“Success is having the creative freedom to express yourself and play the music you love the most” – interview with Liza Bec

Ahead of Spiral Dial’s concert at The Jazz Room, a chance to get to know alternative multi-instrumentalist Liza Bec, her influences and inspirations, and a major challenge to her music career which she has overcome with an innovative and creative approach to music-making

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

As a small child I used to spin around in a trance to flamenco music; I am told I seemed quite hypnotised by the rhythms, so my parents knew I was musical. Luckily there was a retired music teacher across the road from us who was spending her free time giving music lessons to local children for 50p each. She used to have ten people in her room at a time, and one person would be on the piano or singing while she had a chat with the mums and gave the occasional correction. It was brilliant as it meant I was able to learn recorder, piano and singing from the age of four, which we would not otherwise have been able to afford.

I was quite obsessed with the recorder in particular and rarely put it down. I used to drive my mother mad making up songs about witches in the car on the motorway. I can’t remember a light bulb moment but I definitely always wanted to be a musician. Recorder has always been my first instrument although I studied clarinet at music college.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

First and foremost my clarinet teacher Steve Tanner, who got me my first paid gigs playing in pit bands for musical theatre shows as a teenager, and who would turn up with an endless array of instruments for me to learn to play for the next show. Now I play ten instruments, and that’s mainly down to him! He introduced me to an incredible range of music from Artie Shaw to Schoenberg, and even gave me my first wooden clarinet which lasted me all the way to music college. He was, and is, endlessly encouraging and supportive to so many musicians learning in the Portsmouth area. Professionally, I have been lucky to work with some incredibly inspirational musicians, most recently James Holden who introduced me to electronic music.

Having grown up playing in the pit I have always inextricably linked music with narrative, and that’s why I write short stories on which all my music is based, usually twisted dystopian tales. (They do say write what you know!)

However the most important influence has not been a person but an illness – I live with music-triggered epilepsy which means I have to play around my triggers all of the time, avoiding them. This is how I first got into free improvisation, as I was originally a classical musician. So it has been both a blessing and a curse in a way.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

In my 20s I’d noticed that occasionally my hands would twitch when I played, particularly in difficult passages. I thought nothing of it at first but it got worse and worse to the point that my hands would jump clean off the instrument in concerts. It was becoming impossible for me to play what was expected of me as a classical musician.

Eventually I was diagnosed with reflex epilepsy which affects one in 10 million people. Each one of those has a unique trigger, and mine is playing music. This seemed particularly cruel and unfair, but then life’s not fair, so I’m told. I didn’t perform for years, and had to re learn how to play completely in order to avoid triggering a seizure. Even now there are times when my hands will go haywire on stage. So it’s something I’m constantly dealing with, but at the same time has been a great source of inspiration for me.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I have had the opportunity to make an audiovisual installation all about music-triggered epilepsy, thanks to Help Musicians UK Fusion Fund. It’s called INNERVATE and we are performing it live at VAULT festival in London on the 28th and 29th January 2020. It has been an incredibly emotionally challenging subject for me to write about so I’m very proud of the end result.

I also got to build my very own instrument – it’s a plastic tenor recorder with extra circuitry soldered on! Leafcutter John helped me with the design of the recorder and I constructed it under his watchful eye. I also had to learn how to program in Max to create software to listen and react to the recorder as I play it. It has been an incredibly steep learning curve and there is still so much I don’t know, but I’m so excited to learn more and more.

I got to work with some incredible artists – Dan Tombs, who does visuals for Jon Hopkins, has created the visuals, together with Catalina Velasquez Gonzalez, who is a fabulous graphic designer.

The idea for my band, Spiral Dial, has come out of this project – we’re going to be releasing a series of improvised soundscapes and stories throughout 2020.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I only tend to perform original music these days, so it’s a tricky one to answer. I like working with other artists who are creating new music, rather than playing music which already exists. In terms of my previous career, I always used to enjoy playing Messiaen and Stravinsky the most, particularly the Quartet for the End of Time, which in itself has an incredible story behind it and is probably the most mind-expanding piece I’ve ever heard.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I just look for new inspiring people to collaborate with – and the repertoire takes care of itself.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

My favourite venue to perform in so far is the Royal Albert Hall. Unfortunately I don’t play there as much as I would like! It feels really cosy on stage, as if the audience is hugging you, despite being absolutely huge.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Obviously, my band! David [Ryder Prangley] is one of the most creative people I have ever met and I absolutely love working with him, and Adam [Hayes] is a fantastic drummer and improviser. Apart from that, probably whoever I’m playing with or listening to right now! I went to a fantastic gig from The Comet is Coming recently, such an amazing atmosphere. When I was making the music for the installation I was listening a lot to Arthur Russell and the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack by Philip Glass, which I love.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It was my first gig back after four of five years without performing, with the Memory Band. It was their album launch, although I wasn’t on that album as I had only just started playing with them. It didn’t really hit me until afterwards when I collapsed in floods of tears. I had thought that I would never perform again, which was particularly distressing as I couldn’t remember my last gig, it hadn’t been anything particularly special at the time. Now I always play as if every show is my last. You never know when you might lose the thing you love the most.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

For me, success is having the creative freedom to express yourself and play the music you love the most.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think in order to have a career in music you need an incredible number of skills which have absolutely nothing to do with playing your instrument. The confidence to sell yourself, a head for figures and the skin of a ten ton rhino would be a good start!

Liza Bec performs with Spiral Dial at the Jazz Room at The Bull’s Head, Barnes, on Tuesday 14th January, and at the VAULT festival in London on 28th and 29th January


Liza imagines stories and writes the music to bring them to life. Taking inspiration from the dark, unswept corners of slightly unhinged minds, she combines intricate layers of woodwinds and vocals with sprinkles of genres from folk and electroacoustic to rock and beyond. Her most recent EP and short story ‘Beyond the Blonde’ was released on limited edition vinyl in May 2018.

She is currently finishing work on Innervate,  a short story and AV installation about music triggered epilepsy, funded by Help Musicians UK Fusion Fund.

Originally a classical clarinettist and saxophonist who trained at Trinity College of Music, London, her life was transformed when she was diagnosed in 2008 with this rare form of reflex epilepsy, triggered by playing certain patterns of notes. “I had to re-learn how to play”, Liza says. “I spent several years without playing a note. My first gig was with The Memory Band…. I cried buckets afterwards as I just couldn’t believe that I was back performing again.”

After releasing an album with original rock band  Bordello Rose she received positive reviews in Prog! and Team Rock magazines. She then collaborated with electronic artist James Holden on his latest release ‘The Animal Spirits’ (2017), co-writing ‘Spinning Dance’ and playing recorder, sax and clarinet on many subsequent European tour dates.

Liza plays on a Syos saxophone mouthpiece. She has also built a customised tenor recorder with integrated circuit board to control her live electroacoustic setup on Max for Live. She is available for session work and for weird and wonderful collaborations.

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“I live for music” – interview with singer Elena Lorenzi

Singer Elena Lorenzi conceived and performs in 7 Star Arts’ new show Cabaret Beyond Borders which receives its UK premiere on Friday 24 January at Russian Culture House of London

Who or what inspired you to take up singing, and pursue a career in music?

It was life itself that showed me music as a path.

I’ve been singing since I was a child. I won my first competition at the age of three, but I started to approach and studying singing in a serious way after the death of my father, when I was 13 years old. After a few years of suffering, I began to study opera singing, and this was truly therapeutic for me. The use of the opera voice, with its power and the need for technique and control, gave me a way to process pain. Singing for me has always been a necessity, something very cathartic. Singing has always been a way to shape my energy, it has given meaning to my life. I love the fact that I am my instrument, my voice is my instrument.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I am an eclectic singer who loves many different musical genres and as a result I have been influenced by many singers, musicians and composers.

When I started singing opera, I was actually a little girl in love with symphonic metal, in particular a Finnish band, “Nightwish” and their singer Tarja Turunen. I was fascinated by the use of the opera voice and orchestral parts in such a strong genre. Growing up and falling in love with Opera, especially the composers Wagner and Puccini, I loved the angel voice of Renata Tebaldi, but my favourite opera singer is the Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Obratzova. In jazz I am a fan of Ella Fitzgerald, and in the music of my country, Italy, I owe a lot to the singer Mina.

As for the vintage repertoire and cabaret, in which I have specialized in recent years, the whole world of French music is essential for me, from Lèo Ferrè to Dalida, Juliette Greco, Edith Piaf….the list could be endless. The interpreter who today most reflects the path I have undertaken is undoubtedly the German actress and singer Ute Lemper, but I also love the great performers of the past like Liza Minelli and Frank Sinatra. Honestly, there are so many other musicians and performers who have given me such a lot.

In general I love the energy that a singer transmits, the depth of the interpretation and the truth of what is told through music.

Furthermore, art is a source of inspiration for me (I am a fan of painting), nature and people too. Life itself is a constant source of inspiration for me, for better or for worse. I try to capture every little thing or great teaching and to tell it through my voice in the songs I sing.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Surely the life of the musician is full of challenges? The musician’s unstable lifestyle forces you to continually find new ways. But for me my singer’s life is such a wonderful journey that I adore new challenges and getting out of my comfort zone, even if it’s not always easy. The only difficulty, when I started to study singing, was to make my family understand that music for me is not just a passion, but that it would become my job. My family has always imagined another kind of path for me, more stable and safe, so for several years I did not have their support.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I have a lot of concerts in my heart and it’s hard to choose. I remember with satisfaction the first time I played a program of French songs, in 2013, on the occasion of the festival “Le X Giornate”, in Brescia, my home city. From that moment I totally fell in love with this kind of music, I began to study the world of cabaret, French and German music, songs of the vintage world. That concert really changed my musical life. During the same festival, always with the pianist Stefano Marzanni, I performed the RückertLieder (Songs after Rückert), a song cycle of five Lieder for voice and orchestra or piano by Gustav Mahler, based on poems written by Friedrich Ruckert. The concert, of which I have a beautiful memory and I am very proud of, was dedicated to the city of Vienna and its music and it was magical.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

As a classically-trained singer, I’m in love with opera, and I really love to sing it. Also because being a mezzo-soprano, I love the roles for this vocal register, for example Carmen. But I never felt part of the world of opera, I preferred to choose my path and create something of my own. I feel totally comfortable when I sing repertoire of old songs, as I said before. I can use various vocal registers, experiment with the voice using lyric, pop, jazz voice. I can create my own style. I love the music of the early 1900s; I think the lyrics are very deep, beautiful to interpret.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I always look for something new to study and interpret in a personal way. Surely the choice of the repertoire depends on the request, but for me it is really important to never stop and continue to create new shows.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

My favorite venue is definitely the Crazy Coqs in Brasserie Zedel, Soho, London. I love the atmosphere which links directly back to the vintage world of the Parisian bistros of the early decades of the 1900s. It’s perfect for cabaret shows, for French music and vintage repertoire. I have a funny memory of a very special venue for a concert of contemporary music in Holland in 2014, in the city of Den Haag. The venue was a beautiful ….. cemetery.

As a musician what is your definition of success?

Success for me is simply being able to do what I love, and to be able to express myself. Being able to experiment and see that the public appreciates it. For me, real success is knowing that I have given all of myself in the music I sing, in the best way possible.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think that an aspiring musician should know first of all that the work of the musician is a wonderful job but it requires many sacrifices, much study and a lot of passion. We need a lot of determination to overcome the challenges and obstacles, a lot of patience, because the results do not come immediately. But I believe that humility is fundamental above all. We have to really focus on the goals, do not give up if the road is not easy. A little advice: be yourself.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I live for music so I can only imagine my future singing in theatres. I dream of taking my shows on tour in the most beautiful cities in the world. I love travelling, visiting new places and meeting new people.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

For me happiness is not lack of pain or suffering, but the ability to understand that there is a reason for everything. True happiness for me is something very profound, which goes beyond sensory experiences: it is a way of being. In this I am close to the Buddhist philosophy. I am a happy person, because I love life, I love my job, my family and my friends. I have learned to always see the positive side of everything and not to worry too much about the problems. I learned to be happy for any gift life gives me, even the smallest. It is not always easy to follow this path, but I am convinced that it is the best way to face life, which for me is something extraordinary. I “love to spread love”

What is your most treasured possession?

I could answer this question in several ways. For me the most precious thing is life itself, the experiences I do, so health is fundamental. Obviously as regards my person, my most precious asset is my voice, without that I can not work, but above all I can not express myself and elaborate the experiences. But I can also say that my greatest treasure is the people I love, family (including my four dogs) and friends. The moments spent with the people I love are something that enriches me, something that for me is very important and that I want to enjoy because unfortunately I learned as a young person that people can be taken away at any moment.

What is your present state of mind?

At this moment I am extremely grateful for the wonderful opportunities and the possibility that life is giving me. I am full of joy and I hope I can share it, in life and through music. Thank you so much for this interview.

Cabaret Beyond Borders is at Russian Culture House of London on Friday 24 January (tickets here) and in a late show at Live at Zedel at Crazy Coqs Soho on Friday 31 January (tickets here)

Stefano Marzanni & Elena Lorenzi

7 Star Arts presents…..an exciting autumn line up of artists and music

Classic Gershwin Showreel

A taster of Classic Gershwin, 7 Star Arts’ most popular mixed genre production, starring Viv McLean (piano) and Susan Porrett (narrator). Music by George Gershwin

 

Anthony Hewitt wows The Jazz Room

The Jazz Room in Barnes, SW London, affectionately known as “the suburban Ronnie’s Scotts” (and almost as longstanding as the eponymous Soho jazz club), resonated to a different vibe on Sunday evening when internationally-renowned pianist Anthony Hewitt – an artist more used to playing in hallowed gilded spaces such as the Wigmore or Carnegie Halls – gave a concert of classical music by Bach, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel and Gershwin – all performed on the Yamaha upright piano which resides in the Jazz Room. It’s a very good piano, but it ain’t a Steinway model D!

Yet such is Anthony’s skill and sensitively that he wrought myriad sounds and colours from the modest instrument – and somehow listening to Bach (Partita No. 1) in a venue normally reserved for jazz, one suddenly becomes hyper-aware of all the jazzy syncopations and offbeat rhythms inherent in Bach’s writing.

The piano music of Brahms, more usually heard on a modern concert grand, had a lightness which lent a greater poignancy and tenderness to his Op 119 piano pieces; while in Debussy’s Estampes multi-layered lines and textures were revealed.

The second half of the concert swung to the sounds of Ravel’s decadent and sensuous La Valse and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue, his vibrant and exhilarating evocation of the melting pot of America and the sounds of the big city. Anthony did a remarkable job in drawing so much colourful sound out of the Yamaha upright to achieve brilliant results.

For the audience, the small size of the Jazz Room means one gets up and close and personal with music and performer in a way which is never possible in a larger or more formal venue. Such closeness creates a very special sense of communication and shared experience between audience and performer, and throughout the concert there was a very palpable sense of people listening really intently – a great compliment to the music and the pianist. In addition, Anthony introduced the music engagingly and audience members were able to meet and chat to him after the performance. As one audience member remarked “the Jazz room is a real gem and now to start a classical series there is an added bonus”.

The concert was billed as “Iconoclassics”, paying homage to the Jazz Room’s iconic status as one of London’s leading jazz venues. More like this please!

 

7 Star Arts says: audiences can enjoy more classical music, fused with jazz, world and original compositions on 10 April when pianist and composer Helen Anahita Wilson makes her Jazz Room debut. Book tickets here


(Reviewed by The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

Meet the Artist – Duncan Eagles, saxophonist

Saxophonist and composer Duncan Eagles chats to The Cross-Eyed Pianist (AKA Frances Wilson) about his musical influences and inspirations, and more…..

I think there are many moments that define what kind of musician you are / will become. One of the earliest I remember was borrowing a John Coltrane double album from school. It was probably the first jazz CD I checked out. The first of the two CD’s I listened to was “My Favourite Things” which I didn’t really get and can’t say I enjoyed. I got a few minutes in and then swapped to the second CD which was “Blue Trane”. This blew my mind. I was intrigued how someone could play the instrument in the way Coltrane does on that record. The sound, technique, composition were all completely new to me. That started me on the road to wanting to be able to get serious about playing, improvising, composing etc and also started to open up the history of the music to me. From here I found Miles Davis then Wayne Shorter then Art Blakey etc etc its all linked.

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Duncan Eagles and his quartet perform at The Jazz Room at The Bull’s Head on Thursday 15 March. Book tickets

Interview with Niklas Walentin, violinist

Ahead of his appearance with the Walentin Trio at Craxton Studios on 16 March, violinist Niklas Walentin talks about his influences and inspirations, significant teachers, repertoire, performing and more……

Who or what inspired you to take up the violin and pursue a career in
music?
I was first introduced to the violin and classical music “live” when attending a chamber music concert in Germany at the age of 6. The programme included, among other pieces, the famous C major string quintet by Franz Schubert. It had an immense impact on me, and I startet leaning the violin later the same year. At the age of 10, and not having found much interest in school, I decided to stay in the world of music into which I had been so luckily invited. At the same time, I had already been participating successfully in many competitions and masterclasses, so that taking the decision of becoming the best violinist I could possibly become, was not so far away.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
The number of people and their endless support it has taken makes up a list longer than one could possibly imagine. I know of very few careers where from childhood, one is in the need of such strong and continuous support. But naturally, every member of my family is the initial answer. Then, my teacher and mentor, Søren Elbæk, who both as a violinist and musician has inspired me tremendously, but also his personality and as a human being has been a great support through my youth.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
It is difficult question to answer, as there are so many different things I have encountered at different times in my career. But looking back, I would say the most challenging thing has been to accept how the world of classical music works as a business. Even though it sounds quite harsh, and in some way ruins the romantic image of this wonderful world filled with so much incredible music, musicians, composers and so forth all need to make a living. To me, having slowly experienced how all that works, and to accept in some situations, that even though one has done ‘the job’ exactly as intended to highest standards, and all the work it takes around building up a career has been done, still sometimes, doors just simply won’t open. And that has been quite a challenge.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
The perfect answer would and should of course in many ways be them all. Yet there are some I am particularly happy about. One of them was by debut concert in Carnegie Hall two years ago: it was a childhood dream come true, and a truly magical evening. I was at the time releasing my second album with four grand works for violin by Carl Nielsens, and even though my fourth album is on its way with my piano trio, I am still very proud of the recording of Carl Nielsen.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I have spent a lot of time with Carl Nielsen and his music. He is definitely a composer woth whom I have strongly identified. I have a passion for playing solo violin, and have many plans of doing much more in the future. But next to my solo career, I have a very busy ensemble with my piano trio, Trio Vitruvi, and this spring I will return to Carnegie Hall together with my colleagues. We will be releasing our first album together, with the second piano trio by Schubert, and his music; being some of the first classical music I ever experienced, it has a very dear place in my heart.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It is far from easy to choose, and a lot of the time, other circumstances do the choosing for me. But when I have my hands totally free, I choose pieces I simply can’t help but play. There comes an incredible and very naturally overflow of passion when performing pieces that you simply must play, and this is something that I feel always transmits to the audience very positively.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
The Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall is unique. But I have to admit that I have fallen equally in love with Wigmore Hall. Also, the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg is to me, when performing violin concertos, a gem!
Who are your favourite musicians?
I would say the violinist Henryk Szeryng has had a very big influence on my playing. But my chamber music professor, founding member of the Alban Berg quartet, Hatto Beyerle, is a musician to whom I very much look up. Danish jazz violinist Svend Asmussen is also very high on the list!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Lately it was when I was at the Verbier Festival, I had a free evening to attend a concert with Ana Chumachenko, who together with friends performed Schubert’s String Quintet in C. I had not heard the work for many years, and I was in tears more or less throughout the piece.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
To remain yourself throughout your career and not to be confused by the many who want their influence to show through your character and way of playing. I have had many faces in my life, where I have been torn between two parties, and their way to do things would be the best. But when I finally learned to take the final decisions myself, a true sense of freedom followed.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
One thing which can be difficult to impart is the experience of the life itself as a musician. How to overcome issues of not undestanding why things don’t come your way when you work hard, or to restrain the pressure of nerves when performing at a high level. So much time is spent on learning how to play the instrument and the pieces, but I find advice for when you are actually out there on your own, and you need to show your very best to an unfamiliar audience that demands the highest level of quality, is rarely given enough.

Niklas Walentin performs with Alena Walentin (flute) and Viv McLean (piano) at Craxton Studios, Hampstead on Friday 16 March in a programme featuring Franck’s Sonata in A for violin and piano. Further details and tickets here www.7stararts.com/event/walentin-trio-craxton-studios/

Iconoclassics at The Jazz Room

7 Star Arts announces the launch of a new series of concerts in the iconic Jazz Room at the Bull’s Head

Iconoclassics features leading, critically-acclaimed classical musicians, more at home in the world’s great concert halls than in a jazz club but all happy to break free from the conventional classical music scene. The small size of the Jazz Room creates a special connection between musicians and audience, and allows the musicians to present music in a more accessible and relaxed way.

In keeping with the main focus of The Jazz Room, programmes in the Iconoclassics series will explore links between classical music and jazz, and will include works by Ravel and Gershwin, two composers whose music crossed genres and pushed the boundaries of what we define as “classical music”.

Iconoclassics launches on 14 February 2018 with Classic Valentine – a special concert for Valentine’s Day featuring David Le Page (violin) and Viv McLean (piano). This will be followed on 11 March by a solo concert by internationally-acclaimed pianist Anthony Hewitt, who has been praised for his “fine, poetic and communicative musicianship” (BBC Music Magazine).

This promises to be an exciting and intriguing new series in an intimate and friendly venue.

 

Purists may balk at hearing classical music in a venue normally reserved for jazz, but the small size of the jazz room lends itself to the right kind of concentrated listening and intimacy of expression which this music demands and offers. And David Le Page and Viv McLean create a very special intimacy of their own – these musicians work together regularly and their empathy and mutual understanding is palpable in every note they play.

  • Frances Wilson/The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

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Meet the Artist – Rowan Hudson, jazz pianist

The nature of improvised music means that it’s very rare that everything falls together perfectly in real time, and in a way that’s not the point.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

It’s actually very hard to pin it down to anything very concrete, I think partly because I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a musician I’ve forgotten what the original motives were (and they were probably very different to what they are now), but it was probably around the age of 9 or 10 that everything else became secondary to music. I don’t think I ever really made the conscious decision to play the piano rather than any other instrument either. We had a piano in our house growing up and I had taken lessons from the age of about 7, so that sort of solved it for me. The piano is such a versatile instrument that it was able to keep up with my changing tastes in music and I never felt like I needed to look elsewhere for the sounds I was trying to make.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Apart from a couple of years of just wanting to sound exactly like Bill Evans, I don’t think I’ve been one of those musicians who has one main influence who is their ultimate musical guide, which tends to happen a bit in Jazz. Within Jazz the players who have influenced me are people like Ahmad Jamal, Liam Noble, Monk, Kit Downes, and I like them all for different reasons. For example I don’t think my playing resembles Ahmad Jamal’s at all, but his use of space has had a big impact on me, and the way in which everyone in his trio with Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier is equally important, but there are very few bass solos or drum solos has changed the way I think about trio playing.

Outside of Jazz Robert Wyatt has been a huge influence, both as a drummer and a songwriter. His music has always felt extremely honest to me and he manages to break conventions without it sounding self consciously ‘different’. Some classical composers, particularly people like Frederick Delius and York Bowen have influenced my writing and my improvising as well, especially in their ability to form long compositions from very small, simple motifs. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to decipher the harmony in Delius’ music (I even started writing an online blog on it) and i’ve noticed that starting to creep into my music as well.

In terms of writing music I’ve realised that I’m generally not inspired by the sorts of things that most people seem to be. Most of the music that I’ve written is much more a reflection of places than it is of people. I wrote a tune a few years ago called Lunar Blues for a quintet I was playing with at the time. I had been sitting up on the roof one night staring at the sky, and that song was a sort of musical portrait of the moon, something enormous looking over us but also incredibly calm and benign. That’s the kind of thing that inspires me to write music, and it doesn’t have to be something as ethereal as the moon, it can be something much more mundane, but I think that’s the kind of thing I want to be able to convey with the music that I write. If I was a painter I’d paint scenes of places rather than portraits.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Obviously there are always things that I want to improve about myself, things about my playing and my writing that I’m not happy with, but I think what I’ve found the hardest up to this point is all the other aspects of being a musician other than playing the music. It’s partly do to with confidence but also because I’m just not very interested in (or very good at) promoting myself and making opportunities for myself. Like every other musician, I’d rather be sat at my instrument playing music than dealing the business side of things and I think that has held me back sometimes.

Finding a place to belong within music has also been difficult sometimes. I’ve come from a Jazz background where there is a fairly clear blueprint to follow in terms of making a career (study at university, go to a lot of jam sessions, form a group playing your own music, hopefully be in demand as a sideman) obviously that doesn’t mean that it’s easy at all, but there is a set of ‘rules’ to follow there. I’m starting to feel less and less like I want to be part of that. Equally I’ve never wanted to have a career as a classical pianist (which also has its established conventions), so I’m somewhere in the middle which comes with its own challenges as well. But a lot of the music I listen to, people like Robert Wyatt and Simon Jeffes have made wonderful music without being firmly within one camp, so it is completely possible to find a home outside of the established conventions for making music.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Some of the music that I’m now playing with my trio I think is getting close to the sound I’ve been trying to create for a long time. And the other members of the trio have brought things to the music which have taken it in other directions (particularly rhythmically) which is great, and I think our three personalities are all being heard in the music we’re playing now. I’m also writing a lot of music at the moment which is less based around improvisation and uses a few instruments like cello and clarinet which I haven’t written for before. I need to work on the writing for that a bit longer, but hopefully that will start to all come together next year

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Generally I like to play simple tunes, with not too many changes. In the trio that I’m playing with at the moment we all love playing Monk tunes, so much so that we’ve actively tried to cut down the amount of Monk tunes that we play because we were getting to the point where almost half of what we were playing was his tunes. It’s the simplicity mixed with the weirdness that I think appeals to us, and his tunes take us to the kinds of places improvisationally that we seem to like to go to. Aside from Monk, I think that as a trio some of the slower Latin tunes work really well. We definitely play better at slower tempos as a trio. I’ve been playing with JJ, the bass player, for years and we’ve always preferred playing slow music to fast. Although in general I think it’s harder to play, it gives you more space to really listen and make choices, and it’s much harder to rely on just blowing through the changes when you’re at a slow tempo.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

The Vortex, in Dalston, for me is the best venue in London. I’m still yet to put on a gig playing my own music there, but I’ve played there as a sideman and I think it’s the venue which relates best to the kind of music that I’d like to make. Audiences tend to be very supportive there and people rarely go there without the intention of keeping completely quiet and listening to the music. Probably the majority of the really great music that I’ve heard in London has been there. The Bull’s Head, in Barnes, has a similar atmosphere and I’ve enjoyed playing there a lot recently. Some of the audiences outside of the UK have been really supportive as well. I did some playing in Hamburg in 2016 and the audiences there were great, completely willing to spend their money to come and listen to us having never heard of us before, that really surprised me.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One of the most memorable was very recently actually, at the Bull’s Head in Barnes. We played a tune called Come Sunday, written by Duke Ellington. It was one of those rare times where I felt like the three of us in the trio and the audience were completely connected. I can’t think of a better way of describing it than that. I’ve only had that feeling maybe four or five times in all the time I’ve been playing. Very occasionally everything just fits perfectly in the moment and that was one of those times. And as a result we played that tune very differently to how we had been up to that point.

The nature of improvised music means that it’s very rare that everything falls together perfectly in real time, and in a way that’s not the point. There’s a Miles Davis quote where he says something like ‘I can play music all night, but there will only ever be about 8 bars where I really nail it’, and I know what he means, although for me it’s about 8 bars a year. I think I’d been playing Jazz for at least four or five years before I ever played a tune and afterwards thought ‘that wasn’t bad actually’.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To find my own voice. And to get to the point where I feel like I’m playing and writing in the most genuine and honest way possible. I don’t think I necessarily want to have a long long career in music and be doing what I’m doing now in 20 years. If I can get to the point where I’ve written and performed some music that I really believe in then that’s probably enough for me. That could take five years, or the rest of my life, but that’s the goal.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think probably the best advice I could give is very boring – practice the fundamentals. A lot of people (myself included) neglect simple things like having good time, feeling comfortable in difficult keys (and minor keys), ear training, etc. too early in their development and move on to really complex concepts before the fundamentals are really in place. I definitely made that mistake and I now practice mostly quite basic things along those lines. Also, to me there seems to be a bit too much focus on harmony and not enough focus on phrasing and rhythm in Jazz education, maybe that’s just a personal thing. It’s difficult sometimes early on to see the timeline of your playing. The balance between getting the fundamentals together and also trying to find your own sound can be hard. I think most Jazz players now need to have very solid foundations to built on, maybe that wasn’t the case in the past for people like Ornette Coleman, who made his own rules. But nowadays it seems to be pretty hard to get anywhere without good reading, ability to play in different time signatures, ability to play modal tunes, etc. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but I think it is the way things are now.

Classic Gershwin on BBC London

Susan Porrett (actress and writer of Classic Gershwin) and Yvonne Evans (Director of 7 Star Arts) will be appearing on the Jo Good show on BBC London at 1pm on Wednesday 10 January to talk about The Cinema Museum London & “Classic Gershwin” (which plays at The Cinema Museum on Saturday 13th January). Featuring music from the show played by acclaimed pianist Viv McLean.

Book tickets to Classic Gershwin at The Cinema Museum

 

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p011nd8m