Julian Argüelles interview: ‘Even Ellington had elements of very in and very out'

Ahead of his headline appearance this weekend at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival at the Parabola Arts Centre on Sunday 3 May, acclaimed British saxophonist Julian Argüelles talks to Thomas Rees about the music of the South African exiles, being an ‘elder statesman’ and playing what feels right

Your latest album, Let It Be Told (reviewed in Jazzwise May issue) is a collaboration with the Frankfurt Radio Bigband, playing your arrangements of the music of the South African exiles. Tell us about it.

It was a labour of love for me because I was connected with the South African scene back in the 80s. I was in Chris McGregor's band and I played with a bunch of other people – Dudu [Pukwana] and Louis [Moholo Moholo].

That was around the time you were playing with Loose Tubes, along with Django Bates and your brother, Steve Argüelles (both of whom feature on the album, on piano and drums/percussion respectively).

There was quite a South African connection. My brother was in Dudu's band, Django was in Dudu's band. Me and Dave DeFries were in Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, Chris Batchelor was involved and so was Steve Buckley. It was one of the many influences on that band [Loose Tubes].

Was Dudu’s sax playing an influence on you?

It wasn't a direct influence. I loved his playing. I used to go and see him play a lot and I always really enjoyed it, but I think the way I heard it was very different. The geographical thing is quite important. He's South African and I wouldn't really feel like I wanted to copy that. But he also liked the American Jazz tradition and I heard a lot of Ornette in him, a bit of Charlie Parker and freer things as well. We had common interests.

And that’s what attracted you to his music?

He was unique. That's what I loved about his playing, it was just very distinctive. It felt honest and sort of dangerous. It was quite soulful in the same way Ornette was, or Albert Ayler. I found his compositions totally hip. They were accessible to people who didn't really like jazz, people who were new to the music. His music was groovy but it also had an element of that free jazz wild thing. There've been a whole bunch of musicians who've had the polar opposites of the free thing and the groove thing. Miles did it, Sun Ra. I would say Mingus did it. Even Ellington had elements of very 'in' and very 'out'. I've always enjoyed that balance between free things and structured things, stuff that's challenging but accessible as well. I like that mixture.

Why did you decide that now was the right time for this project?

In 2010 it was 20 years since Chris and Dudu died. I put this idea to the Frankfurt Radio Bigband and they commissioned me to write the arrangements and get it organised. We did it three or four times as little tours and then the manager said 'why don't you record it' so I went over for a week with Django and my brother.

Why the Frankfurt Radio Bigband? Did you feel they'd be particularly well-suited to the music?

I was a member of the band for a while (c.2006 – 2010) so I knew the musicians and the managers there. They were interested in finding new music that was connected to the tradition. I think South African music was quite new for them. A lot of people know the American big band tradition but don't really know other sides of it. They were open to it.

How did you approach the arrangements?

When I'm arranging other people's compositions usually I try and put a lot more of my own character into it, but I didn't with this. I don't think it needed it. I love this music so much and I don't think it had the air time that it should have done, so I wanted to keep a lot of the original flavour of the music. I studied Chris McGregor's writing. I was such a fan of it and I was up close so I saw how he worked. He was an amazing writer – unusual and detailed. There were some beautiful things going on in the orchestration. That's why I didn’t rearrange the one Chris McGregor tune in there, ‘Amasi’. That's the only one I didn't arrange. That's Chris' arrangement.

What challenges did the project involve?

I was aware that I was writing for a radio big band in Germany, I wasn't writing for 1970s Brotherhood of Breath. If I had been, perhaps the music would have been a bit freer – there might have been more open spaces. But as an arranger I feel it's important to write for the musicians performing, not for imaginary musicians.

Did you feel a sense of responsibility given your personal connection and the historical importance of the exiles and their music?

I put some pressure on myself. I didn't want to bugger it up because I love the music so much!

There are some great solos on the album, including an alto feature by Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn on ‘The Wedding’ and a Tony Lakatos tenor solo over some Tyner-esque piano work on ‘Mama Marimba’.

That's the good thing about knowing a band; you can choose the right person for the right line. ‘Mama Marimba’ has got quite a modal vibe to it. For me, to go to that Coltrane Quartet feel in the middle felt quite natural and I knew Tony would be the right guy for that.

julian-arguelles-band

You're appearing with your new septet at Cheltenham Jazz Festival this year. Have you considered adapting any of these arrangements to play with them, or is the exiles project a one off?

The septet is going to be new arrangements of my own music, some quartet music that I've been writing. That's been recorded [for quartet] and it's going to come out later in the year as well, in September on Whirlwind Recordings.

Talk us through the line-up of the septet. You’ve got some fantastic young players on board, including pianist Kit Downes, drummer James Maddren and bassist Sam Lasserson (above).

It’s like I'm the elder statesman. They're all in their late twenties/early thirties. I played with Kit in a couple of other situations and we got on very well musically and I played with James Maddren with Gwilym Simcock. The energy was really good. I was ready to have a regular UK band. I had a quartet in the '90s with [guitarist] Mike Walker, [drummer] Martin France and [bassist] Steve Watts and we did a lot of gigs but then we drifted apart. Then I had a trio for a number of years with two guys from New York, Tom Rainey and Michael Formanek. Working with these new guys feels so comfortable and easy. They sound great but they're also very quick. Young musicians are very quick at getting things together, perhaps a little bit quicker than my generation. They're a bit quicker at reading and playing tricky music.

Why do you think that is? Is it down to conservatoire training?

It might be to do with that but also because music has changed. The American tradition was a huge thing when I was coming up and then there was a kind of sea change. Everyone was looking for something new. There were a lot of European classical influences, there was the M-base thing with Steve Coleman, which was odd metre stuff – different languages. Because of the nature of the scene you had to play in lots of different bands and often you had to get things together really quickly. You might have a three hour rehearsal to play two hours of music for a gig that night. You've got to be quick. And then the next day it'll be a different band with a completely different vibe. Just out of necessity people have to be quite versatile. You have to be adaptable.

What about the horn players, trumpeter Percy Pursglove, saxophonist George Crowley and trombonist Kieran McLeod?

The first time I did a gig with Percy he was playing bass and he sounded great. I thought, bloody hell that's ridiculous and people said, 'well, you should hear his trumpet playing'. After that he asked me to be on a project of his in Birmingham. When I wanted to get this septet together I knew he was the guy I wanted to get.

I've known George Crowley for a long time and I really like his playing. He plays bass clarinet which is important to me because I love the sound of bass clarinet. Kieran I've known for a long time as well, because of the Scottish connection. He was involved in a National Youth Orchestra of Scotland thing I did and we met at the Royal Academy when I was teaching there.

You’re admired for your lyricism and your playing is often described as being ‘free from cliche’. Is that something you're conscious of and something you work on?

It's always hard talking about your own playing! No. I love melody but I wouldn't say that I love melody any more than I love harmony or rhythm. For me it's about getting the balance of all of those things. I think some musicians are but I don't see that in myself.

I'm not massively into cliche. I like all sorts of styles but what I don't like is when it's recreated or rehashed. So if I hear someone playing in a bebop style I don't really want to hear them playing Charlie Parker language because that doesn't feel right to me. Or if someone's into a modal sort of thing I don't really want them to be sounding like a bad imitation of Coltrane. I like people to be honest and to improvise so they're not playing language, they're actually making it up. That's why I love Lee Konitz, for example, because he seems like a total improviser. The same with Chet Baker. That's what I'm really after and once you stop letting yourself regurgitate a lot of known language, licks or patterns then you're forced to play what you hear and to develop something of your own.

Chet Baker, for a long time when I was a kid, was my favourite musician. I absolutely loved his lines. I've been influenced by a lot of musicians who are not saxophone players and I think that helps as well. Coltrane and Parker and maybe Dewey Redman are my biggest saxophone influences – I don't know how obvious that is – but I've been equally influenced by Kenny Wheeler, Keith Jarrett, Bill Frisell and Miles, of course.

It's interesting you mention Kenny Wheeler. You both both have very distinctive time feels. Yours has a lovely slippery quality to it. Is that something you’re aware of?

Kenny is so lyrical. The lyrical thing is a real focal point for his playing. But I don't see myself as like that. I would like to be and I've tried to imitate Kenny on saxophone and I just can't make it work at all, but I know what you mean about the slippery thing. People have noticed that before. In fact Kenny used to say he thought I sounded like Warne Marsh, which is interesting because he was never an influence on me at all.

I try not to think about other musicians and I certainly try not to think about styles or putting different hats on – thinking this one's a groove piece so I want to sound like Wilton Felder and this one's a free thing so I'm going to try and sound like Evan Parker. You just don't do that. Well, I don't. It's a soup of influences and you're right in the middle of it and you're not really thinking about it, you're just playing what you feel is right, what feels good.

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

Let It Be Told is out now on Basho Records. For a full review of the album see Jazzwise issue 196 May 2015 – go to for tickets and info

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