JACO documentary: exclusive interview with film director Paul Marchand

SMG Jaco-Pastorius

This month sees the long-awaited release of JACO – the documentary on the life and music of revered former Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius who died in 1987 aged 35 in tragic circumstances – but who unequivocally changed the sound and perception of the bass guitar forever. This much-anticipated film has been produced by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo and directed by documentary filmmaker Paul Marchand, and features extensive archive footage of Jaco and contributions from the likes of Herbie Hancock, Vinnie White, Joni Mitchell, Sting, Flea and Bobby Colomby in a hugely evocative portrait of the late great bassist.

Ahead of its release on DVD later this month on 27 November, along with an accompanying CD, Jaco: Original Soundtrack (Legacy Recordings), the film will be screened as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival at the Barbican cinema on 16 November. Mike Flynn spoke to the film’s director Paul Marchand about how this huge project came together:

When did you first start making this film and how did you begin the process?

For me it began in a Santa Monica sushi restaurant in 2011. I met Robert Trujillo (below with Marchand) and the first director, Stephen Kijak for dinner. I had assumed Robert would be at least 30 minutes late, being a rockstar and all, but he was early, eager and passionate about the project he had in front of him. I was hooked immediately and signed on as editor. I set up shop in the back cottage of Robert’s Venice Beach house and we began to interview over 70 of Jaco’s closest family and friends, which resulted in close to 300 hours of interview footage. After a year Stephen Kijak left the project to direct a documentary on the Backstreet Boys and I doubled down as director/editor. Over the next three years Robert and I whittled down the footage and scored some big interviews with Joni Mitchell and Jerry Jemmott and others that allowed us to reconceptualise our film. Our cinematographer, Roger De Giacomi, who is responsible for all the beautiful interview footage also made the long production possible.


This is an amazingly detailed piece of work – for instance how did you get hold of the recordings of Jaco and his father talking on the phone and all the archive footage of Jaco as a boy etc?

The Pastorius family and mainly John Pastorius IV (Jaco’s eldest son) were close collaborators through each step of the process. Also Bob Bobbing, a friend of the Jaco & his family, was instrumental in providing us with a large archive he had collected through the years. Bob had a warehouse in Florida with various tapes, photographs and hard drives of anything he could find relating to Jaco. In that archive were these heartbreaking answering machine recordings that Jack Pastorius (Jaco’s father) had recorded. No one knows exactly why he recorded the calls Jaco made to him, but the result was an amazingly emotional document of the very nuanced relationship between a father and his eldest son. The 8mm footage was given to us by Jaco’s brothers Gregory and Rory. I received them in a metal tackle box and quickly transferred them all to HD video at a professional facility in Hollywood. The great thing about the wealth of 8mm footage from the Pastorius family is that much of it was shot by Gregory Pastorius. Gregory is a visual artist, sculptor and painter and he shot home videos with an artistry that I had never seen from that period. For me, this beautiful archive is what makes the film feel experiential and alive.

The flow from his rise to fame to the sadness of his later years was beautifully handled but an over-arching commentary might have diluted some of the atmosphere – was there a conscious decision about letting the music and imagery (and comments from the contributors) do the talking?

Yes. In fact, we had made that mistake in one of the many edits of this film. I believe that at certain point good filmmaking, and particularly filmmaking about music, becomes like songwriting. If the emotion of the truth is not conveyed to the first time viewer or listener, then the details are meaningless. Our goal was to elicit emotion from the viewer that let them understand Jaco as an artist and a family man, who struggled with a complex illness. We found that the more we let people contextualise his experience, the further our film travelled from his emotional journey. The balance between information and emotional cinema was definitely the most challenging part of editing the film. Robert Trujillo, being a songwriter himself, was the perfect collaborator and a perfectionist with regard to tone and pace. Also the family was there to pull us back to the truth of the story if we ever went too far off course.

It’s over 25 years since Jaco died did you feel that this film will help consolidate his place as one of the greats in music history? Perhaps reminding, or even educating a younger generation – who might not have even heard of Jaco – about his musical legacy?

I’m 34, just a couple years younger than Jaco’s oldest son. I heard Jaco’s music as child, but before I started the project I knew him only as an amazingly emotive bass player with a tragic story. I leave the project thinking of him as a complete musician, and fascinated by the mystery of his compositions. My creative journey through music and film is all about exposure. I hope that we’ve “exposed” people to some of the truths of Jaco’s life that shed light on the genius of his art.

Do you feel that Jaco and many of his contemporaries came to prominence at a special time in music – a time that we are unlikely to see again…?

I think it was an amazing time for music. People were pushing the envelope in every direction and the only trend was to “be different.” I think we’ll have a time like that again. It may not be on the commercial scale that it was in the 1960’s and 70s but further we get away from real instruments the more we pine for them. The pendulum will swing.

What do you hope people will take away from the film?

I think all of the collaborators see the film differently as I’m sure all the audience members will. For me, I want people to believe in and admire Jaco’s artistic integrity. I think the world needs much more of that… and I think that’s the missing ingredient that will get creators back to a time like Jaco’s. He played the music that was in his head… and if the label didn’t want it… well f*ck them. Also I think it’s good for many families who struggle with mental illness. Unlike the many stories that have floated around about Jaco for years, he wasn’t just another drug using musician. He had a illness, and one that was treatable. I know in my own life I can think of a handful of troubled people that Jaco’s story makes me want to try harder for. Also buy his albums! The entire human experience is in his music.

See the December/January issue of Jazzwise out on 26 November for an interview with Robert Trujillo about the film and www.jacothefilm.com - click here to pre-order the DVD

Andy Sheppard – Heavy Lullabies

Andy Sheppard

Saxophonist Andy Sheppard has been a constant presence on the British, and international, jazz circuit since he emerged as part of the late 1980s young UK jazz scene, yet for all his widespread popularity he’s remained hungry for exploring sonic pastures new. Selwyn Harris spoke to the saxophonist about how his self-taught artistic journey has always been about drawing on life’s lessons and not those of musical academia

How about this for a brainteaser: name a musician who’s recorded as leader for Blue Note and ECM? Andy Sheppard is one of the very few who has held the distinction of releasing albums on both labels. But working out what such an achievement really means, it’s important to put it into the context of the 58-year-old saxophonist’s career to date. For those who can remember back to the so-called jazz boom of the late 1980s, Sheppard – who previous to that had spent nearly all of his twenties leading a precarious existence as a jazz saxophonist in both Paris and London – was suddenly catapulted into the limelight with other gifted, hip young sax pretenders, including the likes of Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson and Tommy Smith. Sheppard would initially record for Island/Antilles before offering up a couple of albums with Blue Note at the start of the 1990s. Fast forward two decades to 2010 and Sheppard’s debut Movements in Colour as leader for ECM. Needless to say, it’s a very different Andy Sheppard now to back then. Those in-between years point to a highly eventful CV of richly versatile collaborations and commissioned projects that few British jazzers can match. Too numerous to list here, if one were to pick a highlight it would have to be his long-serving, fertile working relationship with the idiosyncratic pianist-composer Carla Bley in both her innovative big band and smaller ensembles over two decades. But as a leader, his new ECM release Surrounded by Sea for quartet – following the acclaimed Trio Libero in 2012 – feels like a defining moment.

Andy Sheppard“Carla [Bley] said something to me – we were talking about Lee Konitz – she said, ‘but the thing about jazz musicians is you get better and better and better and better, and then you die’. Very Carla Bley,” he says with a little chuckle down the line from his studio in his hometown of Bristol where he’s currently working on a new commission for a community choir and engaging with the local jazz scene. “I didn’t start playing the saxophone until I was 19 and I was lucky. I had a lot of struggle in the early years. But that’s good for your music and I’m completely self-taught. But I did always feel that I was suddenly making records and wasn’t ready to be making those records. I didn’t feel ready because I started so late. But I’m working at my music everyday and I think it’s natural you mature. And hopefully you get to say more with one note than you used to say with 20 as well as developing a voice, a sound, a concept, a musical world. I’m always playing in bands, different styles of music but this soundworld that I have with this quartet is my dream band because I would like people to know this is my music. This is my world.”

The current quartet marks a further stage of development for his free improvising group Trio Libero featuring French acoustic bassist Michel Benita and the London-based Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford. On Surrounded by Sea Sheppard adds the influential Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset (a sideman on Movements in Colour) who delicately infuses the music with his non-acoustic, effects-laden diaphanous sound. Compared to the previous release, Surrounded by Sea is also more grounded in simple song and groovebased playing. Trio Libero was formed in 2009 when Sheppard invited Benita and Rochford to improvise together at a four-day residency at Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh. Sheppard recorded it, went away and compressed, edited and transcribed the best ideas and the band met up again and improvised on them for the recording. It’s the kind of creative process not too far away from the one practised by the John Cassavetes-inspired independent British filmmaker Mike Leigh.

“I thought it was a wonderful record, but maybe a little tough for some people to get,” Sheppard says of Trio Libero. “It’s chamber music and it’s very delicate, very beautiful but to get that across sometimes people maybe don’t understand that music so well. The next album, I thought I so love playing with Michel and Seb and we have such a great rapport that I didn’t want to change everyone but I wanted to make a quartet record. I wanted to bring a harmony instrument in to change things up. Eivind is like an orchestral guitarist and he works in real time. He created all those sounds on the record in the moment as the music unfolds. And it’s in the nature of the instrument, the guitar that all analogue pedals and what have you, it’s timeless in a way unlike synth patches say which can date. It’s all guitar and fret noise. So then I had the idea and I mooted it to Manfred [Eicher], and he liked the idea, and then I started writing music this time instead of starting from a blank page and asking everyone in.”

In December 2013 Sheppard invited the quartet to a residency at the Opera de Lyon, not meeting again until a two-hour rehearsal the night before the studio recording in August 2014 in Lugano’s Auditorio Radiotelevisione Svizzera. If they didn’t get it down in two or three takes the tunes were abandoned: “Manfred [Eicher] did say to me years ago when I questioned him about how much time I would have to make Movements in Colour, he said, ‘if you can’t do it in two days why bother?’”


“You want something every now and then that comes out of the stereo and shakes you”


Aside from the originals, there’s an affecting version of Elvis Costello’s lesser-known ‘I Want to Vanish’ and a three-part rendition of the Scottish folk song ‘Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir’ that provides the focal point of the album, originally part of an aborted project of Sheppard’s with Scottish Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis.

“It’s basically a lullaby but it’s quite heavy,” he says. “The story behind it is something like waking up a child to tell them we’ve got to go to the hills. They’re coming from the North; they’re going to rape and pillage everyone so let’s get out of here! There’s a real history to that song and it’s so atmospheric, which is why I called the record Surrounded by Sea. I was listening to the record driving to the airport and it was like a misty morning. It made me think about where I come from and I come from an island, and then I thought this is the kind of record where you could be at sea or surrounded by sea. Every now and again a little storm comes along, not too heavy but doesn’t want you to get too comfortable. I don’t want to make music that’s furniture. I don’t want people to buy my music thinking I’m a piece of furniture. You want something every now and then that comes out of the stereo and shakes you.”

Andy Sheppard

The new recording’s unexpected nuances and subtle shifts in tonality and sonic tension arising from the band’s atmospheric reshaping of themes owes something to the contribution of Eivind Aarset, a figure who’s been at the vanguard of progressive electronic-inspired Norwegian improvised music since the new millennium. It’s a music that’s had some impact on Sheppard’s work, especially as a solo performer.

“I’ve definitely been interested in the marriage of acoustic and electronic,” he says. “What I find so great with Eivind is it’s a very organic process. When you’re with him on stage sometimes it’s like an avalanche of sound coming out at the side of the stage. Then I look at him and he doesn’t seem to be doing anything! His fingers are hardly moving because he’s manipulating things with a laptop. But essentially it’s all these old pedals that he’s using and just the way it’s configured. It’s just an exquisite taste and understanding of harmony and he’s very intuitive. He’s not a jazz player. If I suddenly said let’s play ‘All the Things You Are’ he’d probably faint. But he has this other aesthetic that I love so much about the music of Arve Henriksen, the whole Norwegian thing, it’s a wonderful soundworld and then it’s great for the saxophone to be in that – like with the trumpet from Jon Hassell putting that acoustic thing with breath, brass, pig skin and bamboo in among this electronic stuff. It’s an exciting texture. I’ve always been intrigued by it. I get bored with beats. I did the Nocturnal Tourist album around 2000 because I was sharing a studio in Bristol, just 10 yards away was Massive Attack and they were making Mezzanine at the time. So I was in that world. These days I like music to breathe rhythmically as well as harmonically. The wonderful thing about people like Eivind is they can do that. They’re not earthbound with that quantising situation of beats. They can float but they can also groove. Seb [Rochford] too is an astonishing musician in that way and I think I get the best out of Seb. I make him do things I know he loves but you don’t often hear him playing in that way.”

In spite of the generation gap and stylistic differences, Sheppard and Rochford seem to share a few important characteristics. Both demonstrate intuitive, spiritual, non-cerebral aspects to their work that have resonated with audiences that might otherwise find jazz too unapproachable. Unlike the vast majority of young jazz musicians arriving on the scene these days, Sheppard isn’t formally schooled. In fact he tells me has never even had a proper sax lesson, let alone studied jazz.

“You couldn’t study jazz at the Royal Academy when I was 20, they didn’t exist.” he says. “Of course it does mean that there are incredibly gifted young musicians coming out of conservatoires all over the world. I guess when they come out they’re fully equipped harmonically etcetera but there are so few gigs. I think it’s very hard to get into the Royal Academy but it’s even harder to get into the street. You’ve always got to have an ear for the street because that’s where the music is happening really. It’s not happening in academic spheres, it’s happening in bars and pubs and jazz clubs. OK so you can play but how are you going to make it your be all and end all? Because if you really want to do this thing you have to be prepared to die for it. That sounds a bit heavy but that’s it. You can’t have a second bow to your string. ‘I haven’t got any gigs so I’ll do a bit of accountancy’. There’s only one person in a million who can be a musician and have a separate career. I’m not the first person to say that. That’s what the beboppers were saying, Parker probably thought the same thing, that the music is happening on the street. Going to a prestigious university to study isn’t gonna make you play great. Basically it’s not going to give you a story. I played with Charlie Haden and he was so wonderful on stage because he just talks all the time. People probably don’t realise that. He’s like behind you and like ‘I’ll tell you a story, man’. It was always about telling you stories, what you gonna play? How are you going to infuse it with your story, with your life? So I think university is a wonderful thing but once you’ve gone through university you have to go into the university of life and even getting into the university of life is hard, never mind getting through it. I guess you get through it when you hang up the saxophone.”

Andy SheppardIn terms of audience, Sheppard has had first-hand experience of its faddish nature in the UK through the late 1980’s ‘jazz revival’ period. In contrast France’s enduring love affair with Sheppard, demonstrated for example in his huge concert hall sell-outs as resident at the Coutances Jazz Festival, remains something that has largely eluded him back home.

“This country is particularly difficult it has to be said in terms of audience,” he says. “There’s not so much an audience for creative music here and jazz. It’s not the same in other countries. The music is put on more of a pedestal. Certainly in France. If you look in the jazz magazines and everything there’s always the photographs, everything is like ‘this is an art form we’re talking about here’. It’s not music that’s played in a back room of a pub. It’s art. And that’s the way I’ve always seen it. John Coltrane and Pablo Picasso are the same deal. But we’re all here and the flipside of that is there are incredible musicians and music happening in the UK. I always think about Vincent van Gogh and then it makes me feel OK.” 


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

Cécile McLorin Salvant – Something Old, Something New

Cecile McLorin Salvant

In a world obsessed with looking back instead of forward extraordinary jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant is something of a paradox: a deeply soulful virtuoso capable of taking 100 year old songs and making them sparkle anew. Possessed of one of the most remarkable voice’s in jazz today, she’s already whipped up a critical storm in her native US. With the release of her new album For One to Love, Peter Quinn discovers it’s the pitfalls and pain of falling and being in love that have inspired her most personal and powerful work to date

It was the lead-off song on her 2013 release, WomanChild, a guitar/vocal take on ‘St Louis Gal’, that first alerted you to the fact that Cécile McLorin Salvant was something out of the ordinary. Immersing herself in the early jazz and blues vocal tradition, the album’s eclectic track list marked the winner of the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition out as someone who was happily ploughing their own artistic furrow, from including the remarkable 19th century work song about the black folk hero ‘John Henry’ – which she first heard sung by blues guitarist and singer Big Bill Broonzy – to highlighting the singularly gritty timbre of the banjo on ‘Nobody’, Bert Williams’ signature song first publicly performed in 1906. Garnering a Grammy nomination and four Downbeat awards, including Jazz Album of the Year, McLorin Salvant was surprised as anyone by the album’s phenomenal critical success.

“It was crazy, I didn’t expect it at all,” she tells me, sipping tea in the lobby of Club Quarters, Trafalgar Square. “I’m still coming from a place where I feel like I never win anything. As a child I always felt that way – I always wanted an award, a shiny golden thing. So I’m really surprised and it takes me back to being a 10-year-old.” Attending the Grammy Awards with her father, mother and sister was, “a lot of fun, though if I’d known how long a day it was I may have picked some more appropriate footwear”.

If WomanChild deliberately eschewed songs about love, For One to Love does quite the opposite. “Absolutely, it is about love,” McLorin Salvant says. “It is about experiencing that as a woman, which is different, I think, from experiencing it as a man. I wanted to explore this because I had been, personally, going through a lot of weird, tricky feelings in my own life in terms of being in love, and not necessarily having it be mutual, or not being brave enough to tell the person that I love them. So it gets really, deeply, almost diary entry personal. All the songs I wrote, there’s not one that is a story. They’re all more or less concealed declarations – of love, or personal ponderings about how things didn’t work out, or how things can be miraculous when they do work out.

“It’s the first thing I’ve recorded where I’m actually, not proud, but happy about what I’ve done,” she continues. “And that’s really rare for me. I feel like, with this, I’ve gotten closer with the band to what I’ve been hearing in my head. It’s not quite there yet, but I am really happy.”

When we spoke previously, McLorin Salvant talked about the writing process as being a challenge. Having penned no less than five songs on For One to Love, I wonder if composing has got any easier for her?

“It’s probably more of an effort now,” she says. “On WomanChild I wrote essentially two and a half songs, because I didn’t write the lyrics for the one in French [‘Le Front Caché Sur Tes Genoux’]. This album was coming from such a personal place – things that I could have said, if I’d had the courage to say them – that it was relatively easy. Now what’s making it hard is that I’m trying to get away from that. I’m trying to tell stories and be a little less selfish in my writing: see the world, go out into the world, and tell those stories. And that’s hard.”

As on WomanChild, in which she covered ‘Baby Have Pity On Me’, the new album features a similarly compelling take on another song associated with Bessie Smith, ‘What’s The Matter Now?’ In capturing the honesty and authenticity of Smith’s delivery, the song strikes you with a visceral force. Having studied the entire recorded output of the Empress of the Blues, Smith still clearly looms large in McLorin Salvant’s aesthetic orbit.

“Her power, in every sense of the word, is the major thing that moves me,” she notes. “With her voice, she just cuts through everything. And, with such power, she was able to evoke so much vulnerability and tenderness. The first time I heard ‘What’s The Matter Now?’, she just got me with this line where she says, ‘Ain’t seen you honey since well last spring, tell me pretty papa have you broke that thing?’ I just laughed and said, I want to sing this, because humour is such an important thing for me in the music. She’s not apologising, she’s not particularly happy that he’s back in town, and she’s kind of giving him a hard time, and I like that. She’s being very ironic, and that’s so real and true.”

With only pianist Aaron Diehl remaining from the line-up of WomanChild, the tightly focused band sound, honed during an extended period of gigging and touring, features the rhythm section of bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers. “We’ve been on the road,” McLorin Salvant says, “and I really wanted it to be people that not only knew each other musically, but personally, who were friends who had been through things together, so there was a deep emotional connection.”

If the absence of James Chirillo in the lineup leaves banjo lovers distraught, there’s an encouraging silver lining. “The banjo is one of my favourite instruments, so I’ll always want a little bit of banjo. This time I decided I wanted to have one song in French with an accordion player [the melancholy song of lost love, ‘Le Mal De Vivre’]. For some reason, I like those instruments that for a long time had been mocked. Accordion and banjo: I love those instruments.”

Judging by the ear-catching, ever-changing backdrops created by Diehl, Sikivie and Leathers, the quartet is clearly pulling in one creative direction, as McLorin Salvant is quick to acknowledge.

“Sensitivity is key, and not getting in the way of the song’s meaning. As jazz musicians, when you’re improvising it’s easy to lose that core meaning of the song. Also, they’re swinging – that, I think, is crucial. It’s very joyful, and they’re people who feed me as much as I give back. And dynamics, too. I don’t think I’ve heard so many dynamics in another band. You realise it the most when you hear us live. That’s why I really want to do a live album with this band. They actually taught me the beauty and the effectiveness of dynamics, of having that range.”

But let’s not forget the most glorious instrument of all: McLorin Salvant’s voice. Listening to the way in which she endlessly sustains the first two words (‘Love appeared’) of album opener, ‘Fog’, you’re struck anew by the timbral richness and interpretative depth. Is she conscious of any changes in her voice since WomanChild?

“I’m more aware of what I can and can’t do. And I’m probably more aware of the value of certain textures for certain words. I can growl a little bit now, which I couldn’t necessarily do before. I think I still have a very young voice; I definitely can’t hit all the lows that I’d like. But I also feel like I have more endurance, that’s something I notice more on tour. I’m more aware of things so that I can make choices that are less driven by how pretty it sounds, and more driven by: what is the meaning of this? Why am I doing this? Can I do less? As I grow older, I’m realising more and more that I can do less – you’re doing too much, you’re sounding too much like somebody that’s not you, you’re pushing this for no reason, you’re trying to make a nice low sound there, why are you doing that?”

When it comes to other music that has been fuelling her creativity, McLorin Salvant’s overarching desire to continue soaking up the music of the greats who preceded her comes strongly to the fore.

“Right now, I’m getting back to some fundamental things that I sort of overlooked: the Gershwin Songbook. I went online and picked up this list of all their songs, whether together or separate. And, of course, there are some songs that we all know, but there are a lot of songs that haven’t been recorded. I discovered a great one called ‘Ask Me Again’ which has been recorded by Rosemary Clooney, Nancy LaMott, and Michael Feinstein, and that’s it. It’s a beautiful song, but there’s not really a pure jazz version, which is crazy because that song was written, I think, in the 1920s. Since the album’s been out, I’ve been listening to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, and Choose Your Weapon by Hiatus Kaiyote, an amazing future soul band from Australia.” The venerably old in the embrace of the freshly minted. That, in a nutshell, seems to encapsulate what this exceptional artist is all about. 


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

Kamasi Washington – Big Bang Theory

Kamasi Washington

There are few, if any, jazz triple albums that have made quite the impact that Kamasi Washington’s The Epic has had this year. Kevin Le Gendre spoke to the Los Angeles-based saxophonist about how his seismic spiritually-charged music came from his formative years playing in church and a deep well of like-minded forebears

Historically, the west coast of America may be synonymous with jazz that is ‘cool’, but many of its players also went straight ‘into the hot’. Certainly, the likes of Dexter Gordon knew how to burn and today there is a Los Angeles jazz scene that is ablaze with ideas as well as intense performances, producing artists such as 34-year-old saxophonist Kamasi Washington. His The Epic is arguably debut album of the year, a work whose earthy maturity is matched only by its fiery ambition.

At its core is a crack 10-piece band featuring electric bassist Thundercat, but it is the inclusion of a 32-piece string orchestra and 20-strong choir that makes the 172 minutes of the triple CD a digital age rhapsody. Unsurprisingly, its roots run deep. Washington’s mentor is none other than the big band legend Gerald Wilson. In 2006 the younger artist/musician had a very significant meeting with the veteran composer.

“I was showing Gerald a live recording of my band The Next Step and Brandon Coleman was playing some keyboard strings,” Washington told me in a recent email exchange. “Gerald and I had talked about classical music and orchestration a lot over the years and he really liked the sound of what Brandon was doing, and told me I should write some orchestral pieces that would include that band.”

Son of respected Angeleno saxophonist Ricky Washington, Kamasi, who majored in Ethnomusicology at UCLA and counts Jeff Clayton among his other essential tutors, was subsequently asked to make a record by Flying Lotus, the interstellar producer whose A&R policy at the fiercely progressive Brainfeeder label brought to light the aforementioned Thundercat. Significantly, Lotus gave Washington creative carte blanche. “That sense of freedom led me back to the memory of that day with Gerald,” Washington says. “It was my opportunity to do some things on that scale. I didn’t want to lock the musicians into a rigid arrangement of orchestrations. The magic of what we do comes from having the freedom to move the music the way the moment asks us.”

So Washington opted to record his bandmembers first to enable them to “do what they hear”, before arranging the strings and voices around “what we did spontaneously, so I could get the best of both worlds”.

The result was a series of sweeping, soul-stirring anthems that lean equally to jazz, gospel and classical traditions, and it was indeed an iconic composer from the last canon that acted as a key pathfinder. “My biggest inspiration on the choral side actually came from Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony of Psalms’,” Washington reveals. “I used to listen to that and dream of improvising over it with a live orchestra and chorus. But there are others as well, like the Charlie Parker With Strings album, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Norman Connors’ Dark Of Light and Donald Byrd’s Cristo Redentor. I listen to a lot of music!” Bigger is better on The Epic. Washington has a lot of musicians in his orbit and rather than diminish numbers he decided to augment when circumstances conspired to fill the rehearsal room to bursting. “My big band The Next Step came together in a way by chance. I’ve known everyone in my band since I was a kid, some as early as three years old. We’ve always played with each other and been in each other’s bands but we’d never had everyone on the same gig at the same time,” says Washington. “One night I had a gig at a club called 5th Street Dicks and Cameron Graves, Thundercat and Ronald Bruner were supposed to be the rhythm section. I forget the reason they all ended up cancelling on me the day of the gig, so I called Miles Mosley, Brandon Coleman and Tony Austin to come play and somehow they all showed up! My first thought was to have them do alternate sets, then I thought it would be interesting to see how they would all sound together. We sounded amazing, you would think we had been playing with a double rhythm section for years the way everything fit so perfectly.”

Musical osmosis aside, the emotional charge of The Epic can be traced to an experience Washington had as a boy that proved a turning point in his life as a musician. At the age of 13 he used his father’s horn without permission to figure out how to play his favorite song at the time – Wayne Shorter’s ‘Sleeping Dancer Sleep On’. “I ran and showed him and he immediately took me seriously. Literally, the next day he took me to join the band at my uncle’s church! At my uncle’s church they were so into the spirit of music. We never knew how we were going to play the songs or even what key they were going to be in, everything had to be, as the choir director would say, ‘led by the spirit’. All the musicians and singers would just flow and at some point every week we would reach these amazing climaxes! As I learned about other musical traditions, styles, and cultures I’ve always found that so much of the music that I really loved had that same kind of approach even if the musicians didn’t mean to make ‘spiritual music’.”


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

Kurt Elling – Out of This World

Kurt Elling

Kurt Elling’s richly resonant, subtly virtuosic voice is one of the most recognisable and celebrated in jazz earning him a Grammy for his 2009 album Dedicated To You alongside 10 other Grammy nominations, and seen him top numerous critics polls. Yet with the end of his 20-year musical partnership with pianist Laurence Hobgood, Elling is now seeking out new artistic territory, as heard on his latest album, Passion World, which sees his globetrotting tastes exploring music from Brazil, Ireland, France, Scotland, Iceland and Cuba. Peter Quinn spoke to the singer about his journey into the unknown, embracing change and his hopes and fears for the heart and soul of humanity

Kurt Elling is ringing the changes. On the business side, he’s with new management. On the artistic side, his latest release, Passion World, is an ambitious new project which casts its stylistic net far and wide, mostly from outside the jazz canon. But the most far-reaching change since our last conversation (‘Up On The Roof’, Jazzwise 169) is the ending of his long-standing musical relationship with pianist and arranger Laurence Hobgood.

When I spoke to the producer of Elling’s 2011 album The Gate, Don Was, at the time of the album’s release, he noted the following about the closeness of Hobgood and Elling’s musical relationship: “What I discovered as producer of The Gate is that Kurt and Laurence together form this kind of living organism that is rapidly evolving over time. The way they work off each other is really unique, and magnificent.” Sitting in the top floor bar of a central London hotel, surveying the city’s vastness, I suggest to Elling that to end that relationship – Hobgood had been a key collaborator for almost two decades, from the time of the singer’s 1995 Blue Note debut Close Your Eyes – must have been incredibly difficult.

“It was,” he replies. “And I’m confident that in the fullness of time we’ll be able to, and we’ll both desire to, revisit it. It’s a long, long time working with somebody like that, and him working with somebody like this. I’m certainly proud of everything we’ve done together and everything we learnt together and everything we taught each other. But I think it’s just a natural part of the adventure that you try different things with different people.

“God, I’m learning so much about skills I didn’t even know that I had developed,” he continues. “Putting the new record together felt like a much bigger risk: just the doing of it and the emotional support that I got from the guys in the band. They all knew that it was a new way of going about making a record, me not having Laurence there as a sounding board. Laurence needs to have the freedom to not be bound by whatever creative decisions I want to make on the stand. And while it’s true that we have been stronger together, I’m pretty sure we’re strong individually, and he deserves the time to find out where his trio thing can take him. And who wouldn’t want to hire this guy, right?”

Following this parting of ways, I wonder who Elling now looks to as his sounding board. “I don’t think that there is one at this point, it’s developing,” he says. “We don’t have a stable piano chair. It just makes sense, after 20 years, not to be tied down again. And it’s an open-ended question as to what the band sound wants to develop into. John McLean on guitar has been with me long enough that I know what kind of things he’s capable of and I want to play off of those elements. And that probably means getting a lot more B3 in the mix, so I’ve got to have a piano player with a slightly different skill set. And it takes a while for band personalities to gel and for things to become themselves. The important thing is to make friendships and value people and value the experience. I just want it to continue to open out. While I’m on earth and while I can do this stuff, it isn’t just going down the one track. I think that would be boring for everybody. I want to be surprised and I want to surprise myself.”

The impulse behind the singer’s eleventh album, Passion World, a stunning collection about how love and heartbreak is interpreted through song in different musical cultures, stems from a long-standing desire to perform with the French accordion maestro Richard Galliano. Elling vividly recalls the first time the accordionist crossed his radar.

“We were on a festival together in Brazil. The level of musical eloquence and dexterity was just thrilling. And, of course, the sound. As a Chicagoan I can go down the road of an accordion player: I can hears me some accordion, brother! Then I heard him in Paris a couple of times and started to dig into the recordings. Jazz at Lincoln Center invited me to do some nights and, as always, I’m trying to figure out where’s the road in my head leading me. And Galliano’s was the name at the top of my list. I didn’t even think it would be possible: the guy lives over in Paris, who’s going to pay for that? So Jazz at Lincoln Center, bless them, said OK let’s do that. Wow, well, I better get to work. I had heard him in enough contexts that I knew he was pretty omni-competent and ready to play in many different styles. So some of the things that we had been doing to reach a hand of friendship out to audiences came more into focus and then it became that kind of a show. It’s incredibly gratifying to have a friendly relationship with a guy that doesn’t even speak the same language.”

With new lyrics penned by Elling, including a particularly beautiful line in the Pat Metheny song ‘After The Door’ (originally titled ‘Another Life’) – ‘The songs I already know, lovely as they are, should grow into something more. There’s a world of love and music after the door’ – appears to sum up the entire ethos of the album.

“I was hoping it would,” Elling says. “I was hoping the message would get out. Life is the adventure; you want to find out what’s out there. It isn’t until you tie yourself to the bench that you discover: are you really willing to sacrifice? Are you really willing to have your heart broken? Are you really willing to risk it all? Are you dedicated enough? Can you figure out a way to be smarter than everybody else in the room at this one thing? And as you go down that road, you will have your heart broken, and you will sacrifice, and if you are dedicated enough you’ll find out. And as that happens, you’ll be out in the world and it isn’t just the music. But it’s the same road. And it also speaks a little bit to parting with Laurence. It’s like, well I know all these songs, what don’t I know? I know how to sing all these ways; can I also learn how to sing these ways? Can I work with these people?”

The album’s eclectic song list draws not only on Brazilian and Cuban music, but also on French chanson, Brahms, and traditional Scottish music, the latter remembered from time spent as a student in Scotland before his journey in jazz had begun. “I had this stupid ukulele along with me,” he recalls. “And I busked a little bit, which was just embarrassing. But it turns out you only need five or six chords to do just about any tune you want to play. And that song stuck in my head.” Kurt Elling busking traditional Scottish songs on a ukulele – no, I can’t imagine it either.

If Passion World represents a search for new sound worlds and musical relationships, with Elling’s voice now having reached its full maturity, I ask if the album also illustrates a desire to draw on new stylistic elements? “Oh yeah,” Elling says. “With Passion World I’m trying to sing believably in different languages and slightly different styles. I don’t want to just jettison my jazz identity or anything like that. I want to meet in the middle. But I’d love to learn how to sing some fado, because it’s so gorgeous and profound. Turkish music: I’d love to get over there and kick that stuff and figure it out. Because it’s beautiful. If I can investigate some other things and have some more friendships, that’s really what it’s about. I haven’t even touched on Asia or Africa on this record. I’m kind of thinking of this as volume one, although I don’t have specific plans for when a volume two would appear. But, God willing, I’ll be able to tour a little bit longer and learn some more stuff.

“That’s really the way that I like it to come. I meet somebody out there who’s another musician, like Galliano or my friend Toku over in Japan – a really great singer, flugelhorn player, a beautiful cat. ‘Well, hey man, let’s go out and hit Tokyo and show me what this is about’. In addition to having the friends in the band, there are a lot of people out there, there’s a lot of ingenuity. That’s one of the big rewards of being on the road. If you’re going to be away from your daughter, you better figure out a reason to do it beyond the soundcheck. I better, otherwise I’ll jump out the window.”

As one of the busiest jazz artists on the planet, performing 200 shows each year, Elling knows all about the road. His touring schedule, he tells me, has got a little out of control. “As a musician, it’s great to be out on the road, I’m grateful for it, I’m happy to be in London again. As a father and as a human being, it’s a little too much.” It’s one of the things he’s looking at with his new management team. And being away from the US so much necessarily means catching up on events back home via foreign media, which must give him an interesting perspective on the disturbing recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere.

“The thing about it is, that’s been happening forever in the States, it’s just that it’s coming to light now. There’s a cancer in the body politic – there’s so much fear, and there are so many moneyed interests playing off of that fear, and trying to increase the fear so that they can have more control. That’s really what it comes down to. People are trying to play it, and the Supreme Court hasn’t stopped the incredible money slush that’s just cascading in from these corporations and individuals. And they’re just trying to buy everything that they possibly can. The Senate and the House are totally corrupted. I could point you to some true idealists, people I individually believe in, but it’s quite a sick moment for politics in the US. We’re at such a dangerous moment in global history, and if you can’t have somebody who’s as sensible as Barack Obama, and dispassionate in the best possible way about logical choices, if you can’t have somebody like that truly lead the country as a unit, rather than this crazed, bombastic, downward spiral into greater and greater depreciation of the discussion, then I don’t know. All I can say is, there’s a kind of insanity.

“There will always be challenges, and there will always be pain, and there will always be disruption and destruction. Human nature and the world being what it is, we can’t escape ourselves and our fate. But if we actually wanted to, we really could make it a lot better. We really could.”

If Elling despairs about the political mess at home, he remains absolutely clear-eyed about his role as an artist. As one of the music’s preeminent practitioners, he sums up his task simply and succinctly: “To sing well and to create a beautiful experience for audiences. And that’s a big enough job.” And with Passion World Vol.2 already a twinkle in his eye, there’s clearly a lot more love, music and beauty to explore.


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

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