Gondwanaland and the Mystical North
But for most of this month's column, JazzLife UK travels, spiritually at least, Up North, to the legendary city of Manchester via a chat with trumpeter, DJ, writer, producer and all-round musical polymath Matthew Halsall.
Normal For Norfolk
First of all, it's time to blow my own trumpet, thanks to the venerable Sebastian Scotney and his excellent LondonJazz blog (a 2011 Parliamentary Jazz Award nominee for Jazz Publication of the Year). In an article titled "Normal For Norfolk?" (Norfolk being my home county), Scotney writes nice things about me and about this column.
"Normal For Norfolk," by the way, is a widely used phrase here in the UK. Non-UK readers might like to know that it refers, as I understand it, to the fact that Norfolk's artistic and cultural community produces works of an extremely high standard as its norm. Hence, something that would be considered to be exceptional in most of the UK would simply be seen as "Normal for Norfolk." I think that's it.
Manchester: More Than Lowry And Whippets
Much more, truth be told, than the painter of matchstick men and a collection of small sporting dogs. There's Manchester United, and Manchester City, and Britain's longest-running TV soap, Coronation Street. And musiclots of music.
In the early '60s, Manchester was home to Freddie and the Dreamers, creators of the seminal "Short Shorts." The Hollies followed soon after, eventually introducing the Graham Nash part of Crosby Stills & Nash. In the '70s punk explosion, Manchester produced the wonderful, sartorially-defiant, Buzzcocks and The Fall. Magazine, The Smiths, Joy Division, the papier-mâché genius of Frank Sidebotham, and "Madchester" bands such as the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays all called Manchester home.
In 2011, the Manchester music scene remains vibrant, not least because it's home to one of the most exciting young musicians on the British jazz scene, trumpeter Matthew Halsall. We met before his gig at Norwich Arts Centre on a warm spring evening and spoke about inspirations, spirituality and the creative process, as well as how it feels to be an "outsider" of sorts in the British jazz world.
Halsall's exquisitely lovely On The Go was born, nurtured, and committed to record in Manchester. More specifically, the recording took place in an area of Greater Manchester that provided the inspiration for Coronation Street over 60 years ago: "I record in this place in Salford called Peel Hall, a big old place with a Steinway grand piano" Halsall explains. "I bring in an engineer with his own set up to record and we do it all live, normally within four takes." Halsall's approach to writing comes straight from, as he terms it, "classic modal jazz writing." "I sit at the piano and write the bass line, chords and melody. The beginning of every tune. Then I open things up for improvised solos, maybe two per tune, then it's back to the head again." It's not just the writing: Halsall is aiming for a two albums per year release schedule as well. "I'm into the John Coltrane approach, definitely," he says, laughing. He hopes that his second release of 2011 will be by his 11-piece Gondwana Orchestra, "although I'm still writing and recording that one."
Halsall also stresses the influence of Alice Coltrane on his work, an influence that began when his band contained flautist Roger Wickham, now based in Madrid. "i really got into the Alice Coltrane thing while he was with us. Then a friend recommended Nat Birchall (pictured left) so I checked him outand he was doing the whole Coltrane thing." Birchall's playing and the addition of Rachael Gladwin on harp give the band a real link to the Coltranes and also a distinctly spiritual vibe, which Halsall makes full use of in his writing. "It isn't massively planned" says Halsall, "but when I meet musicians who inspire me then I try to write to those qualities that they have." This approach means that solos are also planned in advance, so that the instrumentation matches the mood or nature of the overall piece. "It's not just 'everyone have a go and we'll see how it sounds'; it is something I think about. When I'm making an album I always try to listen as a listener, not as a musician. It's something I've spent a lot of time thinking about with friends, and it works."
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?
It might just be me, but harpists never seem to be hitting the right strings to make the music I hear. When I watch drummers drumming, fiddlers fiddling, horn players fingering and blowing, the sounds I hear match the movements I see. My eyes and ears are as one, my mind is content. Looking at the hands of a harpist, it too often seems as if what I see and what I hear are not connected.
I could pretend that my quandary began as I engaged in deep study of the performances of Alice Coltrane, but it wouldn't be true. It began as I engaged in repeated viewings of classic Marx Brothers movies. True, Harpo's ability to burn a candle at both ends was mystical enoughbut how did his fingers make the sounds I was hearing? At times it was almost too much to take.
Watching Rachael Gladwin, as she played with the Matthew Halsall band brought this oddly disconcerting sensation to the fore again. It's a beautiful instrument, and Gladwin creates a beautiful sound, so why does my brain refuse to marry sight and sound as it should?
But, on the whole, my cheery optimism continues: there's still nothing wrong. Or at least there won't be, once I solve the harp conundrum.
All Photos: Bruce Lindsay