Steve Coleman – Body of Elements

 Steve Coleman

Rhythm has always underscored saxophonist Steve Coleman’s 30-year recording career. Across some 27 albums as a leader, he’s exerted a vortex-like pull of ancient and modern sounds, blending deep African and Asian rhythms with biting street funk and angular jazz harmony, forging a sound that’s made him one of the most original and influential musicians of his generation. With the release of his expansive album Synovial Joints, which draws on the interlocking pulses of the human body for inspiration, Coleman tells Kevin Le Gendre how much of this music emerged from the swirling grit of a blinding Ghanaian desert wind

From the mid-1950s, American governments recognised the role jazz artists could play as cultural ambassadors by way of the landmark State Department tours undertaken by Duke, Dizzy and ‘Pops’ in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. These icons visited Togo, Pakistan and Egypt, playing with locals and often providing the kind of souvenir portrait, none more exotic than that of Louis Armstrong on a camel with his horn tilted against the triangular backdrop of the pyramids, that would have puffed up the smart suits of the US diplomatic corps.

Some four decades later Steve Coleman made a vaguely similar journey but with far less regimentation. In 1993 the alto saxophonist traveled to Yendi in Ghana, West Africa entirely under his own steam, the corollary of which involved him hiring and driving a vehicle and negotiating the testing aftermath of a collision with an animal that had paws rather than humps. But his motivation was undimmed, his agenda precise. “I wanted to go to this very particular village because there was a guy who got up every morning and would beat on these two big drums and beat out the story of the tribe, the lineage of the kings and all this kind of stuff, without singing, just in drums. So I had to see this and know how it worked,” Coleman tells me on the phone from his home in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

“I was fascinated by it from reading about it and I went there specifically for that reason; to find out the musical mechanics. I’d always heard about ‘talking drums’ all my life but I wanted to know literally how it worked. So I went all the way there just to go to this particular village, I wanted to see it and feel it for myself. And then I wanted to talk to the elders in the village and interview them.”


“I wanted to see how it was possible for somebody to tell a story without words, with just sound and rhythms… how can you use these sonic shapes and tell a story?”


Musician as investigator-explorer is by no means a new phenomenon, and Coleman would be the first to acknowledge the research of many of his forebears, above all those he claims as sources of inspiration, but the anecdote is telling for a number of reasons. The Ghana excursion effectively opened up “a whole new world” for Coleman. He has since committed himself to at least one ‘study trip’ a year, the primary destinations thus far having been India, Indonesia, Brazil and Cuba. Added to this quest for information en situ is a seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge that can be sourced in the calmer environs of a library or bookshop, settings in which Coleman has spent many sabbaticals, expanding his mind with a variety of tomes that include anything from biographies on 16th Century European classical composers to Chancellor Williams’ The Destruction Of Black Civilization, a thought-provoking account of the hidden history of African culture.

Steve Coleman Rhythm PeopleOne can see a slanted reference to that work in the name of Coleman’s 1990 recording Rhythm People (The Resurrection Of Creative Black Civilization), and in many ways all of the epithets used in that title are very much key words that illuminate a body of work that now stretches to 27 releases. Rhythm, set in intricate matrices beyond the standard organisation of a pulse into downbeats and upbeats in clearly drawn measures, is a cornerstone of Coleman’s grand sonic edifice but the influence of civilizations, particularly ancient ones, as well as ritual and mythology, has also been crucial. As is the input of non-western culture. The superb 1996 album The Sign And The Seal, recorded in Cuba with Coleman’s group The Mystic Rhythm Society in collaboration with the entrancing folkloric drummers AfroCuba De Matanzas, remains one of the most fulfilled expressions of the leader’s desire to engage with a complex, ages-old belief system, in this case Santeria, and distils its very essence into intensely rich original music.

Steve Coleman HarvestingAlthough synonymous with the term M-BASE (Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporisation), which he coined in the early 1980s, the 58 year-old Chicagoan, who impressed through his work with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band after moving to New York in the late 1970s, has always aspired to being more than an exponent of fluidly uneven time signatures that nonetheless had the kind of taut, sharp, locked-down funkiness of a musician who greatly defined his youth, James Brown. Later recordings such as 2004’s Lucidarium and 2010’s Harvesting Semblances And Affinities, revealed a desire to articulate metaphysical and philosophical musings through sound as much as to construct music in mathematically challenging permutations. Yet this mission reaches back to the early jam sessions Coleman attended in Chi-Town.

“When I was younger I would get up and play,” the saxophonist recalls. “And some old guy would be saying ‘tell your story, young man’ and I always wondered what are they talking about. What story can you tell with music that doesn’t have words? I used to always wonder that when I was younger and all of this is connected because that’s what drove me to Ghana. I wanted to see how it was possible for somebody to tell a story without words, with just sound and rhythms and pitches and tonality and whatever your using. How can you use these sonic shapes and tell a story? Can somebody else understand?”

One might say that the subject matters Coleman has chosen to broach lie at the more esoteric end of human discourse. If his 1997 2CD-set Genesis & The Opening Of The Way saw him meditate on “the symbolic meaning of the seven days of creation” and “the concept of growth and regeneration” then his new work, Synovial Joints, has a biological rather than theological magnitude by way of composition inspired by the functions and rhythms of the human body. Sounds are based on the spring of limb, shift of fluid or rise and fall of breath. Flesh and blood are both score and orchestra. Some 21 musicians are deployed to achieve these ends as Coleman augments his longstanding Five Elements ensemble with horns, strings and percussion, and the results add more density to the leader’s patented vocabulary. Rhythm, melody and harmony tightly entwine like threads in a fabric, the specific lines coming together in a kind of warp and weft that shifts its centre in subtle ways. Internal tensions evolve as much as they do resolve.

As important as the overarching theme of anatomy is on Synovial Joints the album has other pieces that also draw on what has been a recurrent strand of Coleman’s work: nature. Clouds, water, earth, air and fire have all been the subject of previous compositions and the piece on the new set that reinforces the pattern is ‘Harmattan’. It is a wind that Coleman experienced in Ghana, a relentless blanketing of the air with fine dust that seems to get under as well as on top of the skin.

His experience of it dates back more than 20 years but the memory burned into his psyche, and its translation into music is fascinating. “It’s like it just engulfs everything,” Coleman explains. “This whole thing was like this grainy net that was constantly shifting shape and it was just throughout the whole air. Because of the wind it was constantly changing shape and I wanted to get that kind of shape-shifting feel, the grainy feel, all of that kind of stuff so the orchestration had that kind of thing… sometimes somebody would be walking towards you and it’s almost like they would come out of the dust. Their form would be like vague and as they came closer to you they become clearer. I tried to get that feel with some of the melodies, like they would rise up out of the net then fall back into it.


“The drums, bass and guitar… it’s like a puzzle in terms of the way they’re put together”


“I created this melody on my saxophone, just from the sensation that I had… with the other things that you put with the melody it becomes how to enhance that feeling. That’s where the orchestration comes in. It’s like making a sketch, then colouring it. You’re trying to select things in terms of which instruments play what to intensify the feeling.

“The drums, bass and guitar… it’s like a puzzle in terms of the way they’re put together. If you listen to any one by themselves there’s a lot of space in the part. But the way they’re put together it’s sort of like the fingers of your two hands interlocking if you folded your hands together. There’s this kind of interlocking puzzle effect, which is in African music in general, but
I wanted the rhythm to be like a really fine net of interlocking pieces that go on over this kind of long cycle.

“And the interlocking pieces that I used were heartbeats, just like if you touched your toes and you have a doum doum, like a heartbeat.” Coleman elaborates, his speech steady. “The overall mosaic or weaving you could say doesn’t sound like a heartbeat, just this driving rhythm. For me the individual heartbeats represented like individual particles that are interwoven in a certain way to form a fine kind of net because that was the feeling I got with the Harmattan.”

As Coleman stated, part of the conceptual base of his work can be traced to African music, to the complex percussion orchestration in which multiple drum figures are carefully arranged to create a single powerful sensation. With that in mind it’s also easy to see why the saxophonist would have been fascinated by the workings of the bata ensembles he found in Cuba, where the three members of the family of cone-shaped drums, the iya, itotele and onkokolo, cannot be separated.

Each is inextricably linked to the other, and although Coleman’s identity as a soloist is emphatically strong, above all the phrasing that potently blends drilled, snare-like staccato and fluttering, cymbal-like allegro lines, his music is decisively guided by the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In that respect he upholds the legacy of Thelonious Monk, one of the ultimate exponents of an ‘all sounds into one’ musical philosophy, as he does that of any other artist from the improvising tradition. One thing that jumps out from a dialogue with Coleman is the enormous breadth of his artistic and intellectual references. By his own admission he is now less attuned to pop culture than in his formative years but that does not stop him professing admiration for blues behemoth Muddy Waters, or recalling his jams with Junior Wells and Buddy Guy at Chicago’s Checkerboard Lounge, or evoking long conversations with James Brown’s alto maestro Maceo Parker, or terming the Godfather’s music a “major innovation”. Or saying that he once went through what he calls “a Prince period”.

By the same token Coleman can name the latest reading material recommended to him by Sonny Rollins, for whom he has enormous reverence, or quote music theory expounded by the ancient Greeks.

Steve Coleman Synovial JointsAbove all there is a deep respect shown towards his predecessors, particularly those who have perhaps been marginalised by the jazz establishment. No greater manifestation of Coleman’s desire to bring such figures into the spotlight was his role as producer of fine albums by Sam Rivers and Bunky Green, when he was contracted to BMG and Label Bleu respectively, and exerted some influence on their A&R policy.

Then again it takes little prompting for him to explain a passion for the music of the elders. His own learning process is at stake. “Duke Ellington, he did these Sacred Concerts at the end of the 1960s, and I studied that because I wanted to know… not because I was religious necessarily, he was, and I wanted to find out why this music for this impulse, that feeling,” Coleman notes. “Then I would contrast that with something like A Love Supreme, which was also, you could say, very spiritual in its genesis. The music was very, very different because Coltrane was very different to Duke, but I still wanted to know what was the connection. What was the connection between Duke’s spiritual feeling and the music he produced and Coltrane’s spiritual feeling and the music he produced? And Yusef Lateef’s spiritual feeling and whoever. I wanted to know, just as a music student, specifically what devices they used, what approach did they take, all these questions you’re asking me. And then Béla Bartók, for example, was fascinated with nature and got a lot of inspiration from nature. Well, how? How exactly did he do that? Beethoven was very spiritual. How? How did that manifest itself in the music, and what are the mechanics behind how he did that? In essence the same reason I went to Ghana is the same thing I’m looking for in these people. I wanna know.”

This chimes with an earlier statement Coleman made. “Music is not an agreed-upon language… it’s a magic thing. If I play a note… what does that mean to people? There’s other things that have to come into play, those are all the reasons why I went to India and Ghana and all these places where people are playing music that is attached to meaning.”

Now, some 30 years into his career, Coleman appears to have lost none of his desire to broach the eternal mystery of sound. The stature that he already had as the leader who gave important early sideman gigs to some of the notable progressives in jazz in the past 20 years – think Robert Mitchell, Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer in terms of pianists alone – was recently consolidated by the receipt of three major accolades: a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Doris Duke Artist Award and a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’. But the saxophonist is keen to state that his core motivation remains exactly the same. “There’s no award in the world that’s ever written any music,” Coleman argues. “It all comes from inside you. It doesn’t change the music at all, not one bit. You still have to work just as hard as if you had nothing. It doesn’t change anything musically. You just keep doing what you’re doing. I don’t try to think about anything else but that.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Jazzwise. To find out how to subscribe to Jazzwise, visit:


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Ten life-changing jazz piano trio recordings

From Bud Powell in the early 1950s to Michael Wollny in 2013, via Ahmad Jamal, Duke Ellington, Brad Mehldau and The Bad Plus, these are all outstanding jazz piano trio recordings, a perfect selection for someone discovering jazz for the first time or for the collector looking for something fresh...

Bud PowellBud Powell

The Genius of Bud Powell


Powell (p), Ray Brown (b) and Buddy Rich (d). Rec. 1950-51

Two Herculean trio tunes – ‘Tea For Two’ and ‘Hallelujah’, both taken at breakneck speeds – make up the 1950 contribution here. With the benefit of extra CD space we get treated to two extra takes of ‘Tea For Two’, giving us an object lesson in how Powell developed his material as well as maintaining his incredible improvisational creativity. The level of invention Powell achieves puts this recital on equal par with anything in the recorded annals of jazz piano and makes it basic required jazz listening. (KS)


Ahmad JamalAhmad Jamal

But Not For Me – At The Pershing


Jamal (p), Israel Crosby (b), Vernell Fournier (d). Rec. 1958

Jamal’s ideas about integrated and disciplined trio interplay had already deeply influenced jazz’s inner circle of musicians while his piano-guitar-bass trio was around throughout the early 1950s. However, things went supernova-ish when this incredible unit made and released this jazz best-seller in 1958. That it was no flash in the pan is shown by the music’s drawing power and continuing fascination today, as well as its ability to influence every new generation of pianists. (KS)


Bill Evans Sunday at the Village VanguardBill Evans Trio

Sunday At The Village Vanguard


Evans (p), Scott LaFaro (b) and Paul Motian (d). Rec. 1961

Equal partners, this trio sustained a musical dialogue on selection after selection that has rarely been equalled within the earshot of a professional microphone, with the astonishingly inventive LaFaro perhaps meriting the sobriquet of senior partner at times, so dominant can he be. This is hardly to downgrade Evans’ own contributions, all of which retain their depth and freshness today. (KS)


Oscar Peterson Night TrainOscar Peterson

Night Train


Oscar Peterson (p), Ray Brown b) and Ed Thigpen (d). Rec. 1962

By 1962 Peterson’s trio was one of the top draws in jazz worldwide and Peterson himself habitually won every jazz piano popularity poll going. Why? Well, the change in 1958 from piano-bass-guitar to piano-bass-drums had allowed him room to develop the group’s leaner, grittier side and emphasise melody rather than bullish pyrotechnics. Night Train is the epitome of this approach, it hangs together as a perfect modernist tribute to the funky roots of jazz, covering tracks from ‘C Jam Blues’ to ‘Moten Swing’ and ‘The Hucklebuck’. (KS)


Duke Ellington Money JungleEllington/Mingus/Roach

Money Jungle

United Artists Records

Duke Ellington (p), Charles Mingus (b) and Max Roach (d). Rec. 17 September 1962 

This trio session is constantly challenging yet communal, and its piano contribution both sentimental and stimulating. The interplay is even more extraordinary than on his Coltrane collaboration – done the following week! – and the 63-year-old Ellington plays over his head. (BP)



Brad Mehldau Art of Trio Vol 3Brad Mehldau

Art Of The Trio Vol.3


Brad Mehldau (p), Larry Grenadier (b) and Jorge Rossy (d). Rec. 1998

More so than his previous albums, this was the one that put Mehldau on the map, as much for a version of ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ that turned Radiohead into Beethoven as his deeply haunting version of Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’ that hipped a legion of young jazzers to two fresh new sources of repertoire. Here Mehldau’s improvisations appear as variations upon variations upon variations, remote from their source maybe but entirely personal. (SN)


EST From Gagarin's Point of ViewEsbjörn Svensson Trio

From Gagarin’s Point Of View


Esbjörn Svensson (p), Dan Berglund (b) and Magnus Öström (d). Rec. 1999

It was not as if the Esbjörn Svensson Trio came out of nowhere. They’d been around since 1991 refining a distinctive collective voice that prompted a name change to EST. It took the UK, who habitually look to the USA for its jazz heroes, longer than most European countries to come under their spell, but this is the album that did it. Their attachment to deeply felt melody, unhurried intensity, framed with the Nordic Tone, and the comparatively unconventional, pop-like structures of their compositions endeared them to jazz and non-jazz fans alike, in the honest humanity of their playing. (SN)


The Bad Plus These Are VistasThe Bad Plus

These Are The Vistas


Ethan Iverson (p), Reid Anderson (b) and Dave King (d). Rec. 2003

Very few jazz groups today set out to mess with your head. You know, get inside there, push the furniture over, chuck things out of the window and generally make a nuisance of themselves. That’s what’s so refreshing about the Bad Plus. They barge in, do things a jazz piano trio isn’t supposed to do, such as play Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ or Kurt Cobain’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ They give you a musical experience you won’t forget easily. (SN) 


Phronesis AlivePhronesis



Ivo Neame (p), Jasper Høiby (b), Mark Guiliana (d). Rec. 2010

Live recordings are usually unmanageable in many ways but this one has been put together with a lot of TLC, meaning attention to detail in every area. It has paid healthy dividends, with a live sonic that reflects the band’s ability to join together intimacy and energy, the tender and animalistic. Alive is about as exciting as it can get without actually seeing this band live and in the flesh. (SH)


Michael Wollny Trio WeltentraumMichael Wollny Trio



Michael Wollny (p, harpsichord), Tim Lefebvre (b), Eric Schaefer (d) plus Theo Bleckmann (v, one track). Rec. 24 and 25 September 2013 and 21 March 2013

Weltentraum – rough translation, ‘we search the dreamworlds’ – is an album of standards, but not your usual standards, these are pieces by the likes of Alban Berg, Gustav Mahler, Paul Hindemith, Edgard Varese, Wolfgang Rihm, Friedrich Nietzsche and Guillaume de Mauchaut which are morphed into intense, personal statements by Wollny that are revealing of his artistic growth, musical curiosity and growing stature as an artist.  (SN)


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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 - 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.” 


Feature Sons of Kemet – Rhythms of Remembrance

Feature John Coltrane – Giant Steps

Feature Wayne Shorter – Music of the Spheres

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. 


Feature Cassandra Wilson – Sowing New Seeds

Feature Diana Krall – Standing in the Smoky Haze

Feature Billie Holiday – The Highs and Lows of Lady Day

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

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