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Jim Hart: The Art of Juggling

By Published: March 23, 2011
London Years

AAJ: How important to your musical development was your extra curricular musical activity with other like-minded students at Chethams?

JH: It was phenomenally important. We had the opportunity to play all day long if we wanted to. Because I was there in sixth form, and most of the guys who were interested in playing jazz were around the same age, we had a fair amount of freedom and obviously great facilities at our disposal.

So, we were at that age where we were all able to play, but we hadn't done a lot of playing with other people. We spent so much time hanging out and listening to music, playing each other music, and discovering music together. Then we would go and try to play it. So that really prepared me for London—you know, that approach is definitely how it works on the scene here in London. I think it will probably be like that for the rest of my life. It's great, you meet new people and you expose each other to new music, and you play together and you just keep that enthusiasm and that energy for making music.

I once lived in a house with six jazz musicians. We lived together for seven and a half years. We had two big playing spaces, one of which was my room and the other was another room. It was just an amazing life. We just hung out and explored music together, we practiced, wrote, and listened.

AAJ: Were you split between drums and piano?

JH: Yeah, I was starting to get my jazz drum thing together, but I was probably more advanced and comfortable playing jazz on piano.

AAJ: What were some of your fondest memories at Guildhall in London?

JH: That's a good question because I had quite a mixed experience at Guildhall. I guess the fondest memories would be the same as at Chethams, meeting lots of new players who were at a higher level. There was a player, Andrew McCormack, who was in my year, and he was a phenomenal pianist who was already really advanced and leagues ahead of the rest of us. We lived together for a while and he was from London, so he also knew lots of players from the London scene. So I met a lot of his friends, people like Tom Skinner, who ended up as the drummer on my first Gemini recording Emergence (Loop Records 2006).

Some of the teachers were great. I really liked Martin Hathaway and Simon Purcell, they had a very methodical and interesting approach to teaching improvisation, which is such a hard thing to do. Pete Churchill was a phenomenal teacher of harmony with whom I had piano lessons.

I didn't have such a great time as a drummer there as a student, but I did have a great time playing there. It's really where I started developing my kit playing, but I wasn't too happy with the drum tuition I was having. I eventually let it fall off because it didn't match up to the work I had done with Dave Hassell at Chethams, and I also started thinking more about vibes at this time.

Speaking of Vibes

AAJ: Piano and drums would seem to be an ideal foundation for anyone who is interested in playing the vibes?

JH: Yes. Once each term we would do a small recital, about half an hour, so for one of these recitals I decided I would do one tune on vibes. So for half of the program I played drums with a piano trio and then I had another drummer come out and I played something I composed for vibes.

I really enjoyed it, and I got some great feedback from other students who said, "Wow, we haven't heard you do that before, that was great!" But I didn't do it again for about another year. I probably had left college by the time I did it again. I was hanging out with a great flautist, Gareth Lockrane, who knew that I played vibes and that I had a set down in Cornwall—I didn't mention this before, but a very good friend of my first piano teacher gave me a set of vibes which I still have—set up next to me now. An old Trixon set. He just got too old to play it, so he gave it to me when I was about eleven. So I always had this instrument around at home.

It's weird that I didn't get more into it earlier, I never really thought much about them.

AAJ: Do you think that perhaps it was advantageous that you learned piano before you concentrated on vibes?

JH: Potentially yes, because I did a lot of gigs on piano when I first left college. I did a residency in a bar, and it was a duo residency, so I would just call whomever I wanted. Most of us at that age were happy to work through a bunch of standards for fifty quid and a steak dinner.

So I did that three times a week, and I don't think I would have been able to do that as a vibe player. I did that for two or three years and it was great, I learned so many tunes doing that. So yes, you're right, it was a very formative period for me, and advantageous for my piano chops.

So it was really Gareth Lockrane who offered me some gigs with him if I would bring my vibes up to London from Cornwall. So I brought them up and began practicing, and he was true to his word and gave me some gigs [laughing] and put some outrageous charts in front of me that I couldn't really play—he really roasted me.

Then Gwilym Simcock
Gwilym Simcock
Gwilym Simcock
, who was really a good old friend from Chethams, called me to work with his band on vibes—and the rest is history. So it was those two guys who really gave me a break as a vibes player.

AAJ: You thanked Joe Locke on one of your CDs, could you expand on that?

JH: So, Joe and I are quite close and good friends now, and that's something I'm really happy about because I just think he's an amazing force for good in the world.

I met him when he came to the Royal Academy of Music in London. One of the guys I lived with was a student there, so after I left Guildhall I used to go there and hang out a lot with him and Gwilym, and I got to know the head of the music department. So he called me up and said that Joe was going to do a masters class there, and because they didn't have any vibes players at the college at that time he asked if I'd like to come and sit in so Joe would have someone to work with.

So, of course, I went and sat in on this master class and that was kind of the beginning of our friendship. He was very encouraging and very nice about my playing, picked out some holes, and asked me if I would like to come to New York and study with him.

I did think hard about doing it, and decided against it, but I did take the opportunity of getting together with him for lessons several times when he came to London. I would always go back to the Academy when he came over—which he was doing fairly regularly for masters classes. So we saw each other quite a bit and he helped me with my playing.

He started following what I was doing in terms of recording, and a couple of times he sent me emails and called me up out of the blue just to encourage me. He would say something like, "Hey man, I'm listening to your record and I think it sounds great, keep doing what you're doing." He's talked to other people about me and has been very gracious, so I've very grateful to him.

When I was in New York recording with Michael Janisch
Michael Janisch
Michael Janisch
he lent me a set of vibes for a week out of the kindness of his heart. So I'm in his debt.

AAJ: At first blush it seems vibraphone players are at a disadvantage as soloists compared to keyboardists—four mallets vs. ten fingers. After thinking about it, I suspect that is conceptually wrong because a pianist is generally soloing with the right hand, while a vibraphonist when soloing is constantly alternating between the left and right hands. As an outsider, I would guess that symmetry coupled with the tactile quality of physically hitting the notes, makes the vibes an exhilarating instrument to play?

JH: It's an exhilarating instrument to play, that's for sure. Very physical because the notes are so big. If you think about a piano, you can spread an octave between your thumb and little finger. The vibes only has three octaves, and it is almost as wide as if you spread your arms out side to side. So you're covering a lot of distance for a short range of notes. So in order to play a line that might require you to move your hand six inches, you're moving your whole body, swinging your hands left to right, so it's quite physical and that gives you a certain feeling. But in terms of the ten fingers vs. four mallets thing, I tend to make more of a comparison to the guitar in terms of putting down a line and being able to comp.

With piano you can play a line and a chord, but with vibes or the guitar, you play a line or a chord. It's not really possible to play a line and put a chord underneath it.

AAJ: Can you also think of it in terms of let's say a saxophone? Okay, with vibes you can play chords, but when you're soloing on sax or vibes you're alternating between hands.

JH: Well I try to integrate chords into what I'm doing, that's something I practice quite a lot, playing chords in the spaces of the lines. That's what all my favorite guitarists do, so actually I listen a lot to how guitarists do this, like Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell
, John Scofield
John Scofield
John Scofield
, Kurt Rosenwinkel
Kurt Rosenwinkel
Kurt Rosenwinkel
, and Wolfgang Muthspiel
Wolfgang Muthspiel
Wolfgang Muthspiel
. And I really try to think about how they will go from single note lines to even just two or three note chords, and change the texture of a line.

Like tonight I have a trio gig with Mike Janisch and Dave Smith, and for me that's really an ideal situation to use the vibes to its full capacity. You're never really comping fully behind a front-line soloist, maybe just behind the bass solo. So if I'm just playing a single note line in this formation it's going to sound a bit thin, so you really have to think about combining all of your techniques to come up with a rich musical texture.

AAJ: Speaking of guitar, I noticed on your first solo CD you have a piece where you get an electric guitar sound out of your vibes.

JH: Yeah, I use a pickup system on the vibes so I go through a guitar amp. So I do have the option of adding some distortion, or delay. You know the vibraphone is actually a pure sound, it's one of my slight frustrations with the instrument, I'm really envious of guitarists because I don't have that option of pulling out different harmonics and overtones from the notes, bending the notes, or bringing out different frequencies by slightly damping the strings or whatever it might be. It's a difficult instrument to make sound human, you probably have the least ability to affect the note.

AAJ: Have you given much thought to any technical enhancements?

JH: Sometimes I use a double bass bow, so that way I can start from nothing and crescendo into the note. And using a rubber mallet you can bend a note, so I do a bit of that. And using the guitar effects, like a ring modulator, distortion, delay, and a bit of reverb to sometimes exaggerate the feeling of what I'm playing.

AAJ: When you compose do you switch back to the piano, or stick with the vibraphone?

JH: It varies. I used to always write at the piano and then find that some of the things wouldn't work well on the vibes. So starting with my second CD Narrado (Loop, 2010) I wrote most of it on the vibes. Now I use Sibelius a lot, it's is a software that allows you to compose on the computer. Then to see if it works I'll go to the vibes or the piano.

I've discovered over the last ten years from transferring what I've learned on the piano to the vibes, I've found that much of it just doesn't work. Either you're dealing with five or six note voicings or the thing simply isn't playable. So you have to find a way of getting that same feeling on the vibes with its limitations.

It's been quite interesting and actually it's probably helped my piano playing. I've had to throw a lot of unnecessary notes away, and refine five or six note voicings down to the four most important notes. I get it down to that and then everything is a choice, so it's really been rather educational finding the most important sounds.

AAJ: Are you disciplined about your composing, or do you just wait until it comes to you?

JH: [Laughing] I'm quite good with deadlines. When I have things I need to write for I find I don't have difficulty coming up with stuff. I don't write all year long, or every day.

AAJ: On your three solo releases you cover a wide range of styles, from the freedom of Gemini, to the sensitive interpretations on Words & Music (Woodville, 2010), your tribute to the art of song. On all three, as well as your work with Neon, I get the sense that you aren't discovering something new, rather you already seem to be very much at home all over the musical map.

JH: Thank you, and I do feel like that, and sometimes it worries me in terms of the perception of my musical identity. You know, I play drums with Cleo Laine
Cleo Laine
Cleo Laine
, and I play a lot with people like Alan Barnes
Alan Barnes
Alan Barnes
sax, alto
doing things like Benny Goodman projects, and I do all this stuff with the Loop Collective which is mainly pretty much avant-garde, then I do my Gemini which isn't quite as avant-garde but still a bit left field, and then my quartet which is pretty straight ahead.

So sometimes I think, is this just too much, is this too wide a spectrum; but, in all honesty, I just love it all so much. But I do wonder, as I get older, if I'll close some things off and focus more on one thing than another. But, in a way, I hope not, you know what I mean?

AAJ: Sure, in a way it's a natural process of all the interaction you've got going.

JH: Yeah, everyone's got something different to bring and to say, so it brings out a different part of me. I just hope I can hold on to my own voice all the time, regardless of the situation.

I was watching an amazing thing online, Hal Galper
Hal Galper
Hal Galper
's master class. He was noting that the strength of a good jazz musician is to be in various situations and still retain your own voice.

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