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Nat Birchall: Alone In The Music

By Published: July 13, 2010
It felt like I was playing me somehow, in a way that I hadn't before. My music is very simple, harmonically and melodically, so you really have to play with as much conviction as possible because there's nothing to hide behind if you know what I mean. Since that day I've played differently, or at least I feel so, and I try to write songs that emote the way I feel about music, life, the universe. It's only since playing with Matt's band and writing these songs that I've really found myself as a musician.

When I write tunes, I have to kind of "find" them, on the piano or on the horn. There's a school of thought that says that all tunes already exist and we just discover them, which is kind of how I see it too. I don't think I could sit down and say, "Today I'm going to write a song in a [hard bop pianist] Horace Silver
Horace Silver
Horace Silver
style" or whatever. That would probably result in a very cliched tune. So the songs have their own concept; they aren't designed to fit with any plan for a particular album or project.

With the 2010 album, Guiding Spirit, I was conscious that I didn't want to do "Akhenaten Part II." It had to be different enough to be distinct from it, but at the same time be a natural progression. So there was an effort to try to find more upbeat type tunes and for us to play with a stronger dynamic than on the last one. I wanted to use percussion because I hear it working with the way the music is going. In the future, I think I'd like the percussion to be more integral within the foundation of the music; it sounds a bit complementary to me on the album.

The core of the band are some of the most empathic people I've ever played with. They are absolutely integral to the outcome of the music. They play completely in the moment, in a very selfless way and with total soul. Everything is given up to the music at hand, which I believe is the only way you can create music of any depth. I know they will always give 100%; never just going through the motions, but always looking to expand the music without destroying the character of a piece.

Experience has taught me that you can't get anyone to play a certain way if they don't want to or can't feel it. When it comes down to it they are going to play what is in their hearts. So you have to wait until you find the right people to play with you in the way you'd like.

AAJ: Before you hooked up with Matthew Halsall, did you ever consider moving to London, in search of like-minded musicians?

NB: When I was trying to put bands together, I always thought that in London there would be more like-minded players, but I've resisted the idea of moving there for several reasons. First, I've never thought myself good enough as a musician to survive in such a competitive climate. I'm not a competitive person and my approach to music mirrors this I think.

Second, the people I know who have moved to London have been pretty much swallowed up by either the session route or they are "rhythm section" players who get plenty of gigs but don't necessarily pursue their own musical path.

Finally, London never appealed to me as a place to live. I have, in the past, wanted to live in either Paris or Amsterdam but really I'm at home in the English countryside, especially where there are hills. I find it inspiring and it appeals to my sense of calm and simplicity, as well as a strong feeling for nature, all qualities that I value.

AAJ: What are your immediate plans, now that Guiding Spirit is out and the buzz around your music is growing?

NB: I'm just looking forward to doing more playing, to more people in as many different places as possible. I've always wanted to play throughout Europe, festivals or otherwise. So playing farther afield would be great.

Recording-wise, I'd like to try some more expanded groupings, more horns for example. I'd also like to further investigate the possibilities with the kora [West African harp] and the balafon [West African xylophone].

Top 10 Legacy Albums

A mix of jazz and reggae, with a little Motown, here—in his own words—are Birchall's top 10 legacy albums. In no particular order:

Yabby You and King Tubby, Chant Down Babylon Kingdom (Walls Of Jerusalem) (Nationwide, 1976). The music of Vivian "Yabby You" Jackson has been a huge inspiration to me. He often manages to get a very deep, spiritual sound on his records. This particular LP has the vocal tunes on one side and the King Tubby dubs on the other. Tubby was a genius. He was a very subtle and skillful engineer who understood dynamics and development in a piece of music.

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