Trish Clowes: From Shorter, Lovano and the Sphinx
A strong thread of improvisation runs through the second album, including the nonet pieces. Clowes builds varying levels of structure within which this improvisation can appear. "For the small band tunes I gave them lead sheets: I like to create strong melodies but leave space too. On 'On Off' there is a melody and a little background riff and quite a specific bass line. The more people there are the less space there is so I need to address that. If you're going to have nine people in an ensemble you need to ensure that the music is written for nine people. It's not a problem, but it is important. As compositions get more complex, you have to balance interesting writing with space for improvisation.
"The opposite is the case too. I hate listening to jazz that boxes in improvisation, where the improvisation has to happen in a strict space between two tightly written sections. Lots of wonderful music has been written like that, coming out of the popular song form, but to me when I write I'm always thinking about where improvisation can take place rather than simply building in a section. I try to avoid that. I'll have a melody and decide that a piano or guitar could improvise over it, or a string section could have a conversation at that point. The solos don't just happen in one place." That well-established format of head, solos, head can be formulaic. I'm not criticizing that form; I just think that we should be playing around with it a lot more."
As a musician who is regularly crossing between jazz and contemporary classical music, what sort of value does Clowes see in such labels? "I just write what comes into my head. If you want to challenge, or try to challenge, ideas about genre then I think labels are okay. Used in the right way they give people an idea of where you're coming from and what to expect. We thought about that kind of thing with Emulsion, we were very careful with the language we used. We referred to improvisation rather than jazz and to contemporary composition rather than contemporary classical or contemporary jazz. If someone wants to describe my music as contemporary jazz because that's how it will be understood by their readers or their audience, then that's fine as well."
Outside her own projects, Clowes is involved in a range of other activities including the SE Collective, based in south east London, and the Odd Trio with McMonagle and drummer Tim Giles. She has also been a part of Andy Sheppard's Sax Massive, a 200-saxophone ensemble: she opened her performance with the group at the 2011 Norfolk and Norwich Festival by playing through a second floor office window while baritone saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings performed on the roof of a nearby library.
The Emulsion festival is another key project that she has initiated and which looks set to expand. The first Emulsion was a one-day festival which featured newly commissioned works from musicians including Clowes' early mentor and teacher, Iain Ballamy. It may have started small, but there are ambitious plans for its future. "The 2013 festival will mainly be led by Luke Styles, a contemporary classical musician [who currently holds the prestigious post of Young Composer In Residence at Glyndebourne Opera House]. The 2012 Festival did contain some contemporary classical music but it was in a jazz club and most people would probably describe it as mostly jazz. Next year it's at Kings Place and they want it to flip around so contemporary classical is the main focus. Luke will lead and free me up to think about the third one in 2014. We're hoping to get funding to expand the activity, adding a series of workshops through the year. I don't intend to make it change."
Clowes is part of a young generation of musicians who are keen to develop new pathways and take their chosen music in exciting new directions, while also emphasizing the importance of honesty and integrity in their craft. Clowes' closing sentence in her discussion of Emulsion serves as a neat summation of her wider musical ambition. "I want to keep true to the values we started with, but keep it going forever more."
Trish Clowes, And In The Night-Time She Is There (Basho Records, 2012)
Trish Clowes, Tangent (Basho Records, 2010)
Page 1: Courtesy of Trish Clowes
Page 2: Gerry Kelly
Page 3: Bruce Lindsay