Gondwanaland and the Mystical North
Players like McCoy Tyner and Art Blakey also get name-checked during the interview, and it's clear that Halsall is hugely influenced by the jazz of the '50s and early '60s. But he's open to a much wider range of music. "I'm a DJ as well, so I listen to lots of modern music, including modern jazz. But I have another very different project too: Matthew Halsall Remixed. There's a beatboxer and a turntablist and a jazz poet and a bassist in the band. We turn the tunes on their heads." The project is a reflection of Halsall's past, and his introduction to the jazz greats: "I got into some jazz through hearing it sampled on hip hop records: players like Elvin Jones, Buddy Rich all got sampled by groups like The Cinematic Orchestra."
Halsall runs Gondwana Records, "a labor of love" as he describes it. It's a label that releases his recordings and Birchall's, with more planned for the future. Gondwanaland, as all keen students of paleogeography are aware, is a supercontinent that eventually split to form most of the land masses of the Southern Hemisphere. The name conjures up some enticing images, visual and aural. Halsall's choice of name must reflect a deep-rooted love of the legends of pre-history, a strong attraction to the esoteric mysteries of ancient geological transmutation. Mustn't it? "My mum had a furniture shop in Preston called Gondwana" he replies, rather more prosaically. "I used to work there, so when it closed I thought I'd keep the name of my mum's business alive."
There's a strong visual image to the Gondwana releases: monochrome shots of the artist with contrasting lettering. Once again, Halsall is influenced by some classic jazz, in this case it's labels like Impulse! and Blue Note: "I've got all the Blue Note album cover books, I love looking at the history of album covers. My brother is into graphic design and we are both into that side of things. We're influenced by Impulse! and Blue Note, but we're also influenced by Warp Records, Ninja Tune and other modern labels. We try to get a balance and put it into our covers."
Halsall has lived in the Manchester area for most of his life. He grew up in Leigh, twenty minutes from the city, then lived near Wigan. He moved to Liverpool as a young man but then moved to Manchester itself. A move to London has never been part of Halsall's plans: Birchall has also spent his life in the North West, eschewing the capital city. For some members of the predominantly London-focused jazz media this is viewed as a curious, illogical, decision tantamount to professional suicide. It almost marks Halsall and Birchall out as eccentric. The trumpeter, for one, is unconcerned, even amused: "I think my manager's played a bit on that as well" he says, with a grin. "It's funny, every gig in London is a sell-out at the moment. They're all excited about this guy from Manchester who doesn't play down south that much. But in Manchester not all of the gigs sell outthey're not so proud of the local trumpet player."
"There's a music scene in Manchester" Halsall continues, "and every genre has got something there. They mix together too. I know electronic music producers who come to the jazz gigs, I know the folk-y crowd, we go to each other's gigs and play on each other's records. Everyone works together and appreciates just music, not a specific genre." Even though Manchester is relatively small, around half a million people in the city and a total of 2.5 million in the local area, the scene is so active that there are still new players for Halsall to discover and his enthusiasm for doing so remains high. "I still try to get out to gigs three times a week, to check people out. I keep finding amazing players, and I'm wondering where on Earth they've been hiding!"
Halsall has started to play in Continental Europe, gigging in Spain, France and Germany this year if plans come to fruition. But he has yet to make the move across the Atlantic, despite his love of American jazz: "I keep getting emails from all over the States, asking us to come over. We're slowly working on it, because the States is so vast and to get there and do gigsI don't think we're quite ready yet. Maybe another couple of years, maybe five years. I want to go over and do it properly. I'm still trying to crack the UK!"
What's Wrong With The British Jazz Scene This Month?
Sunshine, festivals, two of the most exquisite albums for an age, and some of my favorites have been nominated for a Parliamentary Jazz Award. Boundless joy is a bit of an alien concept to me, but things are heading in that general direction. Except for one thing, one puzzle, one source of tremendous personal angst. Why do harpists always look like they're miming?