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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.

"I had this mad dream—I dream about music, I dream about three-headed saxophones and chords that don't exist. So I had this dream that I was performing Butterfly in a white room and Omar was singing the lead vocal. That dream was almost the first brick in the wall for Black Notes from the Deep, talking to Omar, that concert with Herbie Hancock. So it all kind of fell into place. It's a great tune. I don't know why, but in the dream we played it as a drum and bass deal. I made it solid. I made a dream into a solid."

The ruminative Rivers of Blood evokes the struggle and ultimate triumph of the so-called Windrush Generation of immigrants from the Caribbean that arrived on British shores in 1948—a generation that included Pine's own parents. He's mindful of the sacrifices they made in leaving the West Indies for a better life in a country that didn't exactly welcome them with open arms---mindful too of his responsibility in keeping this narrative alive, and helping to write new narratives.

"I do feel that I'm standing on the shoulders of giants, whether that's Harry Beckett or Joe Harriott or Coleridge Goode—I do have a responsibility to turn up on the bandstand and present my culture in a positive way. I remember when I first started as a solo artist in '87, I made it a purpose to talk to people like the NME magazine and explain to them who we are. A lot of the questions were, 'Is there any such thing as black British jazz? Who are you?'

"It's like we were invisible as a culture because we were -a lot of the time they would say -sons of immigrants, as if to say we were invisible and we hadn't taken part. But my dad was a carpenter and he contributed to a lot of the buildings in London. He was in there building them. He's a part of what we call the United Kingdom. I saw him physically do it seven days a week. So that contribution is still kind of unknown. And people like me, we have to tell the story, we have to stand up and say, 'We are here and we are taking part and we are willing to contribute to the United Kingdom.' We weren't just lazing around. My grandfather was a pilot in World War Two. Our kids have to know this story.

"You can't deny your past. You can't deny where you come from. We all know how that works and what is actually going on in West Africa, China, India, the Caribbean. Whether it's done on the athletics field, the football pitch or in music, in a genre that people call jazz, it has to be done, it has to be told. Our kids have to know that they have worth and they should turn up for that job dressed well, prepared, and not think, 'There's no point because I can't get that job, I can't contribute, so why should I study? Why should I learn an instrument when I can just spit some lyrics on my mobile phone?'-which is kind of the current epidemic for music."

Essentially what Pine wants is for black Britons to raise themselves up and declare that they matter, that they also have a stake in Great Britain, both historically and within a contemporary context. It's the same integrationist philosophy he applies to his music, particularly when collaborating with other artists.

"I think you have to have something in common. Zoe Rahman, for example, is somebody who has a Bangladeshi background. Her dad is from Bangladesh. So she also finds it important to use her culture as a source of inspiration. So we're able to relate on that level very easy. She also came in on an album I did called Europa. As well as having Bangladeshi roots, she's a well over-qualified classical musician. She hides that quite well. So she has that side, but she's a serious jazz musician as well.

"So for me it's important to collaborate with people who have a similar goal, a similar aim. It's the intention—what are you trying to do with this gift called music? You still find some people doing it for money, some people are doing it to be Elvis Presley—to be famous. But some people are really trying to help people. Music is supposed to be medicine, a positive thing. I understand there are negative people in the world, people who want to build walls and let others pay for it. There's people out there who wear hoods, pillows over their heads. There's people who pick on minorities. There is genuine evil in all walks of life. But I definitely want to be positive and I definitely want to bring people together to stop this negativity."

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