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Huw Warren: Global Music from a Local Perspective

Jakob Baekgaard By

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I’ve been living in Wales for the last 25 years, and I’m sure that one’s immediate environment must have an impact on one’s work. As a proud Welshman, I’m also aware of the cultural responsibility of not just looking ‘inward’ and am very influenced by Hermeto Pascoal’s idea of ‘Universal’ music. —Huw Warren
Welsh pianist and composer, Huw Warren, has been an important voice on the British jazz scene for many years. With a seemingly endless appetite for music, Warren has both been delving into Brazilian music with singer Maria Pia De Vito and played ethereal folk-inspired jazz music with another singer, June Tabor, in the trio Quercus. He has also worked as Tabor's musical director for many years.

Aside from his many gigs as a sideman, Warren is teaching and has been a co-leader of the acclaimed quartet, Perfect Houseplants. He has also pursued a lengthy career as a leader that has been just as curious and explorative as his approach as a sideman. His musical language seamlessly integrates classical pieces, Brazilian music, avant-garde and jazz. Compositionally, he is just as openminded and has taken on various projects and commissions, including composing music for movies.

Despite being a musically curious world citizen, Warren is also rooted in the landscape of his native country, Wales. Another way he is being grounded is through his instrument. Warren has found his true calling in playing the piano and has recently released his second solo piano record, Nocturnes and Visions (2018).

All About Jazz: When did you take up the piano? Was it your own choice or were you encouraged by family and friends to start playing?

Huw Warren: I think around 9 or 10 years old, I also studied violin and cello at the same time...My parents didn't want to force me in anyway; but, apparently, I was pretty determined and asked for lessons. Of course, after that they were super proud and supportive to all my endeavours, and I remember some nights being woken up to play for them and their friends!

AAJ: What is it about the piano as an instrument that you like?

HW: Probably the independent self-contained nature. i.e. the possibility of being your own complete ensemble at any time.

AAJ: Do you find that the instrument has any limitations? Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you couldn't express the sounds you were looking for on the instrument?

HW: The limitations are a great and ongoing creative challenge! For example, how to sustain and project a line like a singer (on what is basically a percussive instrument) or how to overcome equal temperament by preparing the instrument?

AAJ: You were born in Wales. Has the landscape and traditions of the country influenced your music in any way? I'm also thinking about your project Closure from 2012.

HW: Both aspects have influenced my work in some shape or form. Primarily in terms of source material and subject matter (e.g. Duw a Wyr—an album of Welsh hymns from 2005 with singer Lleuwen Steffan and saxophonist Mark Lockheart) but also, a sense of place and landscape has had a big influence on my compositions and titles. I've been living in Wales for the last 25 years, and I'm sure that one's immediate environment must have an impact on one's work. As a proud Welshman, I'm also aware of the cultural responsibility of not just looking 'inward' and am very influenced by Hermeto Pascoal's idea of 'Universal' music

AAJ: Could you tell about some of the formative experiences in your life as a musician?

HW: Well, I played a lot of classical music on both piano and cello whilst still at school, but also a family friend showed me a couple of vamps on the piano. Probably pretty unsophisticated, but it started me off on a whole journey of escaping from the score and notation. Moving to London in 1980 was a massive learning experience. Studying experimental music, and being exposed to so much new music and new musical experiences was exciting and deeply influential. Also meeting key younger members of the London jazz scene, (especially some of the guys from Loose Tubes) has led to collaborations that are still active 30 years later (players such as Mark Lockheart, Iain Ballamy, John Parricelli and Martin France). Also really important to me was the variety and availability of worldmusic projects in London at this time; not only a chance to learn from amazing musicians from all over the world, but also a confirmation of my feeling that my vision of Jazz should be as broad as possible.

AAJ: Your concert repertoire reflects a very eclectic approach to music. At least that was the feeling I got when I attended your solo concert at St Ann's Church during the Manchester Jazz Festival 2018. Why is it important to you to be able to embrace different musical styles and how do you put together a program for your concerts?

HW: Maybe this ties in with the answer of the previous question! I've always loved a wide set of sources for my music, but the challenge is to create a similar approach to the playing. For instance, Quercus mixes folk and jazz styles; but we are constantly looking for a common approach which allows us to find our own style. This seems a contrast to the fusion idea, where taking different elements from styles can sometimes lead to a rather bland statement. I find it an interesting challenge to try and play in a very similar way on, for example, a melody by John Dowland, an original composition, a Brazilian tune and a Jazz standard.

AAJ: Do you consider yourself a jazz musician? Why or why not? You have worked with June Tabor, who is connected to the British folk tradition. Is that a tradition that you relate to as well? In general, how do you relate to musical traditions?

HW: Always a tricky question! The simple answer is that it would be great just to be called a musician, as the J word can have positive and negative connotations. A deeper way of looking at it is maybe the idea that, rather than being a style, jazz is more of an attitude? Improvisation and creating a sense of surprise is definitely part of that attitude, but stylistically I feel this can be very open. Working with June has been a massive influence on my music—I was always interested in the directness and simplicity of folk melody, but to be part of June's incredible form of storytelling has taught me so much. Mostly about economy of material related to the emotion and drama of song, but also the commitment to lyric or musical statement.

AAJ: In a way, your music balances between what you might call art music and folk music. Is this distinction artificial to you and is it your intention to try to break it down?

HW: I'm always interested in combining different kinds of polarity in my music. Sometimes this can be as simple as intuitive (rhythm/groove) versus something more cerebral (harmony/composition techniques) or more random/free elements contrasting with more organized elements. So, in some ways I'm trying to ignore the distinction that you mention, but I feel both sides need to be present in my music. Of course, the balance might change in different projects, but I love both aspects!

AAJ: Your latest album, Nocturnes and Visions, is a solo piano album. I know you have also released another solo piano album, Infinite Riches in a Little Room (2001). Have you recorded other solo albums than that?

HW: Those two albums are my only solo piano recordings, but I've made a lot of records (e.g. with June Tabor, Quercus and Maria Pia de Vito) as duo or trio without bass and drums. I guess I've been developing different ways of playing solo whilst working on these projects.

AAJ: When recording Nocturnes and Visions, did you go back to Infinite Riches in a Little Room to revisit what you were doing then? In general, how did you prepare for Nocturnes and Visions?

HW: For Nocturnes and Visions I tried to start from a clean slate. One of the advantages of recording solo is that you can record far more material than you need, and then put together the final order from takes that you like best and that sit alongside each other best. Playing solo is usually just playing my favourite music—so in this case the Bach arrangements ("Prelude" and "The Bulgarian Stretch") had been around a while from another project, the opening tune is one of my favourite Hermeto Pascoal compositions "O Farol que nos guia" (which I have been playing a lot with fellow Hermeto 'addict' Iain Ballamy) and the closing track "Noturna" is a wonderful Guinga composition which I also performed and recorded with Maria Pia de Vito. The other pieces are all original and are a mix of new pieces, older pieces and improvisations

AAJ: A lot of time has passed since Infinite Riches in a Little Room. What has happened with your approach to solo piano since then? Do you find your aesthetic has changed?

HW: Solo piano is one of those ultimate challenges for pianists, so I'm constantly rethinking the approach! I'm not sure if my aesthetic has changed, but I'm certainly more interested in making an emotional connection with the listener than I am in developing virtuoso skills for their own sake. Of course you want to have fun whilst playing (and surprise yourself as often as possible!) but generally I'm much more confident of playing less and trying to really refine the musical statement. In terms of improvising, I'm still working on ways of creating a language that isn't clearly recognizable as jazz (or at least bebop!); which was actually my intention on Infinite Riches.

AAJ: What is your take on the lineage of solo piano albums? What does it mean to play solo to you?

HW: In terms of the lineage of the solo record, I love all kinds of approaches! Sometimes people are surprised when you play in a certain way but are quite happy to listen and talk about other styles....I think the general evolution has been from brilliantly sparkling technical music (Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson etc) to a more personal musical statement (maybe starting with the Bill Evans album Alone or even more so The Solo Sessions). For me, Keith Jarrett's Facing You (1971) was a gamechanger in terms of the depth and vibe of the music. Some of my other favourite solo albums have been Alma (1986) by Egberto Gismonti and more recently I've loved Craig Taborn's Avenging Angel (2010) and Tigran Hamasyan's An Ancient Observer (2017).

AAJ: The title, Nocturnes and Visions, suggests a spiritual element. What are your thoughts behind the title and do you think that there is a spiritual element to your music?

HW: I really liked the idea of a slightly more contemplative album, hence the Nocturne/Nightime label. The Visions part is much more open ended...I'm thinking of visions in terms of dreams and imagination, so not really in an overtly spiritual way, although I'd love people to make their mind up in their own way on that!

AAJ: One of the tracks on the album is an homage to the late pianist John Taylor. Could you tell about your relationship with him and his influence on you?

HW: I was fortunate to know John and also play with him in several settings, including Kenny Wheeler's 70th Birthday tour in 2000 where the rhythm section was 2 pianos + Dave Holland and Martin France! Quite an educational few days....I first met him at the Guildhall Summer School in London during the late 80's, where even though we were both teaching, I would try to pick his brains as often as possible, and being the generous spirit he was, he would always oblige. His duo concerts there with Norma Winstone were like an annual piano lesson for me, and really informed the way I would want to work as an accompanist with voice in all kinds of later projects. Very supportive in one sense, totally free and independent in another. Then of course there are all the great tunes that he's left us—I've actually recorded a couple of JT tunes for a duo project with Mark Lockheart out on Cam Jazz next year. His tunes and Kenny's have become the new standards in some senses. However, for many of us, the biggest influence of all from John was as a role model, he was always interested in younger musicians and always supportive of originality and creativity.

AAJ: You have written two books on jazz harmony. Could you tell about your approach to harmony and what it means to your music? Is there a relation between emotions and harmonies to you? In other words, do complex emotions correspond to complex harmonies?

HW: I'm an eternal student of harmony, but the complexity of harmony is always in the context of music (i.e. not a separate study) For me, any kind of complexity is subjective, and I certainly don't make any direct link between complex harmony and complex emotion. Sometimes the simplest harmony has the most profound emotional effect. Having said that, it's great to have as wide a vocabulary of harmonic options as possible and also to be able to think outside the functional harmony box. My books were really written to introduce inexperienced students to basic jazz harmony from first principles, and I'm always at pains to point out that any theory is there to describe why certain approaches sound great, and not a set of rules!

AAJ: You are also a teacher. What are some of the most important things you try to teach your students and what are some of the most important things you have been told yourself?

HW: Jazz education is really self-education, so for me the main point of teaching is to help people realise their aims and in fact teach themselves. In this sense, one is encouraging each student to develop their unique and individual approach and become the best possible version of themselves. In 1980 I asked UK Jazz pianist Stan Tracey for some lessons (I was self-taught in Jazz and improvisation until then) He politely refused, then said "I could teach you to play like me, but what's the point in that!" At the time I was slightly taken aback, but now it forms the central philosophy of my teaching. By way of contrast, my lessons with John Tilbury at Goldsmiths' College were often spent talking Politics, Football and all kinds of topics; making me aware that music does not exist in some kind of vacuum separate from real life. Our first lesson was looking at John Cage's Sonata and Interludes for prepared piano, which in retrospect now makes a lot of sense!

AAJ: You have immersed yourself in a lot of music, including world music. At your solo concert in Manchester, you especially talked about your love for Brazilian music. When did you fall in love with this music and how did it happen? Could you reveal any insider-tips?

HW: Ah, another huge subject! I think I first heard Hermeto Pascoal more than 30 years ago and was mesmerised by the extremes of beauty and craziness of this music. Through listening and playing with others, I found out more about the rhythmic basis of the music (especially the north-eastern grooves such as Baião, Forro, Frevo and Maracatu) as well as the more known forms of Samba, Bossa Nova etc. Hermeto is clearly interested in sonic exploration as well, and the whole combination of these elements really excited me.

After that I found other musicians such as Egberto Gismonti, before eventually discovering the lyric songwriting tradition of masters such as Tom Jobim, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Dori Caymmi and many others. Next up was discovering the Choro tradition and the wonderful older music of Pixinguinha (I played "Um a Zero" in the Manchester concert!) If all this sounds like I know a lot about Brasilian music, it's only the tip of the iceberg! With singer Maria Pia de Vito we have many listening sessions researching new material, and she will often play me music where there is a singer I've never heard of (let alone a song I don't know). The sheer vastness of Brazilian music reflects its huge physical size.

A shorter answer to your question is: fantastic grooves, wonderful harmony and amazing lyrics—what's there not to like?!!

AAJ: Finally, could you tell about your plans and projects for the future. How long will you be touring with this album and is there any hope that you might return to the solo format another time?

HW: The solo performances will continue—in fact I may well release some additional material that I recorded for Nocturnes and Visions as a kind of "extras" CD, and I'm fairly confident to return to the format in the future. In the mean time I have recorded a couple of CDs for Cam Jazz which will be out in 2019. "Everything in between" is a trio with bassist Dudley Phillips and drummer (and son) Zoot Warren—mixing original compositions with Brazilian music, and also a live duo CD (untitled at the moment) with saxophonist Mark Lockheart. I have also recorded a project based on welsh poet Dylan Thomas with Iain Ballamy, Steve Watts and Martin France which hopefully will see the light of day as a CD soon after. This of course, in addition to further projects and ongoing collaborations such as with June Tabor and Maria Pia de Vito.

Selected Discography:

Huw Warren, Nocturnes and Visions (Self Produced, 2018)

Quercus, Nightfall (ECM, 2017)

June Tabor/Iain Ballamy/Huw Warren, Quercus (ECM, 2013)

Maria Pia de Vito/Huw Warren, 'O pata pata (Parco Della Musica, 2011)

Huw Warren/Peter Herbert/Martin France, Hermeto+ (Basho, 2009)

Maria Pia de Vito/Huw Warren, Diálektoks (Parco Della Musica, 2008)

Lleuwan Steffan/Mark Lockheart/Huw Warren, Duw A Ŵyr (God Only Knows) (Babel Label, 2005)

The Orlando Consort and Perfect Houseplants, Extempore II (Harmonia Mundi, 2002)

Huw Warren, Infinite Riches in a Little Room (Babel Label, 2001)

Perfect Houseplants, New Folk Songs (Linn, 2000)

Photo Credit:

Ian Mackenzie-Thurley

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