Alexander Hawkins: Retaining The Sense of Discovery

Alexander Hawkins: Retaining The Sense of Discovery
John Sharpe By

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One of the fastest-rising stars of the UK jazz scene, pianist Alexander Hawkins is remarkable in that he shines equally in both the further reaches of free improvisation and the creation of ingeniously crafted charts. Indeed, Hawkins' particular talent might be in bringing the two so close that it's hard to distinguish between them. At times on his two acclaimed Ensemble releases, No Now is So (FMR, 2009) and All There, Ever Out (Babel Label, 2012), there seems to be simultaneous expression of both the written and the unfettered. While uncompromisingly modern, he has a deep appreciation of the jazz tradition, a trait apparent in compositions such as "Tatum Totem," which references the likes pianist Art Tatum while invoking reed multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. In concert, a single solo might move from stride piano to all-out Cecil Taylor-inspired mayhem.

But he's a thrilling improviser on not just piano but also the Hammond organ, even when in completely spontaneous territory, as amply demonstrated on the wonderful collaboration between the organ trio Decoy and trumpeter Joe McPhee Oto (Bo'Weavil Recording, 2010). While his discography is still growing, even now his performance credits read like a who's who of contemporary jazz: trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith and Taylor Ho Bynum, saxophonists Evan Parker, Marshall Allen and Sonny Simmons, drummers Louis Moholo-Moholo and Harris Eisenstadt, and Ethiopian vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke.

Of late, there's a sense that his career has stepped up a gear in terms of activity and output. Given that his encyclopedic knowledge of the whole spectrum of jazz and creative music is allied to formidable articulateness, it's no surprise to find the pianist enjoying an increasing profile as a broadcaster on BBC Radio while, together with vibraphonist Corey Mwamba, he presented an idiosyncratic history of jazz recordings as part of the 2012 London Jazz Festival. On top of that, there are four new discs scheduled for release over the coming months: a duet with Moholo—Keep Your Heart Straight (Ogun, 2012), his first solo recording, the third outing from the transatlantic Convergence Quartet, and a second offering from Decoy with Joe McPhee. Hawkins is clearly someone to watch.

Chapter Index


Piano Heroes

Sounds of the '70s

Working Bands

Inspirations and Reference Points

Compositional Underpinnings


All About Jazz: So, a bit of background first. When and where were you born?

Alexander Hawkins: Oxford, in 1981. Apart from six years, three years of undergraduate study and three years of Ph.D., I've always lived in Oxford. During that six years I was in Cambridge, in fact, hence the Cambridge connection. [Hawkins often plays in Cambridge when on tour.]

AAJ: Do you come from a musical family?

AH: Yes, in the sense that it is very much a music- loving household. My Dad did play decent piano and clarinet, and also has a C-melody saxophone, which is a bit of a rarity. He's a real music lover. Right back from when he was a student, he would go and see Ellington whenever they were in the country. So I've got some good photos of him backstage with Duke. He's been listening forever. So I grew up listening to music at home, and actually one of my Dad's great loves is Ellington. And because he actually likes the very early Ellington, I sort of did jazz chronologically in the sense that the first music I was exposed to was the 1924 Ellington band, and I worked my way forward from there.

AAJ: At what point did you start playing jazz?

AH: That's a slightly tougher one to pinpoint. I initially started playing classical piano, and in fact as a classical musician I was a much better organist than I was pianist. I had no particular technique to speak of, in the classical sense, on the piano. So in terms of studying, I was playing classical music. I probably didn't start playing jazz, or trying to, until I was maybe 14, 15, 16. I really wasn't very good. I'm trying to think when I would have done my first gigs. It was probably at about 16, going out with friends doing standards gigs in local pubs, but they were very much fumbling efforts. I took it up in a much more concerted fashion later. I really liked playing the organ, but I loved the piano, and I wanted to play music in this idealistic way: I wanted to make music my living. And so I thought for that to be the case, I needed to put a lot more time into the piano. So one day when I was 18, I never played the organ again. I was doing a lot of practice each day on the organ. I was playing it quite seriously, and then one day I just didn't play the organ again.

AAJ: Was that church organ?

AH: Yeah. And one of the problems I had with it was that some of the repertoire is fantastic. I loved Bach—I still do—and Messiaen and lots of the French composers I loved, but there was an awful lot that I really wasn't that into. But what that did expose me to was different schools of improvisation. The French organ tradition is mind boggling when it comes to improvisation.

AAJ: Who are you thinking of there?

AH: Well, recordings of musicians like [organist] Daniel Roth, who's at Saint-Sulpice [church in Paris], which is the organ where [organist/composer Marcel] Dupré was. Charles Tournémire. There's this whole tradition of training the organists in the French conservatoires to become, ideally, extremely disciplined improvisers in a variety of forms. [Guitarist] Derek Bailey goes into it in the Improvisation (Da Capo, 1993) book. It's really interesting and an incredibly rigorous, disciplined thing, and actually a lot of the published French repertoire originated as improvisations which were then transcribed. So it exposed me to that, and then later when I came to play more Hammond, the actual literal skills of registering things became useful then. Organs have a relatively simple but quite idiosyncratic way of creating sounds, so it gave me that background.

AAJ: You did a law degree and a Ph.D. in criminology, so you seemed set on one career path, but at the same time you were thinking that you would love to make a living as a musician. Was that a difficult decision?

Alex Hawkins Ensemble—All There, Ever OutAH: No, not at all, actually. Law degrees are often just a means to an end, but perversely I did it and the Ph.D. because I was interested in it. I never toyed with the idea of doing law as a career. And I think I was also fairly bloody-minded in that I didn't want to study jazz. Part of that was a slightly naive line of reasoning. I thought, "None of my heroes have [studied jazz institutionally], so I'm going to figure it out for myself the same." That's kind of crazy, but that schooled sound was not something I was interested in. I know there are a few more far-sighted courses, and if you were able to study with [saxophonist/composer] Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan [University in Connecticut] or [saxophonist/composer] Roscoe Mitchell at Mills [College in Oakland, CA] or [trumpeter/composer] Wadada Leo Smith at CalArts [California Institute of the Arts], that would be fantastic. But I don't think that over here we have that opportunity. It is much more didactic, and it's to do with what you should play over certain things, and for me, as soon as education turns prescriptive rather than descriptive, it ceases to be an interesting thing.

AAJ: That's interesting because many of the most distinctive sounds are from people who haven't been through that educated route. You talk about bloody-mindedness. Is it actually more difficult to find your own way?

AH: I was lucky because I had studied the piano and the organ conventionally. So from the point of view of having a technique, I had a facility on the instrument whereby I could play my ideas. So that wasn't something I that I needed to develop quite so much—because of course there are technical things that you need to be able to do on your instrument just to be able to realize your ideas. Of course, every so often there are people who come along who do find a totally idiosyncratic way around the instrument. But in terms of actually learning to improvise, the most useful thing is understanding the tradition, the past voices, in order that you don't sound like them.

There's a really fascinating [saxophonist/composer] Henry Threadgill interview somewhere where he's talking about people transcribing solos, Coltrane solos, and saying why on earth would you want to do that. And that's kind of how I feel. I'm not interested in transcribing a [pianist] Bud Powell solo, because I don't want to play it less well than Bud Powell. He's so awesome, why would I listen to anyone else play it? And similarly with Monk and Andrew Hill and Jaki Byard and other pianists that I love, why on earth would I want to transcribe it, because I'd never be able to play it as well as them. And nor is it interesting to play in their language because they own that language and do it better than everyone else.

So what not studying probably means is that there are certain technical skills I'm probably deficient in. I'm not a massive walking library of standard tunes. I have a working knowledge of a number, I guess, but I couldn't sit and play those in any key just off the top of my head, for example. But learning or developing a musical voice is developing the facility to play the music you want to play. And given that playing the standard repertoire night after night is not what I'm interested in doing, though I love it very much, it doesn't strike me that that was something that I needed to do.

So the education is an interesting thing, but I really have problems with the very didactic way of: if you have this chord then you play this scale. It just doesn't make sense. No, you don't play that scale, you play the sound you want to play. I can also see that if you are a session musician, you want to be able to reproduce a certain sound. No problem, but that's not improvising. That's the product of repertory music. So, in a very real sense, I think that a lot of music from that tradition is not improvised; it's different permutations of learnt rules.

Piano Heroes

AAJ: You mentioned some pianists you love there, so who are the most prominent pianists in your pantheon? And given what you've said about not wanting to reproduce them, what have you taken from them?

AH: My real hero, my first love, is Art Tatum. I find it very difficult to extract technically what the influence of certain people has been, because for sure there are a lot of things I could pinpoint in Tatum's playing that I absolutely love. His harmonic sense is just extraordinary, and for me he really incorporates virtuosity in a non-self- conscious way, presaging Cecil Taylor more than anyone else, I think. I love his time feel. I actually love his way with a melody. But if I think why do I love Tatum, it's not because of those technical things—that's not how I listen to the music, generally; I just like how it sounds. And with all these guys, I'm inspired by the fact that they sounded like themselves and no one else. I love their music, and that inspires me to do my own music rather than to do theirs. So Tatum would be the main guy for me.

I remember my dad having a tape of a half-hour BBC program about Tatum, and in introducing Tatum that mentioned Earl Hines and Fats Waller, so I got very into them. Teddy Wilson is another huge favorite, and I've got a real soft spot for Chicago pianists like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson. And then moving forward from Tatum, I quickly got into Bud Powell and Monk. Another guy from that era who is a real inspiration to me is Elmo Hope. He was interesting because he reassures you as a musician. Whereas Powell and Monk were conspicuously geniuses—well, if you try to emulate a genius it's quite daunting— Elmo Hope seems to be just a guy who did something completely distinctive but without that kind of awesome baggage that Monk has. Then I work forward from there chronologically to Herbie Nichols, Dick Twardzik, Hasaan Ibn Ali—that record with the Max Roach Trio is just amazing [The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan (Atlantic, 1965)].

AAJ: That's the only record he made, isn't it?

AH: I think there was a quartet record with [saxophonist] Odean Pope in the can, but it was destroyed in the Atlantic Records warehouse fire, or at least it's thought to have been, as far as I'm aware. But Hasaan, his big influence was Elmo Hope. In fact, there's a great tune on the Max Roach record called "Hope So Elmo." Then of course Cecil Taylor, that's where you begin to have another game changer, language wise. I think that was the first jump in the language where I really had to figure out how that related to all the stuff I loved.

AAJ: But you knew there was something there that was worth pursuing?

AH: Absolutely. For example, one guy who I didn't mention: Ellington. If he'd never ever gone near a big band, he would still be thought one of the great pianists. And listening to Cecil, I could very, very immediately hear Ellington in the touch, in the way he would voice certain things, and Tatum in the sweep, the architectural aspect of his playing. Then more recently, someone like Marilyn Crispell was hugely important to me because when I first heard her with the Braxton quartet, her music was like a Rosetta Stone because, for me, she was a pianist who had synthesized so many of the pianists that I loved—Monk, Cecil and so forth. Their languages are so all-consuming, you need to be quite inventive not just to ape them. And Marilyn was really inspirational to me because she showed how you could take those languages and mold them into something personal. And she shows the way, significantly for me as a composer as well, where you could take Cecil's language and use it in a very composed context, which is what I was hearing in her playing in the Braxton quartet.

And then looking for other contemporary ways with my influences, I very soon arrived at Muhal Richard Abrams, who is another big hero of mine. And Don Pullen. And Horace Tapscott is another guy who I spend a lot of time listening to. And that's to miss out Jaki Byard, who blows my mind whenever I listen to him—which is a lot. And Andrew Hill, who fascinates me because he's a pianist who's essentially an inside player in the sense that he's always playing compositions, pretty much like Monk in that he's always within the composition, but incredibly free as well. So all these people I spent a long time listening to. Chris McGregor as well; in part because of my connections with [South African drummer] Louis Moholo, I spent a long time listening to Chris. So all these people were hugely influential.

AAJ: But in the ether rather than in the particular?

AH: I think so. It's an interesting thing, these streams of influence, because for sure I could probably take any one of my recordings and say, "Ah, that owes a stylistic debt to so-and-so," but because I've very single mindedly never transcribed anybody and always studiously avoided thinking I'm going to do an Irene Schweizer, for instance, on this tune, the assimilation of ideas has never been a conscious thing. And it would be telling, I think, if I was to go to my iTunes library—I don't like to listen to music digitally, but when I'm on the road it's a good thing to do—if I was to look at the most played pianists, actually in recent times it would probably be Hampton Hawes and Oscar Peterson. I'm a real sucker for Hampton Hawes.

So I think it goes back to what I was saying about Tatum; the real inspiration is that I like the sound. Obliquely, I can adopt certain rhythmic things from Cecil's playing and certain harmonic things that Muhal will do and Sun Ra. Actually, if Sun Ra had never gone near a big band, he would still be one of the great piano players. But actually, I'm probably inspired as much by listening to Hampton Hawes or listening to Oscar Peterson. While it's probably fair to say I would struggle to sound like either, I would love to be able to. I mean, that would be amazing to go down the pub and play a standards gig and sound like Hampton Hawes. I would be so happy [laughs].

Sounds of the '70s

AAJ: In talking there, you have demonstrated a prodigious knowledge both of the jazz canon and the 1970s avant- garde, a very neglected period in some ways. You have featured compositions by Anthony Braxton, [saxophonist] Arthur Blythe, [violinist] Leroy Jenkins, Wadada Leo Smith, [saxophonist] Oliver Lake and Sun Ra in your concerts with your ensemble. What is it about that period that inspires you?

AH: One of the answers to this is really quite unambitious. I love standard tunes, I love Monk's tunes, and I love Bud Powell's tunes, and so on. But they've been done so brilliantly by so many masters that I'm scared of them, in a way. I don't have a problem with playing other people's music. There seems to be a real vogue for only playing your own music because that's the only way to be innovative. But these seams in the '70s are relatively quite unmined, and I think there's a lot further to go with that repertoire than there is with Monk, in terms of people giving hackneyed interpretations. For sure, Braxton wrote some such-brilliant tunes that if people play them as much as they play "Stella By Starlight," there would soon become hackneyed ways to play them. And likewise, another composer, Leroy Jenkins—I love his writing. It's so distinctive, and for sure you could develop hackneyed ways around them, but for me it's such a rich seam because there's not this anxiety of influence when I play them. If I play "Stella By Starlight," I'm very conscious of all the people who played it so much better, whereas with this repertoire there's not that baggage.

But then also, for me compositionally, I feel that jazz composition (or perhaps we need to call it creative music to illustrate the point) has evolved to such a point that the head-solos-head format is old news. It's still a great one if you use it as one option among many. But what interests me about that period is that those are some masters who are showing interesting ways with structure. One way to create an interesting language: there's the micro level of the notes you play and in what order but also the macro-level language of what structure you're using, how you're deploying people. And for me those composers show really fascinating ways forward with that material. But also some of them are just great tunes, for example the Sun Ra tunes that I love to play from that time—on the Ensemble record [No Now Is So... (FMR, 2009)] we did "Love From Outer Space," which is basically just a vamp tune on one chord—are not structurally innovative but just great tunes. Actually, of the Sun Ra tunes I've been playing recently, I've been playing "Fate In A Pleasant Mood" a lot recently, and it's the same, really, an AABA, very tonal tune. It's got a wonky bridge, but I just love it because it's a great tune. So there is a variety of things that draw me to these composers.

Working Bands

AAJ: You have three main outlets for your energies: the latest version of your Ensemble, Decoy (sometimes with Joe McPhee) and the Convergence Quartet. Could you talk about each of them and what opportunities they give you?

AH: So the Ensemble is my thing as a bandleader. That changes the dynamic immediately because I introduce all the repertoire. One of the problems with improvised music—in the caricature of it as a socialist music where no one's allowed to solo, as that's bourgeois—I don't buy into. For me, the AACM did freedom the right way, as freedom to do something. In the same way, I'm happy to do head-solos-head; soloing is one option I like as well. So as a bandleader giving people material, I don't regard this as some great gesture of hegemony on my part. But for me, with Ellington being, along with Tatum, my other great hero, that's the perfect model. You can impose your compositional voice but still allow the musicians completely free rein to do what they want to do. And after all, putting together the group is the first compositional decision. That is also true, I think, of a free- improvised group. If you were to draw people out of a hat, you could minimize that, but really all free-improvised groups involve compositional decisions.

So my Ensemble is a vehicle for me to explore my compositional ideas. As a bandleader, you are able to steer a group dynamic in an interesting way. The older version of the group was concerned with crowding the same range, the same tessituras of the lower mids, with cello, double bass, guitar, steel pan or marimba—crowding that area with radically different tone colors. Unfortunately, that had to move on just because of geographical relocation. So then I thought, "How am I going to replace it?" What I didn't want to do, because I believe where possible in writing the parts for the player rather than the instrument, was sub people in for the musicians I was losing, so I thought, "Start again." And then I was reflecting, "Now among my peers, a quirky instrumentation is no longer quirky as everyone's doing it, so what I really want is a piano- bass-drums thing, and I want some front-line horns, and I want to do something with a conventional group. So I had piano, bass, drums, guitar and bass clarinet as it was.

We did a gig like that, and I thought it could use one more voice, so I added Dylan Bates on violin. This group, I feel, as opposed to its predecessor, is more concerned with rhythmic devices as well. Whereas the previous one was timbrally aware, this one has players in it who are fantastic rhythm players. I think it emphasizes that a little bit more, but then it's difficult to gauge because my compositions have evolved, so it would be interesting to know how the old group would play the new music and vice versa. So that's the Ensemble, and of course now I'm just playing original compositions with it. On the recent BBC session [Jazz on Three, 24 September 2012], that was all original compositions. Live, we play some [saxophonist] Steve Lacy and some Leroy Jenkins.

The Convergence Quartet is my longest-running concern. That was the first profile band I had together.

AAJ: What an amazing way to start.

AH: Yes, that was fantastic because Dom [Lash] and I were living in Oxford, and we would walk two miles every Monday night for ages with Dom carrying his bass—I was walking, he was pushing his bass as well—up a really steep hill to these rehearsals, and we would talk about everything. It was to a free-improvisation playing session that we would walk, and we were saying it would be really fun to play something compositional. At that time, we had both just been to what turned into Quintet (London) 2004 (Leo, 2005) with the Braxton group at the Royal Festival Hall.

AAJ: It was fantastic.

AH: It was unbelievable. And Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet just absolutely blew me away. I'd been listening to Braxton before then as well, but immediately when I heard him, having heard all the early Ellington trumpeters I'd grown up listening to, that was a moment when it all clarified for me. I could totally see how it could all be made to gel into a language. So I said something to Dom as we were thinking of putting something together: "Wouldn't it be really great to play with Taylor?" And a couple of years before, when I was away in Cambridge, [drummer] Harris Eisenstadt had been touring with Macbeth, and [reedman] Vinny Golia had been playing and this guitarist Jeremy Drake, and he had spent a long while in this country and had come to Oxford to do some playing. So Dom knew Harris, and we thought this might be quite a nice conceit to have four composers from different backgrounds, where in the grand Venn diagram of the music we might make, we had some interesting intersections.

I happened to be on holiday in New York a couple of months after that and managed to see the Cecil Taylor Big Band at the Iridium, in which Taylor plays. So I chatted with Taylor, gave him a CD and said it would be really fun if we could hook something up. He was up for it. Dom talked to Harris, and then we made that happen. Now we've done three tours and each time documented the music we've made with different releases. The first one was exciting for me because I was just chuffed to play with those three, and probably they dragged me up by my bootstraps a little bit. I punched above my weight, maybe. And then by the second one, I felt I was beginning to get my stuff together a little bit more, and I felt we made some really interesting music on the thing that became Song/Dance (Clean Feed, 2010). I was really proud of that release, and then this last time round, I think we all felt it on the tour, that we really began to develop a group identity. We were all really, really enthused by the music, and so there's a forthcoming release on the No Business label in 2013. It's only an occasional group—these US/UK things can only be that way—so that's something that I would really like to keep simmering on for as long as everyone's into it, which we all are.

But I love that because it's very much a collective. We all contribute equal numbers of compositions, so that's a thrill because we all have an input as interpreters. We have a couple of working norms, which is that if we can't decide how to do something, the composer has the final say. But that's a really exciting dynamic to work in because it's different from being a bandleader—you rehearse the band in a different way. It goes to other compositional areas than we would normally go.

It's an interesting group size as well, because I hadn't thought of it in this way before, but as leaders we work with slightly larger ensembles where you can make a lot more stuff happen. Dom is a slightly different case because, as a bassist, he works in a lot more contexts and slightly less as a bandleader. But it's great if you want lots of concurrent events: if you have a sextet, you can get two people doing that, two people doing something else and so on. A quartet is a really nice number, but you have got to be really careful about getting people doing totally different stuff because it is that much more exposed. But then, by the same token, if you really want to pull everyone together on the same page, it's great from that aspect.

Then Decoy is another collective group which was really initiated by [drummer] Steve Noble and Mark Morris, who runs [record label] Bo'Weavil, because he'd been saying that he would love to do a Hammond record. That's another real weakness of mine, going back to the canon, I absolutely love all those organ records. I mean, Baby Face Willette is my guy. I love Jimmy Smith, Big John Patton, Freddie Roach, all those Blue Note albums and Larry Young and Sun Ra as well. I love this straight-up rare-groove stuff as well—Reuben Wilson, Jimmy McGriff. But again, because I could never play it like that, I wanted to play my music on the Hammond. I love the Hammond as well, so we got into that. We've made two records as a trio. In fact, it was just the one session, but the label liked it so much, they said, "How would you feel about doing a CD and an LP of different material?" So we did that and then ... I can't remember how we came to work with Joe McPhee.

AAJ: He was doing a two-night residency at Cafe Oto with different groups.

AH: That's right. So on one night he worked with N.E.W. with Steve Noble, [bassist] John Edwards and [clarinetist/guitarist] Alex Ward, and on the other, we did it on the Hammond. And it was really nice. I think everyone came to play that night. And it turned into a record [Oto (Bo'Weavil Recordings, 2010)] because it was being recorded, and we both loved that, and we actually felt that the quartet was really nice. I mean, Joe is going to improve any group. That's still a going concern. We have this new record coming out. The nice thing about Decoy is that there are no compositions. I mean, it gets very compositional in that Steve and John [Edwards] really like to land on grooves, and they play a lot of explicit time in a free-improvised context, which is fantastic because I love playing on a groove.

One of the amazing things about them as a rhythm section is that you can either do free improv and have no hierarchical relationship, but they also enjoy the role of being a bassist and a drummer. Because that's more freedom, it's another option, because if they can sit on a groove, that's increasing everyone's options, and it's just another exciting dynamic the music can have. A really interesting side note to Decoy is that we had a couple of things in Europe earlier in the year. We did one with Joe, but Joe couldn't do the second, which was a big Sun Ra festival, so we did it with [reedman and leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra] Marshall Allen, which was different again, but unbelievable. Marshall was just incredible. I mean, so inspiring, and to get completely schooled by somebody not quite three times my age was unbelievable: the stamina of the guy and the flow of musical ideas, and just somebody with such a disarming love of making noise—I mean, melodic or not. He took just so much joy in making music; you can't not be into that. That was really interesting and something we would all like to do again.

AAJ: Was that recorded?

AH: Not properly. I think it was probably bootlegged. There's some YouTube footage. It was this curious festival where we did a set at sunset and a set at sunrise. It was a Sun Ra festival. Basically, there were four nights. Four bands played at sunrise and sunset. And when the bands weren't playing, they would DJ as many of the complete works of Sun Ra as they could possibly find on vinyl, which was a lot, and basically music only stopped when people passed out, whether through tiredness or whatever. The clip on YouTube starts rather bizarrely because it was the morning one, and there was this incredible dawn chorus. The birds were unbelievable. So we were just playing along, all wearing our overcoats because even though it was in summer it was still a bit chilly. The music just began, beautifully but slowly, and I think that is the only bit that exists in an accessible state, which is a shame, as later on in the set it got into some fantastic places. So we would love to make that happen again. It was fun because the baggage of playing organ with Marshall Allen is big [laughs]. But it was fun.

Inspirations and Reference Points

AAJ: Your composition notes for the Ensemble's session broadcast on BBC Jazz On Three were illuminating and reveal a huge range of inspiration and reference points from across the jazz tradition from Duke Ellington to Henry Threadgill, as you've already mentioned. Do you see it as a single continuum?

AH: Not in the sense that we could draw them as points on a line, but we could draw them as points on a web or a curve. So yes, but only in the sense that it is a continuum of creative music, in the sense of the tradition being innovation rather than sounding like the last guy. From where I come, because I learnt jazz chronologically, when you listen to Threadgill with the Sextet, you do hear Ellington, and I hear the very early stuff in [Threadgill's 1990s band] Very Very Circus. But then, for example, if I had come to Threadgill's music as a funk fan who was listening to the guys who went on to form the Jazz Warriors and did the tour with Threadgill, from that direction, maybe I wouldn't hear that particular jazz part of the continuum so explicitly. The pool of influence is so broad that it depends on your vantage point as to whether you see it as a continuum.

AAJ: Many of the people you have talked about are predominantly African-American, so where does the European free jazz and free improvisation fit into it all?

AH: On that day when I never practiced the organ again and thought, "Right, I'm going to concentrate on jazz," that was very adjacent to me starting at University. Cambridge has a fantastic music scene but for certain types of things. At that time, it was virtually barren as far as jazz went. So basically, my time was spent practicing and listening and because I did things chronologically ... I went from Tatum to Powell to Cecil, and for me I was very focused at that time, and it was the American musicians I was listening to, mostly. And then when I came out of Cambridge and was looking for like-minded people to play with ... I did one thing at Cambridge, actually with Alex Ward who I met for the first time, and we got talking about his history with Derek Bailey, so there was a way in there ... but when I went back to Oxford and started going to these regular playing sessions with Dominic Lash, with [saxophonist] Pete McPhail from the London Jazz Composers Orchestra amongst other things, who was able to introduce me to [bassist] Barry Guy's music, and with [pianist] Pat Thomas as well, that's when I started checking out the British scene in a more concerted way.

Interestingly, when I was looking for people to play what I was thinking, in my mind was jazz at that time; the free improvisers seemed to be the natural choice because those were the ideas I was hearing. It struck me that the jazz that my peers who had been through music college were playing—and of course this is generalizing—I wasn't hearing it as jazz. It was repertory music. So for me, the people who were playing the music which held the thrill that I had grown up listening to in jazz were these free improvisers. So I began to play more with these people. Of course, there are certain exceptions to this. So I was listening to the South Africans before this time and [saxophonist] Lol Coxhill and realize that there was this master amongst our ranks. He was there on a level with all these people I'd been listening to, Roscoe Mitchell, Braxton. I knew Lol existed, but I just hadn't gotten round to it. There's just so much music. I'd played with him before I had really checked out in detail his records. So I suppose that's how I became familiar with that scene.

Just in terms of my listening and my own proclivities, obviously there is so much cross-fertilization now. We are having this conversation now. We might bump into each other later at the [saxophonist Peter] Brötzmann Tentet. Is that a European band or an American band? It doesn't matter anymore, either. It's difficult to tell, but if I were to look at my record collection it would largely be American-based music. That's just an aesthetic preference on my part. I love the music from all over, but what I've spent the most time with happens to have been the American music. Because I got into the European scene thinking it was jazz and not realizing there was this whole debate about whether it was jazz or not, because in my mind it sounded like it was, then I've never found it necessary to negotiate this dichotomy. It was only later when I realized that people wasted lots of time debating whether it was jazz or not.

AAJ: It has become an increasingly sterile debate because the cross-fertilization is such that you can no longer pull it apart.

AH: Definitely. When I listen to those [saxophonist] Steve Lacy recordings on Saravah [record label] in the 1970s with [guitarist] Derek Bailey on, he's definitely playing jazz. When Derek's playing ballads, people might pretend that's ironic, but I don't hear it like that. He's playing tunes he came up playing. He's maybe not playing the changes, but he's playing on the melody. But then, what does Sonny Rollins do when he plays "Body and Soul"? He plays on the melody, he doesn't play on the changes. It might fit the changes, but he's playing melody. So I didn't have a problem in my mind, hearing it this way.

Compositional Underpinnings

AAJ: Changing tack slightly. On a particular radio series on the BBC, the makers were spending months on each single program, richly layering it with references and allusions, which would pass by 95 percent of listeners. In the current drive for economies, they were forced to spend less time on each program. But what they found was that listeners appreciated them less. Even though they hadn't recognized all the layers, they could recognize a reduction in quality. The number of reference points, intricacies and allusions for each of your pieces, outlined in your composition notes to the BBC session, is striking. Without your notes, they would go over most listeners' heads. How important is it to you that the underpinning is understood or recognized?

AH: It depends what mood I'm in. Part of me is a jazz fan and sentimental as a result. It's important to me that a certain bit of a piece came from something that I suddenly remembered from an album. Because I'm fascinated when I discover something in another piece, it would touch me if somebody else realized that was the case. But maybe it wouldn't be important to me. It also depends on how you listen. On a superficial note, I do love listening to [saxophonist] Dexter Gordon and recognizing the quotes, just because it's fun. If you're listening with conscious ears, and say you are listening to some of Braxton's Ghost Trance Music, if I'm listening to that and I spot "Composition 40 (O)" or "Composition 69 I" or whatever, it adds to my appreciation of depth or subtlety of the music. It doesn't make the music any better, it's just fun. So in that respect, it's nice. Sometimes it would mean something to me; sometimes it would tickle me that somebody had spotted something in one of the pieces.

But then again, [Braxton's] Ghost Trance Music is a really interesting example for me because sometimes one of the ways I take that in best is I stop being conscious. I love listening to the details. I love listening to who's doing what in a different subgroup. But actually what I also like is when I zone out, and it all washes over me, and I just experience it. That's one of the things, just how overwhelming it is and friendly at the same time (whereas there is some music which is very arch, listening to Wagner or Stan Kenton, and the scale of it can just be too much if you're in the wrong mood). I would like for a listener to be able to do the same thing with my music, just switch off and experience it, because I like that state of hearing music where it's not background music, but you're not thinking about how it works. So for me, it's important that someone should be able to listen to it and it not be relevant what's going on and why.

Certainly there's never any inside jokes in the music because I really want it to be inclusive. One of the things I struggle with is when people come to me and say, "I didn't understand your music." And it's not a problem for me, because I'm really happy to talk about it on a technical level; I really love talking about music in that sense. But I also think that trying to understand music is not the first way you should be trying to listen to it. If it sounds nice then that's the important thing. Sometimes I like [saxophonist] Peter Brötzmann making a really ugly noise if it sounds intriguing. But for me, that thing of references and allusions, it depends on how I'm listening.

Also, people impose their own histories as a listener. We happen to have similar stylistic references, so if I talk about something coming from Leroy Jenkins, you can relate to that. But I've been working recently on a London Symphony Orchestra-related scheme where I'm working with lots of contemporary classical composers, and where you and I can relate to it in terms of Braxton's multiple orchestra music, they just relate to it in terms of Elliott Carter or Stockhausen multiple orchestra music. And that's really interesting when people say to you, for example listening to [Henry Threadgill's] Zooid, they might hear Threadgill talking about intervallic languages, and a jazz fan, if they've come from slightly straighter jazz, might think, "I can get into this via [saxophonist] Steve Coleman," whereas a contemporary-classical-music fan might think, "I wonder whether this is anything like Elliott Carter or Per Norgaard with the intervals." In a sense, it's just a different way in depending on the listener's perspective.

AAJ: In conceptual art, you need the concept to be able to appreciate it, but music is much more tangible than that because music is music, but the appreciation is nonetheless enhanced by understanding some of what's behind it. So Braxton's Composition Notes (Frog Peak Music, 1995), for example, add whole dimensions of interest to the music. The music is fantastic, but then you get all this other information.

AH: I think that's really important. It's like the whole thing of being a fan, really enthusing about it. It's like why it's fun hanging out in the lobby before a show, because there is that buzz of likeminded people. It adds something for me, like when I listen to [Duke Ellington's trio with Max Roach and Charles Mingus] Money Jungle (United Artists Jazz, 1963), I love it, but it's also cool to me that I know anecdotes about the session. It doesn't change anything, but it might explain why the bass and drums are so wildly out of sync but still totally awesome at the same time. And yet the Composition Notes are exactly the same. I'm a musician, but I'm probably first and foremost a fan—it's just that being a musician gives me a really good seat [laughs]. So the Composition Notes are a great example, and I could happily take them on the road—so now anybody reading this knows, I'm the guy at the airport lugging round Braxton's Composition Notes—and read them at the same time as listening to Curtis Mayfield, because it's just somebody enthusing about music. Now, I could also read them and listen to the compositions, and it would be awesome as well, but it's part of that whole thing of appreciating it.

AAJ: One of the defining characteristics of your compositions, and one of the reasons they bear so much repeated listening, is that they often sound multilayered, as if there are several things happening at the same time. Why are you drawn to this way of working?

AH: Initially, I thought that was something I had probably picked up in Braxton's music, obviously in the mid-'80s quartets, but more conspicuously in the Ghost Trance Music. I was just intrigued by the sound. It seems to me an interesting way of creating a sound. In part, for me, it's a reaction against this thing in music education fetishizing being tight in a very literal sense of everything being just so. Maybe it's also a legacy of fusion. Sometimes it can be very important and awesome. But it just struck me that these multiple layers is more how it should feel for me—more freedom. It's just a reaction against that tightness.

But then having said that initially, I would go back and listen to things— like probably my favorite small-group session in the history of the music is this 1941 [trumpeter] Rex Stewart session. It's a small group of Ellingtonians. There's a piece on that called "Menelik, the Lion of Judah," which I went back and listened to, and I wondered why I was so intrigued by this. Because basically there is loads of different stuff going on at the same time. Rhythmically, you listen to it and it sets up a groove, and then the melody—it is in time, but it comes at a completely wonky place in the bar. And then—I actually only realized this literally last night when [vibraphonist] Corey Mwamba told me—he said, "Yeah, this is bi-tonal, this piece." The saxophones play in one key, and Rex Stewart plays the melody in a different key. So actually it's there all along. So for me, those multiple events are something that just grows organically out of playing jazz with a loose-limbed freedom of feel. So just in the same way that King Oliver and Luis Russell, that post-Armstrong band, is loose and Money Jungle is loose, it's a small leap, then, to having multiple layers. Listening to [drummer] Elvin Jones play with that wide open beat, that's not so far away from people doing different stuff at the same time. So I just hear it growing organically from that, and it's just an interesting way to create levels of detail and intrigue.

And also, I just love the way it seems to mirror your day-to-day experience. So we're here, and there's the piped music, there's a couple over there, and there's the waiter who comes occasionally. So it's just a musical way of mirroring what it means to experience being every day: there's just sound everywhere. And of course, as soon as you start being prepared to have stuff going on at different times, then it means you can recapture the magic of having a band all playing the same thing at the same time, because that sounds newly fresh—just in the same way that head-solo-head is a great option because as soon as things stop being norms, then they become really interesting options again.

AAJ: Have you had any formal compositional training or felt the need for that?

AH: No, I haven't had any formal training. The need for it? Not really. I say this because having studied classical music to a relatively high degree as a player, there are various norms of notation and just nuts and bolts—things like what can be done on an instrument, what's the range of this instrument, how would I present music to players of this instrument—that stuff I'm familiar with from just having done it. So maybe I would have felt the need to study these things. So having studied Bach chorales, harmony and two-part counterpoint, fugue and so on, just under my own steam, there are things that I find really interesting about studying composition. But I shy away from anything too didactic. For sure, I've talked to [drummer] Harris Eisenstadt about Wadada [Leo Smith]. The thought of being able to show a composition to him would be fantastic. I actually worked with him for a week last year, and on the final concert we performed a piece of his and a sort of trumpet concerto I wrote for him. Just having him looking at that piece ... So I can totally conceive of a type of composition lesson that would be fantastic, but in terms of studying it formally, it's not something that really appeals.

AAJ: You've talked in the past about getting away from the model that blurs composition and improvisation. Can you talk more about what you mean by that?

AH: It occurred to me that when people talk about blurring these boundary lines, because that seems to be a vogue thing for musicians to put in biographies, it's either such a really elusive issue or such an obvious issue that it's not really worth talking about either way. For example, if you listen to any of the great improvisers, if I listen to Sonny Rollins play "Rhythm-a-Ning" or play "Oleo," they're basically the same chord changes, but he's not just playing "I Got Rhythm." He's not playing the same solo on both. So he could play both rhythm changes in B-flat, but he's not; he's playing on the tune. It struck me that you improvise on and within the composition, so talking about them as two different behaviors is maybe slightly deceptive.

Thinking about current groups, like Zooid, if somebody were to say to me, "What are the musicians doing?" I could probably describe it, but it wouldn't make sense to me to say the points at which they were playing something composed and improvised. For example, if you are stipulating tools for players to work with, is that a compositional decision or is that an improvisational one? And does it add anything to our understanding of the music to make a decision on this question? Actually, it would be far more remarkable if you were able to improvise unaffected by the composition you were playing. That would be totally remarkable if you were to play a head to a tune and then improvise in a totally unrelated way. So it strikes me that we almost take it as read that the composition and improvisation are intimately linked.

I totally understand that they are different types of behavior in the sense that composition you can present to somebody on a piece of paper, and it maybe asks for a few more fixed things to happen than improvisation. But when we talk about great improvisers, we talk about improvising compositionally, and we clearly think that's a good thing, and then we also talk about compositions flowing as if they were improvised. I was guilty; I had it in my bio that I was interested in blurring those boundary lines, and I thought, "Actually, I don't even know what I mean by that." [Laughs.] I understand what people mean when they say that, how we mediate getting from more fully composed to more fully improvised behaviors. But actually, all of jazz improvisation, all of playing on a standard tune, is to do with this, and improvising compositionally is what you do. It would be far more remarkable if you could improvise non- compositionally.

And similarly, when you are improvising, even free improvising, it would be remarkable if each idea was totally unrelated to the last. But it's not. You develop things. Take the Instant Composers Pool's Groupcomposing (ICP, 1970). I think they are onto something because improvisation is composing in that sense. Who would be held up as the arch free improviser? You think of someone like Derek Bailey. But if you talk to guitarists or just listen, he is working on things timbrally or working with certain hand shapes. So even though it's not a composition in terms of having a manuscript in front of you, it's still working and developing ideas. So that's what I was getting at.

AAJ: While some of your song titles refer openly to Art Tatum, Elmo Hope or Bud Powell, others are more oblique with hidden references—is that a trickster persona coming through? Do you like to have something that's always a mystery?

AH: Not as such. I like it to be intriguing. I hate in-jokes. I'd never want to give someone the runaround, but by the same token I would want it to be intriguing, in the same way I want to play an intriguing chord on the piano. For me, the title doesn't describe a piece. The pieces aren't about things. The title just has some connection to the piece that is part of that atmosphere. It's like we were saying about reading the Composition Notes: it's just part of the experience of listening to the music again. So for example, on the BBC session, and it will be on the new record, there's a totally cryptic-seeming selection of letters on one of the titles, but it was just the name of a fishing village in Greenland I'd seen in a newspaper. I just looked at it and thought it seemed intriguing. If you stuck it in Google, you would soon discover it was just the name of a fishing village, but it just looks cool.

I love the trickster thing with Cecil Taylor. For example, on one of the Berlin things [In Berlin (FMP, 1998)], there was a tune called "Legba Crossing." That's a West African god that you also find in voodoo, but then I was thinking, Legbar, that's also a chicken, and what do chickens do? They cross things. So I was thinking, "Is that a chicken crossing the road pun?" I don't know. Maybe you heard it here first. Perhaps Cecil will be reading this thinking, "No, it's definitely not a chicken pun." [Laughs.]

AAJ: One of the things you mentioned before was being a bandleader. That entails lots of responsibilities and is increasingly hard in the economic environment we are in. Why do you want to do it?

AH: 'Cause it's the way to make music happen. As a pianist, there's another environmental issue, which is just the lack of instruments. It's a dying instrument on the club stage. And how are you ever going to get to the festival stage if you're not out there? The keyboard is a different instrument. It's not quite as acute as saying to a double bassist, play electric, but playing piano and playing keyboard are two different things, and I hate playing keyboards, and I love playing pianos. So how the music happens is affected by the economic climate, but the music will always happen. Being a bandleader is just part of the broader question of why do you do it.

AAJ: But not everybody is a bandleader.

AH: That's true. I suppose, given my interest in composition and liking to do things in slightly idiosyncratic ways, being a composer who contributes to other groups is harder—which is why I really like the Convergence Quartet because it's a collaborative context in which it works. But it's because I have these musical things I would like to try to realize, sounds that I would like to make happen. And I guess I'm just very lucky in that there are people who are prepared to give me a chance to do that. In the beginning, financially what do you do? Well, you play lots of weddings and pub gigs, and you subsidize your creative music, as it were. Then hopefully you begin to generate opportunities for your own music.

One of the things I do have a problem with is musicians who have a sense of entitlement. It's nice to be treated well, just as it is in any walk of life. Professionally, you want to be treated well. But musicians grumbling about not having gigs, that's not for me. We're not entitled to do what we do and get paid for it. It's a luxury to be able to make music in this professional sense. We could go and work a proper job, as it were. Now, like the next guy, there are certainly musicians out there who are wildly talented who I think, "How can they not be given opportunities?" But in terms of saying, "Why isn't this promoter calling me?" or "Why isn't this festival giving me a gig?" well, the answer is that there is a lot of amazing music happening, and you can't have a gig everywhere all the time. And after all, I would like to think that socially it is very important to have music. But we don't have an entitlement to make music for money. You have to generate your own opportunities.

AAJ: Is part of it that you have to look after the business side and you have to put effort into that?

AH: You have to put effort in, and I do feel for musicians who put effort in and get small returns, which of course is another problem. But if I decide to start writing poetry or start painting pictures, it would be bizarre if I started to get indignant because galleries weren't offering me exhibitions. And, yes, it would be tragic in a way if I'd trained for years and years to be able to do certain things, but no one made me do that. But we are very lucky to be able to do what we do. Of course, everyone should be allowed to make music, but we're talking about making a living out of doing it. No one's ever stopping anyone from making music. Maybe they're stopping me from a big project with a massive symphony orchestra because that requires backing, but in terms of getting people together to play my music, no problem. I've made it happen, like countless others, with or without gigs. It's just that gigs make it easier, and I'm very fortunate in that sense that I can get a few. Obviously, it's always great to have more. It's just the people who sit back and wait for the gigs to come to them who I have less truck with.

AAJ: So you are moving forward rapidly. You have four new releases to come over next six months or so. Do you have other goals you are aspiring to in terms of where you want to go?

AH: One of the things that's funny, I guess it's the same with many self-employed jobs, is that there's no obvious career progression. Other than that, I just want to carry on making music that I really like and that I hope other people really like. In a practical sense, I would like to be able to generate more opportunities for myself. I would really love to start working abroad a lot more as a bandleader, just because of the idiomatic directions I find myself, domestic opportunities are more limited. In that sense, there's a progression I have in mind, but in terms of artistically what I'd like to achieve, it's retaining that sense of discovery. I was talking with my publisher recently about where we see it all going, and I said that I want to sit down whenever I want to write a piece with that terror of "I've no idea what it's going to be like" [laughs], because at least that way you know that you are investing the effort. That anxiety of being scared you are going to do something that you've done before, and it's just not going to be very interesting, is nice in a way.

Of course, there are certain musicians I would love to play with more. For example, any occasion I get to play with Louis Moholo is one of the greatest musical experiences you can possibly have, so I would love to do that more—and in fact, we're touring next year. I just worked very briefly with Wadada Leo Smith last year, which was amazing, and of course I would love to do that again. I mentioned playing with Marshall Allen last year, and I would be completely crazy if I didn't want to do that again.

AAJ: Anybody else whom you've not played with so far who might be reading this?

AH: Well, the person I most want to play with is the person who's going to read this and give me a gig [laughs]. The person I heard earlier in the year, and on the other side of the fence I got to interview for the BBC, was Roscoe Mitchell. I would love obviously to play with him. Braxton is one of my big heroes, and maybe there's a context in which that might happen—I just don't know, because you can never be presumptuous. But there are a lot of leaders whose music I love who I feel I could do something interesting with the music. And of course I would love to, and those are just some of them. I don't know how a piano would sound in Henry Threadgill's music, but I'd love to try. How would that work, how would chords work? I've no idea, but that would be great. Of course, all the people I listen to, I'd love to try and play their music. Except for Sonny Rollins, who is one of my complete heroes, but I really don't want to get asked to do a gig with him, because I just really, really, really wouldn't be any good at all and would freeze ... So just because they are my hero doesn't mean I want to play with them, but to a large extent it does mean that [laughs].

Selected Discography

Louis Moholo-Moholo/Alexander Hawkins, Keep Your Heart Straight (Ogun 2012)

Nick Malcolm Quartet, Glimmers (FMR, 2012)

Alexander Hawkins Ensemble, All There, Ever Out (Babel, 2012)

The Convergence Quartet, Song/Dance (Clean Feed, 2011)

Decoy with Joe McPhee, Oto (Bo'Weavil, 2010)

Decoy (Volume 1), Spirit (Bo'Weavil, 2009)

Decoy (Volume 2), The Deep (Bo'Weavil, 2009)

Alexander Hawkins Ensemble, No Now is So (FMR, 2009)

Barkingside, Barkingside (Emanem, 2008)

The Convergence Quartet, Live in Oxford (FMR, 2007)

Oxford Improvisers Orchestra, Accession—a Piece of Europe (NMR, 2006)


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