Courtney Pine: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

David Burke By

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I do have a responsibility to turn up on the bandstand and present my culture in a positive way. —Courtney Pine
Courtney Pine didn't pick up his beloved tenor saxophone for more than a decade, until an album exploring the black British experience demanded it. The multi-instrumentalist eschewed the horn on the likes of Europa, House of Legends and Song (The Ballad Book), his two-hander with pianist Zoe Rahman.

"I spoke to Sonny Rollins about five years ago at a concert, and I asked him, 'Why don't you play loads of instruments, like John Coltrane?' What he said was, 'There's more of a challenge doing it all on the one, than spreading it out on all these instruments.' When I realised he was doing the flute stuff, the arpeggio bass clarinet stuff, he was doing the high soprano thing—he was doing it all on one instrument.

"I realised that if I dedicate myself to one instrument at a time, per project, that would make me a better player on that instrument rather than spreading it out. I did an album about the Caribbean, called House of Legends, and because the women of the region are the scientists, the ones who really kept it altogether, I used the soprano voice. I did a duet album with the great Zoe Rahman on piano, and for that, because of the minimalist setting, I used the bass clarinet because it has a seven octave range. And for Black Notes from the Deep, there was only one way to do it, to go back to the instrument that I've played the longest in my life, the tenor saxophone, and that's because of the subject matter.

"I also, prior to that, was asked by the great Ernest Ranglin to take part in his farewell tour. And I had to bring out the tenor for him because I have such a huge respect for what he's done. The first ever music I heard was ska music, and it's the stuff that he was arranging."

According to Pine, the tenor "sat there for 11 years, not doing anything. It just gathered dust. At the time I stopped it I was just playing chromatically. That means playing every single note, or pattern, up and down the instrument as fast as possible. I didn't really enjoy that after a while, because it stopped me improvising with the band, because I was so into playing these phrases on the tenor saxophone. But when I came back to it I started to approach it differently, because I've learnt so much from playing the bass clarinet and the limits of the soprano saxophone. It was kind of different, and physically it's a different instrument. It's a different instrument to play. It needs more puff. But the rewards are so much greater."

Apart from returning Pine to his original saxophone, Black Notes from the Deep is significant for another reason—it features four vocal contributions from Omar Lye-Fook, better known as Omar, pioneer of British neo-soul in the 1990s.

"I wanted to have a voice because I don't sing. I have 10 projects in my mind right now. I set them all out on the computer, work out the budgets, work out the availability and then it's like, which one can I do now, which one would be appropriate for this period of time? I'd met Omar when I produced an album for a Japanese record label, which was a tribute to Bob Marley, and he came and sung "Natural Mystic." I was really taken aback by his openness as an artist. He's not a diva at all.

"He works with jazz musicians, so some of my musicians had worked with him, and it was all good. We jazz musicians aren't patient. We just want to get on, record and move on. And he can do that. There's no procrastinating. I thought he could write some decent lyrics. I wanted him to be on the whole album, but unfortunately, he's so busy he could only make four tracks.

"But he's such a brilliant artist, and an inspiration to a lot of artists. I was playing the St Lucia Jazz Festival about 10 years ago, and India Arie spotted him in the crowd from the stage. She was on stage and she saw Omar in the crowd and she did a shout out to him, because he has inspired her, he's inspired Jill Scott, he's inspired D'Angelo. He's inspired so many of these American artists. He gives the album a definite voice, a definite possibility of openness—the possibility of somebody like me, a jazz musician, working in this day and age with somebody from a wider field of music."

So what are Pine's criteria when it comes to putting together an ensemble for a recording session? "I try to mix up generations. I try to have somebody more mature than me in the studio, who can tell me that I'm getting it wrong or we should do another take. That's Alec Dankworth. He's played with everybody in jazz and he comes from a royal dynasty. And because he plays bass he's kind of unsung. But he's a great guy to have in the studio, a great anchor.

"(Pianist) Robert Mitchell is somebody who doesn't talk about his talent, he actually performs it. He's very quiet. You release him on stage and he'll show you. He'll do all the talking on the bandstand.

"We come from a time when jazz musicians were session men. They didn't have their own identifiable sound. They had to fit in with all the different sessions. Their skill was that they were adaptable. Whereas the solo artists, like they have in America, whether it's Bobby Watson, Grover Washington, Jr. or David Sanborn, that was a rarity in the United Kingdom. And now we have so many of those guys who have the intention of being solo artists." One of the standout tracks on Black Notes from the Deep is a revision of Herbie Hancock's "Butterfly," on which Omar is joined by Charleen Hamilton, inspired by a dream Pine had.

"Three years ago, I was at the International Jazz Day with Herbie Hancock in Osaka. And I was actually standing on stage playing. Herbie Hancock was to my right, ten feet away, doing that thing. It was just unbelievable that someone like me was in this situation. I had that out of body—is this really happening?—experience. I just zoned out. There we were playing in front of 5,000 people, Japanese, and Herbie Hancock was doing Butterfly and I had to play that horn line for Herbie Hancock. During that trip I took pictures of everybody—Dionne Warwick, Marcus Miller, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Sheila E, Gregory Porter... Then I went up to Herbie and said, 'Do you realise I've got pictures of everybody, except you?' He just smiled —and I didn't get a picture with him! He was the only one.
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