Gondwanaland and the Mystical North

Gondwanaland and the Mystical North
Bruce Lindsay By

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Good things continue to happen on the UK jazz scene. My cheery optimism remains in place. JazzLife UK gained a small smidgeon of recognition from the Big City. My new Blog, Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold, debuted to almost universal disinterest. Two new releases, the Kairos 4tet's Statement Of Intent (Edition Records) and Matthew Halsall's On The Go (Gondwana Records), are straight on to my Best Of shortlist for 2011. And there's only one enigma currently keeping me from contentment.

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 music—lots 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 out—and 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."


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