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Nat Birchall: Alone In The Music

By Published: July 13, 2010
After playing it for five minutes, I knew I had to take it seriously. I really connected with it. I could hear the sound in the instrument that I'd been hearing on all the Jamaican records I'd been buying. So I saved up some money, borrowed a bit more, and bought a decent vintage alto. A year later I traded it for a tenor. I also started to listen to jazz. I knew that all the Jamaican horn players I loved—Cedric Im Brooks, Tommy McCook, Roland 'Ringo' Alphonso—were jazz players and their music was influenced by Coltrane. And I started to buy jazz records.

AAJ: Did you take any lessons?

NB: I started to take lessons as soon as I got my first decent saxophone, with a local player, Harold Salisbury. He was getting on towards middle age, and most guys of that age in Lancashire, back then anyway, were into big band swing stuff. But Harold was really into "modern" jazz. I already knew about Coltrane and Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
, but he turned me on to other saxophonists, like Billy Harper
Billy Harper
Billy Harper
and George Adams
George Adams
George Adams
sax, tenor
. I would leave each lesson with a pile of LPs, tape them all and go back 2 weeks later for another lesson and more LPs.

I think I maybe had 10 or 12 lessons or so before I stopped going. Harold was a very enigmatic teacher—so enigmatic that he'd almost never tell me anything specific, insisting that I could/should work it out myself. I see the value in it now, but back then I felt that I really needed something concrete to practise, so I kind of drifted away from the lessons.

I didn't have another formal music lesson until 1994, when I did an HND [Higher National Diploma] in jazz studies. I'd always played by ear. I thought all non- classical musicians did. But you can only go so far in jazz that way, unless you're gifted, which I'm not. So I really had to buckle down and learn the theory.

Immersing myself in all that harmonic theory had a very negative effect on my playing; all of a sudden I couldn't play without thinking anymore. I couldn't play without thinking of the chord and what I "should" play. It took me a while to work through it and get to where I could switch off, or perhaps switch on. That took me two or three years to work through, until I could function in a way that was acceptable to me.

AAJ: You talked earlier about being "alone in the music," when you first started listening to reggae. Has that feeling continued through your journey in jazz?

NB: I've always had the impression that, while most other musicians acknowledge the whole Coltrane-axis thing, they don't see it the same way that I do. For me, there's nothing as deep, as all-encompassing as Coltrane's music—both in terms of the actual music and also of what that music suggests in an abstract or "spiritual" sense. I never could understand why anyone wouldn't want to pursue that kind of playing. It is just so powerful to me. And that spirituality, for want of a better word, has gradually become the main focus of my playing.

So within the musical world in which I've operated I've often felt like an outsider, having a different agenda than everyone else. There's also the question of the audience. There's not a huge amount of people who actually want to listen to this music, not in North-West England at any rate, so I've often had the feeling that I'm tilting at windmills.

AAJ: But that changed, presumably, when you met Matthew Halsall?

NB: The first time I played with his band, round about spring 2007, it was almost like, this is the band I've been waiting to join in all the 30 years I've been playing! It was so conducive to my style of playing that I felt right at home. Matt's a man who I have a lot of time for, I love his playing, his music, his concept. He's so organized in ways that I'm really not. I've never met anyone who's got their music and the business side down like he has. He's really opened the way for me to find myself as a musician, after all this time.

When we did the first session for what was to become my Akhenaten album [Gondwana, 2009], we did the first tune and something happened—I mean I literally felt very different whilst playing the first tune, "Nica's Dance," and could feel something special in the music, that I hadn't felt before. In retrospect I believe it was because of the other musicians and how they played. They were all incredibly supportive and selfless and played with real soul. I also think that, for whatever reason, my compositions now express my true self in a way that my previous attempts at writing hadn't.

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Download jazz mp3 “Speak To Us Of Love” by Nat Birchall