaker tips, is the sound for tonight’s show. “We’ve not played the Cadogan before and I’m told it’s a classical hall. And we are definitely not an acoustic piano trio! I love extreme dynamics: that ride from fortissimo to pianissimo is very important to me. We play from loud to quiet and I hope the hall allows us to do that.”

That ride across extremities is one she enjoys in conversation. She’ll talk of wishing she’d been in Zappa’s band as readily as she’ll contemplate the pain of personal loss; she’ll enthuse about Brahms’ love for Clara Schumann, as she will be serious around the disasters that have befallen her homeland. But one thing she begs: “Oh, no, please don’t write ‘Hiromi thinks about death every day’, that all the time it is tragedies!”

There’s little chance of that: it’s hard to think of someone less possessed by death than the international pianist whose every recording, every performance brims with an energy, passion and commitment that is the essence of life. Indeed, her latest album’s title, Alive, asserts her thankfulness for every moment available to her. Yet, now 34, 12 years on the road, seven years married and a string of nine albums as leader behind her, there is inevitably a richer, more complex feel to her music. Life, as revealed by this album’s story, has many rooms, and being alive must, by its very nature, include a sense of loss, of leaving, of darker corners to be explored.

Hiromi

Alive is Hiromi’s third release with what is now her settled trio, Simon Phillips on drums and Anthony Jackson on contra-bass. They’ve played together for four years, yet, in one of life’s little surprises, that was never the plan. “No, I had no idea. It just naturally happened. For the first album (Voice) I had Anthony and Simon in mind, but the music was largely there. The songs brought the band together. But now the band brings the songs together.”

So although Hiromi is very much the writer and leader (or ‘captain’ as she likes to call her role), there is a greater confidence between this very experienced trio. Each voice is allowed to express itself with greater freedom amid Hiromi’s complex music. And the more they are able to express themselves, the deeper, more satisfying their musical conversations become. This is evident not only in the controlled context of a studio recording, but also in the unforgiving space of a concert hall. Live, this is a trio that truly larges it. Even in the open spaces of the Cadogan Hall, London, where the band played three successive nights, they threatened to raise the roof, such was their volume. And no, there was no problem with the sound.

On other releases Hiromi’s almost manic energy, her facility to write in multiple styles from Brahms to Erroll Garner to Gilbert O’Sullivan has led critics to share the opinion of Joseph II about Mozart that there are simply too many notes. But with Phillips and Jackson, in between the clatter and rush, there’s increasingly a sense of space. Hiromi admits, “there’s a risk in silence: in the musical ride there’s a place you want to breathe sometimes. You make silence and that lets the next note shine more.”

Those shining notes can be heard in ‘Firefly’, a solo song on Alive with a folkish feel. Its simplicity contrasts to the album’s dramatic opener, the title track that kicks in like Coltrane and Tyner on steroids. But where ‘Alive’ acknowledges the big bang of new life beginning, ‘Firefly’ witnesses the brief spark that is life too quickly extinguished. ‘Firefly’ is one of the songs with a sense of personal loss for Hiromi. But understandably, she’s in no rush to share that story.

“There’s darkness in ‘Firefly’, and ‘Spirit’ (a gospel driven blues): there are certain moments when you have to say bye to people. Life ends. There are many things that I personally went through. For each song there’s a hook, a personal event that relates to me. For ‘Spirit’ I shared my story with the band. But other stories I keep to myself. But people will have their experiences of life, and find their own meaning in these songs.”

 

All these tragedies that have happened in Japan should be in my music

 

Of course it’s not just Hiromi who has experienced life’s ups and downs. Her homeland is still re-building after the horrors of the Tsunami and Fukushima, while growing geo-political tensions with China and North Korea bring uncertainty into the lives of many in the region. “Everything you’ve been through in life will have an impact on you. So even without thinking about Japan, it will be part of my music. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but it should be in your music. I get asked ‘Is there a Japanese essence in your music?’ and I always answer, ‘It’s difficult to identify it’. But when I meet people, I always bow. Not because I’m interested in showing off that I’m Japanese but because it’s such a natural thing to me. In Japanese culture there can be a great sense of detail – mistakes aren’t to be made – and it can be hard to loosen up. All of that can go into how I express myself. So all these tragedies that have happened in Japan should be in my music.”

Hiromi was playing Louisiana the night of the Tsunami, in Lake Charles, an area, like New Orleans, that was struck by Hurricane Katrina. “The support from the people there for what happened in Japan was so encouraging. The first thing I thought was ‘What can I do?’ But there’s so little that you can do! All musicians thought ‘Can music help?’ I thought, ‘I don’t know, but that’s all I know what to do’. I found out that The Blue Note and a couple of Tokyo clubs were having a hard time because so many shows were cancelled. So I went back and did 18 shows and donated all the money to the earthquake benefit.”

“I don’t know how that helped financially but if I could make the audience happy, make the club happy, make the chefs happy then there was nothing negative about it. I still think about what happened. Before, the connection with the clubs was about work. I come, I play. But since the tragedies we became like family and whenever I’m in Tokyo I go and say ‘Hello’. It brought us together. There are so many parts in Japan that are still in the process of recovering: so I’m going back to play more shows in that part of Japan.”

But a return to Japan means confronting one of her biggest fears: flying. “I hate planes! Every plane ride I think about dying. Whenever there’s turbulence, ooohhh!” Yet with that fear comes opportunity. It provides the motivation for Hiromi to deliver the best show she can. “If I do have an unfortunate death, I want to die knowing my last show was the best I could do!” So Hiromi works hard at looking after herself: yoga and stretches are in the daily routine as are getting plenty of sleep and eating well.

“I have to be in the best condition for my audiences. I have to thank them that they have chosen to give two hours of their life to me. I feel like the captain of the boat and I invited them along for a ride on the boat so I have a great responsibility to provide the best possible ride on the boat!” And as musical rides go few are more exhilarating than those provided by Captain Hiromi. Alive? There was never a moment’s doubt.

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This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Photos: 1 and 2 by Muga Miyahara, 3 by Tim Dickeson

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