Stan Tracey's relationship with the Vortex was very close. David Mossman believes that he was the first person to call Stan "The Godfather of British Jazz", a name which has stuck throughout the recent tributes to him. David said that, if ever he introduced Stan in this way, he could see the great man wince! I also think that he was probably the first musician to play at the original Vortex, and thus it is due to Stan that the Vortex is no longer just a bookshop and gallery as it was when it first opened on Stoke Newington Church Street.
Hearing and seeing Stan Tracey over recent years at the Vortex impressed on me for several reasons. First, the mental and physical spriteliness that playing music gives. As soon as he got up on the stage and started playing the years seemed to fall away. Somehow, he seemed at least 20 years younger. One of the special things about music. One of his regular dates, just a few days after the death of Jackie, was particularly moving as this lady was not just his wife but also the drummer's mother. That also showed his mental strength, to me.
I also listen back with regularity to some of his fully improvised albums. Those with Evan Parker and Stan, but also the duo with Clark. Stan was from a generation which clearly could not separate between composition and free improvisation. And on the gigs with Evan and Clark, he gave as good as he got. The first time the three played together, I shall always remember the thrill of Clark to be playing with two masters.
The empathy with Evan clearly extended to the awareness of language and history. One of their duo tracks is called "Skeffington's Daughter". It describes a torture instrument from Tudor times which was the opposite of the rack. (Having checked this before, it helped me when I came across this in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.)
He seemed to take all the challenges for granted. The idea of arranging for and leading a big band, and then soloing too, at the Royal Albert Hall for a BBC Prom to 5,000 would be daunting to anyone. But when Stan did it, he was over 80!
He achieved a lot over the years and he has received, understandably, the adulation in obituaries and tributes justified for being "a national monument", as Alex Dutilh of France Musique has called him. (Thanks to Sebastian Scotney for that.) But actually his regular gigs were at places like the Vortex and Bull's Head to the end. Did he really do enough of the high profile gigs as someone of that description deserves towards the last days of his life?
Here are a couple of photos that I took of Stan in January 2011. The first with Evan and the second with himself (courtesy of the glass reflection from one of the painting behind him).
The second Q and A for the Sofa Series brings pianist Liam Noble into focus
katan500: Favourite colour?
Liam Noble: Orange;
my family say I'm lying. I say I like it because I think not many
people choose it, and that it's the same reason I used to support Aston
Villa at school (in Bromley) instead of Liverpool. (katan500: Hmm... a sort of underdog colour....)
Katan500: Jazz is... In 150 characters?
Liam Noble: A way of working. I have some characters left! Materials can be made up of anything.
Katan500: Cats or dogs? As It's Christmas... artificial or real Christmas trees?
Liam Noble: Artificial
dog and Xmas tree; real cats. I like the way cats are; if there's
nothing to do they just sit and peer at people. Or sleep. Excellent
role models I think.
katan500: What do you want for Christmas? Liam Noble: I
honestly don't know. I like to just stop everything and get drunk,
joke about the company of in-laws and then quite enjoy it anyway. I see
it as a recharging thing before the trials of attempting to play the
piano with cold, January hands.
katan500: How do you relax?
Liam Noble: I
fail miserably at this most of the time; I should be relaxing now. The
best way is to do nothing, with no distractions. In some ways
practising is relaxing, the more mundane and technical (scales?) the
katan500: Who is your ideal partner (however you choose to interpret)? Did you see Alex Hawkins (that other pianist) avoided that one... Liam Noble: Yes, he’s no fool! *Laughs* Musically,
sound is the most important thing. I like to play with people who have
a sound that then dictates how they choose their materials (notes,
noises, melodies or words). The rudiments of music are important, but
only as ways of applying a sound; and some people find they have a sound
that resists whatever those current rudiments might be, so they have to
modify them or look elsewhere.
Katan500: Tell me something about yourself (your instrument, your relationship with it...etc)
Liam Noble: That's
a good way of putting the question....my early relationship with the
piano was intensely private in many ways, a way of looking inward,
almost more like painting. Eventually I conceded that I might have to
perform in some way, but luckily the piano is a desk job of an
instrument, (katan500: I guess you sit behind it like a desk...)... so I still have something comfortable between me and the
audience. Then I discovered the microphone, and never looked back; I
like talking to the audience, it calms me down.
Katan500: Why did you choose the piano?
Liam Noble: I
think it was the desk job element; also my Grandfather had a grand
piano, which I now have at home. So I guess, in the way people often
say, "I didn't choose it, it chose me". Which is ridiculous. Apparently
I was in the car, aged 2, and some music was on. My parents switched
it off and I started crying, at which point my nan said "That boy needs
music on". It's always felt like that, like medication.
Liam Noble: Are you attracted to any other instruments... in other words, would you be unfaithful to your piano?
Liam Noble: I
love the guitar; you can put your fingers on it and come up with things
that would never happen on a piano, and that sound different. A lot of
jazz musicians tried to emulate other instruments, Earl Hines doubling
right hand lines in octaves to emulate Armstrong's trumpet sound, Bud
Powell and Parker, Paul Bley and Ornette...I think Bill Frisell found a
way of playing the guitar like a piano, and yet it's so specific to the
guitar too. So, I think it's a rich vein. I used to play the clarinet,
but left it on the tube. Those cases are so
katan500: If you weren't a musician what would you be? Liam Noble: I think I might have done something to do with writing. Even more chance to hide away after the deed!
katan500: I think you'd make a great writer *gushing*. You've
taken to blogging like a fish to water, the last piece I read Gaku Self Help was so beautifully written. I'm so jealous. What got you blogging? Liam Noble: Well,
that was weird...I put it on a grant application for the Arts Council,
that I would blog to attract new audiences. A tour blog, you know,
charting the trials and tribulations of a band on the road. Except we
weren't really. So what came out was just stuff that was littering up
my head, thoughts on music and life really. But the interesting thing
was, I'd get these things down, and then I got fascinated about how best
to articulate them. So it was like composition, the idea comes out in
20 seconds, the composing of it takes all afternoon. I enjoy it, like a
parallel activity to music, but without the training and knowledge...
katan500: How do you describe your musical style and where do you position yourself? Liam Noble: It
always feels incredibly pompous to talk about oneself like this,
especially using "oneself" as a word. Still, I've been thinking a lot
about it recently. With the recent passing of Stan Tracey, I've been
watching a lot of his stuff on YouTube. There are some videos where you
just see his hands; it's really quite remarkable how he "drums" the
instrument, and I feel a real affinity with that. Monk and Ellington
did that too, and they were my earliest heroes.
Katan500: What would you say your musical influences are? Liam Noble: Well,
they are many layered, I think, for anybody. Ellington was my first
love, just as a prescence in that band, the power of the piano to cut
through, but only by reducing the amount of notes horizontally and
concentrating on vertical sonorities. (Stravinsky's music has that too,
and that points to all manner of other areas of music). There's a
pressure to be "burning", to be "able to play" that means that anyone
who reduces their note output is making a brave decision. I try and
aspire to that where possible. Of course, through Monk you get
to Bud Powell, and into the "burning" stuff...Herbie, McCoy, Jarrett,
all deeply ingrained influences. But then there are those influences I
have sought out in order to freshen things up. Through John Zorn and
Naked City I discovered Frisell, and also Wayne Horvitz and Robin
Holcomb, a husband and wife who's compositions have influenced me
enormously but who are tucked away on the periphery of jazz. New things
come up all the time; playing withTom Rainey influenced the way I
thought about rhythm as well as ways of applying those ideas to free
improvisation. There's also the type of situation where you "do the
gig"; going with the flow of what's around you can be immensely
rewarding, and in that sense the more you've music listened (and to some
degree applied to your instrument) the better armed you are.
the end, honestly, I don't see it as my music, I see it as a compendium
of "found sounds" that come out in particular ways for reasons unknown
katan500: Who do you admire (alive)? Liam Noble: That list is shrinking all the time....
Katan500: Who do you admire (dead) Liam Noble: I'm
not sure about admiration as a concept. I like some things, not
others. I admire the musicians that kept going in the face of far
greater adversity than many of us will ever face. As to my favourites;
Ellington, Monk, Stravinsky, Miles, in many ways the usual suspects.
And I admire Brubeck, he dealt with his popularity on the best way he
katan500: Is jazz dead? What do you think this means? Liam Noble: It means cheap, lazy journalism. There seems to be very little writing
about jazz that attempts to capture it's feeling, the sensations of what
it means to be around it or in it. Maybe it's hard to tell the
difference between dead and alive with jazz. Maybe jazz is like a cat,
sometimes just sitting immobile waiting for things to settle down.
katan500:Tell me about your last tour...anything amusing happened... Liam Noble: We
are all such serious minded and intense people that nothing funny
happened , we just are really into the music and that's all (*mock earnest tone*).
My favourite moment was in Birmingham, in the interval before the
second half of the "Brother Face" gig, announced thus: "Take your seats
for the second half of Liam Noble's Brother's Face" (katan500: HaHa. Well that's funny. But how did you arrive at the name Brother Face?). Ah, this was via a
Robert Creeley poem called "Histoire De Florida", it's one of the lines.
I love the idea of looking into the mirror and seeing someone else who
is, in fact, you. Weird, I watched a documentary on Henry Miller
yesterday where he describes exactly that feeling, via a shaving
mirror. (katan500: *wonders how much time Liam spends looking in the mirror*)
katan500: Which piece of your work do you like the best / has special meaning for you?
Liam Noble: I
try to avoid having favourites, it's like having children. Some albums
are quiet and thoughtful, some are boisterous, some eat too much
chocolate and then feel sick. By the time most albums come out, you're
so sick of hearing it your head is in the next one. But I like
everything I've ever recorded; you just have to put off listening to it
long enough so you can't remember having done it. In general, I regard
my inevitable failures to achieve what I wanted to do with a genuine
katan500: Tell me something about the new album...
Liam Noble: Well,
the first thing is that I don't know what form it will take. It's a
recording of our recent gig at the Vortex, and there's a lot of music to
sift through. I am thinking of putting it out as a downloadable file
which, when you put it through a 3D printer, makes life sized origami
effigies of the band who then play to you personally. There’s a variety of
approaches in the writing, but mostly I tried to avoid the hard bop template of
“tune/solos/tune” whilst trying to preserve the idea of melodies that have some
kind of air of familiarity somehow.Everyone in the band has a very distinctive way of approaching their
respective instruments; a lot of strong characters together, and so there are
some pile ups that occur which are great fun…I prefer that to anything too
precise.There are some clips of our
Brighton gig on YouTube
katan900: Er... Shabaka is without head (*gestures decapitation*) and Chris Batchelor looks a bit vertically challenged... Liam Noble: Apologies. The sound is good though...
katan500: When is your next gig? Liam Noble: Sunday 15th December
at Cafe Oto, I'm playing solo, then Chris Biscoe, Roger Turner and John
Edwards play as a trio (there's three "sound" players!), and then all
four of us.
katan500: Did I ask you what you want for Christmas?
Liam Noble: Yes... but I guess in the time it took me to answer
these questions I could have changed my mind. Can I have a 3D printer?
With the demise of Babel Babble on NTS, I no longer have a radio outlet, for now at least, where I can show off some of the varied selection of albums that I accrue over time. Some bought, some given to me out of kindness, others because they want gigs or release albums.
Of course, the activities that I can undertake to get the music heard through my own connections is limited, but, via a blog like this, I can at least make a few other people aware of some of these releases.
The dates of the albums are variable, and, if you want to search further, do feel free to email me to ask, or use the tried and tested methods of the internet world. Google, Soundcloud, Bandcamp and so on.
Generally, I'll just write a sentence to give a quick feel but these are not reviews as such. I find them difficult to write, as I'm not a professional scribe of that type. It's pretty random, but feel free to hunt around.
So here we go with a selection:
Aki Takase, Han Bennink - Two for Two (Intakt). A masterful duo of the Berlin pianist and Dutch drummer. Just having read an article in the latest French Jazz magazine about duos turns me back on to this music form. Her new My Ellington is also a must.
Corin Curschellas - Rappa Nomada. (Musikszene Schweiz). It must be at least 20 years old as an album. An imaginative singer, with songs in Romantsch as well as English. Features Steve Arguelles and Christy Doran (a guitarist never heard here in London) among others.
Cruz Control - Le Comment du Pourquoi. Good grooves from Eastern Belgium, I heard them live at Gaume Jazz Festival.
Philip Catherine - Coté Jardin. This is the album with which he celebrated his 70th birthday in 2012. He plays with his Belgian quartet. Not too difficult on the ear, it was great to have him at the London Jazz Festival with John Etheridge.
Stian Westerhus/Sidsel Endresen - Didymoi Dreams. Improvised soundscapes from my dear friend Stian work together with the improvisations of Endresen.
Stevko Busch, Paul van Kemenade, Markus Stockhausen, Markku Ounaskari - Fugara (DNL). A generally gentle quartet from Holland, though it picks up on Stevko's Russian roots through the melodies (rather than the manic idioms). There's also a duo, Contemplation (Kemenade, Busch). Tingvall Trio - Vagen. This is one of the "happening" piano trios at present in Germany led by pianist Martin Tingvall.
Pablo Held Trio - Music. Another German trio. I have heard this trio several times through my trips as part of Radio Jazz Research. The trio just toured a couple of dates with Kit Downes' trio. The rhythm section of Landfermann and Burgwinkel is one of the most in-demand in Germany now and Burgwinkel's own band includes Julian Arguelles.
Papanosh - Your Beautiful Mother. A thoughtful and energetic quintet from France, which was part of their Jazz Migration scheme last year. Judicious use of keyboard and the horn arrangements make this band sound larger than it is.
Paul Dunmall/Mark Sanders - Pipe & Drum. Going to a Dunmall gig, he unleashes a whole range of albums to buy (usually for just £5). A whole cross section of bagpipes, mostly of the more lyrical variety fortunately.
Pete Cooper/Richard Bolton - Turning Point. Violin and cello, though of course Rick is also known as a guitarist. Pete is one of the leading folk violin educators around. I find the changing rhythms mesmeric and disturbing equally.
Pigfoot - 21st Century Acid Trad. Village Life continues. Batchelor, Noble, Marshall, Clarvis. Their view of trad goes way beyond anywhere. Reverential in attitude if not in approach. Just arrived, it's recorded from 2 Vortex gigs earlier this year. To be filed with the heartfelt Clarvis/Noble duo Starry Starry Night and the early Babel release of the masterpiece of miniatures, Blue Moon In A Function Room. Stan Tracey/Keith Tippett - Supernova. Beauteous two piano trio which we'll never be able to hear live again. Stan was everywhere through his life but always distinctive. I have even found a version of him with Acker Bilk doing Stranger on the Shore (from 1968 I think). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9jBftPXFDQ
As we get closer to Babel's 20th birthday in 2014, there are still new albums getting closer to hitting the wide world. Coming soon are Parallel Moments by Raymond MacDonald and Marylyn Crispell, No.1 with special guest Steve Williamson by Black Top and Ana by Emilia Martensson.The albums can be listened to and are available for pre-order on Bandcamp
Parallel Moments features Marylyn Crispell the Philadelphia-born pianist and improvisor who collaborated with Anthony Braxton and other big names. For the album she teams up with Scottish saxophonist, composer and academic, Raymond MacDonald. Parallel Moments refers to the space created by the two players within an improvised framework that allows for delicate melodies and a textural intricacies. There is a beautiful intimacy and a rapport between the two players that seems nothing short of telepathic.
Marylyn Crispell (piano)
Raymond MacDonald (soprano and alto sax)
Black Top is a radical improvisation movement founded by pianist/keyboard/electronics instrumentalist Pat Thomas whose style (playing that is) exudes imperious charisma. His Co-founder is the multi-instrumentalist and composer Orphy Robinson. Black Top has been gaining a reputation for the innovative use of technology in their music as well as featuring other musicians in their soundscapes. At the core is improvisation which is set against a scene of 'black' musical influences drawing on the techniques of looping and sampling used in 'step dub', reggae and even 'archaic nubian' sounds. Pat Thomas (piano, keys, computer beats) Orphy Robinson (marimba) Steve Williamson (sax) Ana
Ana is Emilia Martensson's second album on Babel. Her first album And So It Goes...was with Barry Green. The reception of this album led to a description of her as 'the new face of British jazz 2012' by the Observer. This time Martensson is on her own although Green plays piano on the new album. The album also has input from Rory Simmons: tracks 1.3, 6, and 9 are written by him. Sam Crowe wrote track 2 and and provided the arrangements, and Alex Bonney was instrumental in the production. Expect from Martensson some very fresh and original treatment, and her trade mark lightness and clarity. Emilia Martensson (vocals) Barry Green (piano) Sam Lasserson (Double Bass) Adriano Adewale (percussion) The Fable String Quartet
BY DAVIS INMAN Brass Mask, Spy Boy(Babel) The debut album from this London-based octet takes New Orleans parade music and mixes it with original jazz compositions. Bandleader Tom Challenger has brought together a talented front line and an airtight rhythm section. Opener “Onnellinen” (Finnish for “happy”) has an earworm melody—a downtempo groove that would work well in a Bonobo or Four Tet song. Challenger supplements 10 of his own compositions here with three traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tunes. “Indian Red”—which has been recorded by Dr. John, the Wild Tchoupitoulas and Donald Harrison—is given a dutifully celebratory reading. Another traditional tune, “I Thank You Jesus,” is more somber—a slow drag that explores freer terrain. The original songs have a complex relationship with the parade music that inspired the project. On “Don’t Stand Up,” horns take free-flying solos over a funky tuba bass line and crackling drums, while “Wizards” has the feel of a Miles Davis–Gil Evans collaboration. Challenger has worked on a range of other projects, including two intriguing duos that paired reeds and organ. With Brass Mask, he’s found the ideal group to explore his ideas. Listen and buy here: http://babel-label.bandcamp.com/album/spy-boy
Next Sunday, I'll have the privilege of sharing a stage with one of the most significant movers and shakers of jazz over the past 50 years. John Jack's fame for musicians dates back to his first days at Dobell's legendary jazz shop in Charing Cross Road. He has lived round there since 1960. Subsequently he has been involved in supporting the music as promoter, manager of the legendary Ronnie Scott's Old Place in Gerrard Street, as a record label and distributor with Cadillac.
It was therefore a no-brainer for me to ask him to help out with a talk that we'll give together on jazz in Soho in the post war era. A period when jazz was at the centre of a revival of hope. It set examples in terms of its willingness to have multiethnic bands on stage,.The musicians were at the forefront of all types of the music: ranging from Ken Colyer through to John(ny) Dankworth and Ronnie Scott to the embryonic improv scene led by John Stevens and the members of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Gerrard Street was like 42nd Street. Ronnie Scott's at one end, and the Flamingo at the other.
And all this was in an area where you also had journalists (such as Jeffrey Bernard and subsequently Private Eye), artists (Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon), photographers (David Bailey and Terence Donovan), night clubs where Lord Mountbatten would mix with Frank Sinatra. And the underworld.
Over the past couple of years I have been investigating as a "hobby" the lost jazz venues of London. I have put them up on a Google map as I find them and learn stories about them. The more I have done this, the more I have become fascinated by Soho as a creative hub. But one that wasn't the result of planners, bureaucrats of politicians. It evolved naturally out of the creative spirit of the people.
It follows the latest instalment of Dan Messore's View From The Tower, where he works with a talented group trawling through new arrangements of music by Iain Ballamy and many of their peers. But not least playing their own stuff.
Vortex Downstairs, Sunday 6 p.m. FREE!!
Photo and quiz: The photo is taken at Feldman's Club in 1943. Name the address and the saxophonists. The winner will receive a copy of the latest album Lacuna by Dan Messore.
katan500: You seem to come up with some interesting, if not curious titles for your compositions...albums... How do you go about naming them?
AH: It completely varies to be honest, although there are a few devices I use: some of the titles are in the form 'x/y' - e.g. 'assemble/melancholy', 'listen/glow', 'totem/bud'. With these, the first word refers to a structural device I've devised for myself, and the second more to an emotional idea. There is a series of 'Baobab' pieces too: 'Baobabs', 'Unknown Baobabs', 'Baobab Constellation', etc. - these all share a melodic and a structural trait.
katan500: Tell me more because I'm imagining trees...
AH: There is also a series of piece titled with initials: MO, AW/LY, etc. Others compositions don't fit into any larger titling scheme...so 'ITTOQQORTOORMIIT' is actually the name of a place in Greenland, but the shape of the word with the repeated letters just happened to resonate with a rhythmic device in the composition.
katan500: How did you come up with Song Singular for you new solo album? AH: Song Singular is actually the name of an (as yet) unrecorded trio composition, but it seemed apt to call the solo album this. Song and movement are useful ideas for me in thinking compositionally - hence also 'Song/Dance', the second Convergence Quartet album on Clean Feed.
AH: Step Wide, Step Deep is a paraphrase of something which caught my imagination in an interview with Henry Threadgill. The second tune on Step Wide, Step Deep is called 'Space of Time Danced Thru' - this may ring a bell for Cecil Taylor afficionados...
AH: My collaborations with Louis are the products of one of my most important musical relationships. He is in a very, very short list of the greatest drummers on the planet, and was someone whose records I had loved for many years before I ever got to meet, let alone play with, him. I still feel hugely privileged to get to hear him as frequently as I do, and from one of the best seats in the house. He is, for me, a model musician, in that he is constitutionally incapable of giving less than everything in a performance. Musicians are prone to pontification about concepts and the importance of what they do, sometimes at the expense of actually just *playing*: but a musician who has experienced what Louis has experienced has a very special perspective on freedom, and the social importance of music, which it's humbling to bear in mind. I think it's fair to say he keeps me honest more than any other musician I can think of.
Katan500: Is it true that you first met at the Vortex?
AH: I first met him when I subbed for Steve Beresford, and the request of Evan Parker, in the group 'Foxes Fox' (ordinarily Evan, Steve, John Edwards, and Louis; although on this occasion Steve was unavailable), and this is in the long list of things for which I am indebted to Evan. Actually, we literally met for the very first time on the stage of the Vortex that night.
katan500: I was hoping you were going to say on the sofa...but stage is good too...
AH: A few months after this, I was in the audience at a gig of one of Louis' own groups...he saw me between sets, and asked if I'd like to sit in for the second set. Of course I didn't really know the tunes, other than as a listener to the records, so in some respects I was little crazy to say yes, but naturally I'd have been way crazier to say no, and I've been lucky enough to have played with Louis since then time in various formations - sextet, septet, octet, duo, and most recently a quartet too. Suffice it to say that every opportunity to make music with him is a special one. We've certainly played together more at the Vortex than at any other venue, [Katan500: flattery gets you everywhere...] but this is the first time we've done the duo there, so I'm hugely excited about it.
Katan500: I only noticed yesterday that you had left a comment on my piece about Howard Becker, I was interested in what he called the etiquette of improvisation can you say how this idea of etiquette works in practice? What’s your experience of it?
AH: I have to confess, I don't know that specific Becker piece, so I shouldn't really comment without being familiar with it (the one which loomed largest for me whilst in academia was 'Outsiders', which I suppose is just one of the classic works of 20th Century sociology). That said, Becker being an 'insider' on this 'outsider' existence, I can imagine his account being compelling. As for things such as repertoire being negotiated ideas - absolutely, that resonates: at least, in a jam session setting, or in a standards-type gig where a group gets together on a less formal basis. I suspect Becker wasn't writing about bands with their own repertoires - e.g. if you turn up to Charles Mingus' gig, the process of putting together a performance is somewhat different than if you're on stage at 'Jazz at the Phiharmonic'. That said, Becker's observations would doubtless cast some light on the processes even in these settings of specific bandleaders/repertoires. For example, you might argue that musical choices - even down to the level of note-choices - are in some way negotiated (even if implicitly) in these contexts. Think of the negotiation in these terms: the musician has a broad decision-making context: his/her life experience, current background trends in music making, perhaps the venue in which he/she is playing - things like this. Then there are rules or norms which are active in the particular context: are there rhythmic matrices at play? Chord changes perhaps? Dynamic norms? Then the musician has his/her own interpretive practices through which (s)he makes sense of the context and the particular rules...and the form and substance of the music is what comes out of all of this.
Katan500: Jazz musicians tend to play with a number of bands e.g. you have the AH Ensemble and also play with the Convergence Quartet and others, how do you keep the identity and the sounds of the bands separate: or maybe it’s not even an issue...
AH: My only guiding principle is that I try to be myself, and play to the best of my ability in any context. Taking into account that different groups having different personnel, repertoires and working norms, there are plenty enough variables at play at all times to keep any new context sounding fresh!
katan500: I thought I saw somewhere that you are self-taught did you use sociologist David Sudnow's method? Does it work?
AH: To be completely accurate, I am self-taught as an improviser - I didn't go to music college or anything like that. However, in terms of instrumental technique, I did study classical piano and church organ when I was much younger - the organ in particular to a pretty high level I suppose - so I acquired an initial technical base from these studies (although over the years, I've obviously tweaked many things: my own improvisational language being, I suppose, pretty far removed from the these 'classical' languages).
I think the important thing about Sudnow though is that his is a descriptive sociology: he's really describing the process of learning an instrument, rather than being prescriptive - at least on my reading!
katan500: Tell me about your upcoming gig at the Vortex?
AH: As mentioned above, it's an exciting one, in that it's the first time Louis and I have played in duo at the club. It's difficult to say more, since in fact, one of the things which characterises a typical gig with Louis is that there is no such thing as a 'typical' gig. The moment really is everything with his bands; so whilst the repertoire is sure to include some open improvisations, many South African tunes (many of these associated with the two legendary bands he powered - the Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath), perhaps some Ellington and so forth, how these will develop on the evening is anyone's guess!
katan500: You will also be busy curating 3 late night sessions can you say a bit about your plans for this...
AH: I was very excited when approached to do this, and my immediate decision was that I didn't want to play at all: I wanted to curate, and then just listen...however, at around the time I was approached, one of my favourite bands to play in - 'Human' (the fantastic project of drummer Steve Davis, a quartet featuring Steve, Alex Bonney on trumpet, Dylan Bates on violin, and myself) had recently had gigs in London and Belfast cancelled due to terrible weather preventing the relevant flights from going. I felt that I'd really love for this band to do something; so Steve's band plays the first night. On the second night, Alex Ward is playing a solo set on the clarinet. Alex was one of the first musicians I began to play with around London. By anyone's measure, he's an astonishing musician, and by mine, a genius (and I say this fully aware of how overused the word is). Alongside this solo, Kit Downes and Lucy Railton will perform a duo set. And on the final night, Tom Skinner is bringing 'Hello Skinny' along, which I'm really excited about. Tom *really* knows music. I sometimes feel that if he hasn't heard it and checked it out, it may well in fact simply not exist.
katan500: Thank you very much Alex for being such a good sofa sport. That concludes the first 'On the Sofa' interview. I look forward to seeing you at the Vortex soon.
The first Q and A for the Sofa Series brings pianist Alex Hawkins into focus
Katan500: Favourite colour? AH: Very specifically, which ever blue Chelsea are playing in at the time. Katan500: Jazz is... In 150 characters? AH: I'm not sure I want to try to define it, save that I know it when I hear it... Katan500: Cats or dogs? AH: Cats! Katan500: How do you relax? AH: By listening to music, by writing music, by practising music. And by watching football.
Katan500: You realize this is the warm up...
Katan500: You have gained yourself a reputation for creating your own distinctive ‘sound world’ how would you describe your sound world?
AH: Describing my own soundworld is very difficult...I suppose I'd rather that people just listened - that'd give the most accurate picture. Of course, I suppose there are some very basic things that I try to do. For a start, I'm interested in a range of musical behaviours ranging from the realisation of fully scored music, through to almost completely open improvisational languages. I don't like to sign up to the talk which is slightly in vogue of mixing composition and improvisation, because I don't really think that they're necessarily different behaviours: I think they exist much more on a continuum. Essentially for me, I'm into free music. But this is freedom to rather than freedom from. Options and possibilities are my thing I suppose; I wouldn't want to close anything off. In practice, this can mean various things. For example, I'm interested in groups really developing empathy, such that the musicians feel free to desert or distort the composition if this is what feels right at the time. I'm into devolving decision-making; giving musicians leeway to introduce things (or not) in their own time, perhaps with their own sub-grouping of the ensemble. Another thing I like to do is assemble musicians who to my ears have really individual voices, and though there are lots of precedents for this approach, for me personally, it comes from my love of Ellington.
Katan500: Who do you admire / has been an influence on you?
AH: As to who I admire and who has been an influence on me, I will wear out my keyboard before I can get halfway down the list. I love this music, have done for as long as I can remember, and listen incessantly. Goodness knows I'd have more money in the bank if I didn't buy records like I do. Additionally, I'd like to think that I try to learn even from the things I don't really like. And of course - the relationship between admiration and influence is not a straightforward one.
Katan500: What if you were on Desert Island Discs...
AH: I couldn't bring myself to choose between Tatum and Ellington; those are my two real heroes, and I couldn't be without either. Also Rollins, Monk, Cecil Taylor, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Fletcher Henderson, Sun Ra, Dolphy, Roscoe Mitchell, Clifford Brown, John Kirby, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Anthony Braxton...the list goes on and on. Morton. Coltrane. Threadgill. Don't get me started on piano players. I am obsessed with Hampton Hawes' music...Mary Lou Williams...Elmo Hope is one of my favourite pianists in the world...Herbie Nichols...Hasaan Ibn Ali...Muhal Richard Abrams...Amina Claudine Myers...Chris McGregor...Mal Waldron...Al Haig...Dick Twardzik...Joe Albany...Fats Waller of course...Albert Ammons...Meade Lux Lewis... Of course, that list only touches on the 'jazz' tradition; and naturally, I listen to anything which is of interest - the label on it isn't really important. So for example I've recently been checking out some birdsong again (I can't lie - inspired by Radio 4's 'Tweet of the Day')...also some early Elliott Carter...Kathleen Ferrier doing Mahler...Glenn Gould playing Byrd...Lipatti playing Scarlatti...'Curtis Live' has been in heavy rotation recently too... I don't want to do the trendy thing though and say I listen to everything. I definitely don't - there's a whole load of stuff which I draw a bit of a blank on. And that list is a long one too. A very long one. And anyone who knows me would be able to reveal some bizarre and massive holes in my listening below in the comments section to this, I'm sure of it...
Katan500: That's quite a list.Your reviews are always glowing. Looking at the way you have been reviewed there is always a feeling of a master in the making... the marrying of brains and soul. Would you like to comment? Feel free to blush...
AH: I'm blushing. I can't comment on the first bit. [Katan500: Yes you can...] I don't want to be disingenuous... of course, I'm hugely flattered whenever something is positively reviewed. Music is about communication, and if something I've done has managed to achieve that in a small way here or there, then that is definitely important to me. I really don't like musicians being disparaging about critics: there are lazy critics, but also lazy musicians. There are critics who can't play, and musicians who can't write. And so on.
I suppose I think one of the things which is most key about development and attainment is an absolute and genuine devotion to those processes, and just generally 'pushing on'. I have a horror of coasting and/or repeating myself, and I suppose I'm worried that being self-regarding about some vague idea of 'stature' in some ways could lead someone to be less hungry to evolve and generally improve. Also, as an musician, I'm privileged to work closely and on a very frequent basis with people whose playing inspires/intrigues/baffles/fascinates etc... me to amazing degrees. This really keeps you honest - it's always abundantly clear that there's more to learn and achieve. I also feel this extremely keenly just through my listening - I'm a music lover at least as much as I am a musician: it's easy to listen to things from decades and decades ago, and realise quite how much there is still to.
Katan500: What about brains and soul....
AH: This can be a little difficult to comment on. I think it's deeply problematic to view them (I'm not suggesting that you do this in your question, of course!) as mutually exclusive. For one, the ideas are difficult to pin down. Part of the magic of the music is that yes, it can be a communal experience, but also a very personal one. So much to say that what speaks to one person - is 'soulful' to them - won't necessarily to another person. One of my absolutely heroes is Art Tatum, and I frequently hear it said that he's a great technician, but lacks 'soul'. Personally, I just don't hear it...I simply can't get my head around this, to the extent that, I suppose, I even feel offended by the sentiment; but at the same time, I do recognise that how I feel Tatum can't/shouldn't have a bearing on how others feel about him. Myself, I can't identify with Keith Jarrett's music in the slightest; it doesn't resonate with what I'm searching for in any respects that I perceive, and to be honest, it leaves me completely cold. Yet whilst I'm puzzled by some people's reaction to him, I can't deny the sincerity of those people's reactions. There's of course fascinating literature on the question of people's reactions to music - I love William Benzon's 'Beethoven's Anvil', for example. Brains are also a difficult idea. As someone who used to play the organ, I'm familiar with - say - many Bach fugues. 'Brainy' music, for sure: and according to the norms of western classical music, unbelievably crafted. But work at a technique long and hard enough, and it *will* come; and in that light, simplicity looks like an extraordinary technical gift. Look no further than the unbelievable construction of a Monk composition.
Katan500: Sounds to me like the soul-brains dichotomy is also a stylistic attempt to classify - if people are able to say so and so is 'soulful', whereas so and so is 'cerebral' interesting discourses start to emerge...
AH: Take a Bach fugue: for me, there's a genuine beauty, a soulfulness, in the realisation of form. For a similar reason, the Alhambra is beautiful; the design of the London Underground map is beautiful; game 6 (was it 6? I think so) of Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky is beautiful; etc. etc. It's in some ways his most austere stuff, but there is something really magical about the formal qualities of Bach's Musical Offering, the Art of Fugue, or the late canons, etc. I don't even think it's necessarily to do with someone transcending their formal constraints; it's less mystical than that for me: it's that it's a beautiful achievement for someone to be able to fulfil formal requirements in a creative way.
Katan500: Rules are cool...
AH: Rules do NOT make music less free, so long as you choose to adopt them, and feel completely free not to adopt them. Same goes for football: watch videos of Socrates, Eusebio, Zidane. Are they less free because they've agreed not to use their hands, and accepted that the ball going over a touchline will give possession back to the other team? There are interesting analogues to with discussions of instrumental technique versus soulfulness...but are they really anathema to each other? What about the amazing exuberance of late 60s Freddie Hubbard? I think part of the beauty of that is just hearing an ebullient personality enjoy how great they are a playing an instrument. Same with those 60s Rollins European trio performances; or those albums where Johnny Griffin will double time anything in sight. Historically too, the brains/soul discussion has taken some awkward turns. Anthony Braxton has written brilliantly about this. As an African-American musician, he was criticised for surrendering the 'soulful' which - it was clumsily assumed - 'should' have been his preserve to the 'cerebral', essentially through showing too much interest in composition and non-'jazz' music. It's not hard to see the racially loaded aspects of this line of thought. To bring it back to the question a little bit though... soul is extremely important to me, insofar as we're talking about music as a communicative enterprise. And brains are too, in that I often think extremely hard about what I'm trying to do, or how I'm trying to do it; and in that I'm interested in how different compositional strategies can be used to expand a musician's freedom to communicate/freedom of expression. I really believe that there is no necessary contradiction between the two ideas (without denying, for example, that fussy, over-thought music can easily hinder expression). And similarly, none of this is to deny something which I think is hugely important, which is the role of the unconscious, mistakes, and so on. Mistakes can be great - beautiful, and inspirational. Playing what you know is great, but playing what you didn't know you had is even better. Empirically speaking, as musicians we all occasionally realise that we've drifted into that amazing space where we're really not thinking at all, and 'just' playing. That really is magical.
katan500: Your album All There, Ever Out was very well received, chosen as one of the Guardian's top five Jazz albums for 2012, do you think it will be a hard act to follow?
AH: In a sense, my answer has to be yes. I try to put everything, creatively, into making records. When I make an album as leader, I work as hard as I can to make it represent absolutely the best and most 'advanced' state of being of that ensemble at that time. So on that basis, it has to seem like a difficult act to follow at the time. However, I suppose the more you do these things, you realise that if you continue to work hard, the inspiration do come, and possible directions do appear. But if the question is touching on 'am I anxious?', then if I'm brutally honest, yes - I do care what people think, and I suppose I would be hurt in some way if people said 'this isn't as good as its predecessor', even if it would - sort of - be comparing apples with oranges!
Katan500: How do you think you have ‘matured’ since then?
AH: Goodness! I don't know...there are certainly things I've been thinking hard about. Economy is one. I want to be able to write and play fewer notes, and really to pare things down to structural essentials. It's not a fear of density - if everything creating a welter of sound is there for a reason, then no problem...Cecil Taylor's can be some of the most structurally economical stuff out there. But I get cross with myself, for example, when I *do* because I *can*. Listening to recordings from a few years ago, I can be horrified at the number of notes I'm spraying around. But when I think of the musicians who really touch me - Monk, Mal Waldron, Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada - there's a magic and which comes from the SPACE and the focus. So I hope I'm moving in the right direction there. I'm also more and more concerned with the architecture of pieces. As a composer, I feel that it's relatively easy to focus on details, and the moment to moment linear progression of a piece, but I'm increasingly preoccupied with the overall 'map'. How does the overall shape work? What are the ways to allow structural flexibility and freedom, yet still create something with the overall coherence of, say, a sonata form, a theme and variations, or head-solos-head?