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Jamil Sheriff: Helping shape a brave new jazz world

Rokas Kucinskas By

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Jamil Sheriff is a jazz pianist, composer, and educator. About 20 years after finishing studies in Leeds College of Music, the pianist became the head of the jazz department in the same institution; today he is regarded as one of the top jazz educators in the UK. Among many things Sheriff teaches composition, aural awareness, and ensemble. Known for his composition skills, he worked with large ensembles and recorded with them in the past: Daydreams (2003) and Backchat (2008) with an octet; Ichthyology (2010) with a big band. His latest release Places Like This (2016), however, presents the pianist in a different role. A more intimate and subtle piano trio setting brings attention to minor details that make the album so rich: colorful harmonic language, dynamic rhythm sections and its interplay with the leader, unconventional approaches to form and structure, or a fine line kept between tonal and atonal dichotomy. We asked Sheriff to share his views on jazz, teaching, and performing.

All About Jazz: Not too long ago, I interviewed one of your ex-students, Dominic J Marshall, who felt that people are less and less interested in listening to jazz. You recently released a new album, and at the moment your trio is touring around the UK—how do you feel about it?

Jamil Sheriff: Quite different, actually I feel more connected to the audience than I ever felt in my career. So far we've done 8 or 9 gigs with the trio, plus around five more with Andy Scofield, who came up from Prague and joined us. We've performed for some very good audiences—people have really been turning out for the gigs.

AAJ: It is your fourth album—how is it different than the previous releases?

JS: I think it is more spirited. I've been quite timid and too controlled in the past. Don't get me wrong, I have no regrets of my past releases. It all represents my personal journey. I came to jazz quite late, you know— and proper practice, too. I was the teenager who enjoyed other things in life [laughs]. But I always had that sort of industrious side. And it's just a weird thing that drives me to put something together, to bring a group of people together, make something and say: "I've made this—this is mine." Going to Leeds from Bolton, I became surrounded by and developed an excitement for front line sections, which was probably why I got into writing for horns—the octet and the big-band albums. I just sort of dipped my toe in a water with that music. When my personal life settles down a bit and my daughter grows up, I might go back to it. The thing is—it takes so much time. Before you know it, you're not practicing your instrument, but spend all your time trying to work out how to arrange music—you've got to be practicing that stuff for hours. I missed playing the piano, and I missed improving on the instrument. So I guess that's why I went back to the trio—just to get back into playing. And I've really felt my playing come up in the last four or five years since getting the trio together. It's a good thing!

AAJ: Would you describe your new release as being a jazz record?

JS: Well it's funny, because a guy said to me after one of the gigs: "How would you describe that music? How would you describe the genre?" And instead of letting me answer, he continued: "I tell you how I would describe it—it felt like you were teasing us! You just spent the whole gig pulling it in and out and when I couldn't follow it—I couldn't get it—you brought it back." I mean it is the biggest compliment for me, because that's what I'm trying to do—connect, push and challenge the listener and myself at the same time. You want to be able to play to new audiences and feel like you can keep them with you every single little step of the way.

AAJ: You are the head of jazz department in Leeds College of Music. How important for your musical ideas is teaching in the college?

JS: Well for me it's the same thing. What's the difference between practicing your instrument, and having a deep conversation with somebody about why music works. Singing lines with students, trying to get through the changes of "On the Green Dolphin Street," writing music with them, or talking about it—all those things to me are part of what makes you improve as a musician. Even with students that are new to playing jazz, you'll have a moment—a revelation when, while explaining something to them, you think: "Wow, I've never thought about it like that." Just sharing things with others will alter something in your own approach. It frightens me—the idea of not being able to teach. Spending days on my own, practicing and then going out to a gig at night... what would come out in the music? Teaching reinforces the meaning [laughs]. I spend my days in a very natural environment, talking with great people about all sorts of different things that are rooted in music, playing together or listening to each other in the evening—it helps you connect music you're making and to the purpose—because you always have to bring it back to that.

AAJ: Why?

JS: If you're teaching people about why an improvisation, composition or some rhythmic idea works—ultimately, the question you're going to ask your students, and they're going to ask you, is: "how does it make you feel?," or "why are we doing this?." At the end of the day, we're trying to make the listener feel something and connect with the music in some sort of way—a sort of controlled dialogue. I mean, how can we on our worst day with all sorts of random things going on in our lives, sit at our instrument and make that happen? It is a technique. So yeah, I love talking about that— it's endless.

AAJ: It seems like being a teacher and a musician at the same time brings a lot of advantages, but are there any disadvantages?

JS: Well I suppose I would practice harder if I wasn't teaching. It's one of those things isn't it? It's like: "how much could you push yourself in that area if you were that person?" I mean, if you were disciplined enough to just focus wholeheartedly on one thing, what would happen? But I feel really lucky anyway. I've got a nice balance. Of course, sometimes the job gets on top of me—and I'm doing lots of other things at the music college—lots of emails! So definitely days when I wish I had more time to get to the piano.

AAJ: How was LCM different from what it became now when you were a student there?

JS: It's funny you asked that, but back then it seemed there were less rules and regulations. When I was a student, I used to think from time to time: "Wow, this is the loosest form of education that I've ever been a part of." But at the same time, you were always surrounded by the sound of jazz. All the teachers were players, and they were all bloody amazing! So you'd walk in the building and hear the sound of people practicing improvisation, doing gigs, or having rehearsals.

AAJ: But isn't it the same now?

JS: It is, but with a lot more different pathways. You hear classical students, you hear the production students, or songwriters. Yeah, I don't know... I think we spent a lot of time in the last few years, like most higher education institutes, trying to get to grips with digital and electronic learning, because that's what's expected of the sector. You've gone from a place twenty years ago where you'd walk into a lecture and you were lucky if you got a handout, to a situation now where you're expected to have read all these different resources before you turn up, because they all have been put on the virtual learning environment. That's challenging, because in reality, jazz students haven't changed. They're still all about getting on the bandstand, playing for four hours, and trying to work out what's going on that way.

AAJ: So what do you do in such situation?

JS: I think now we've established a lot of online resources (all the teachers have joined in with that) the pressure is off in that way. We can kind of relax on that front—we've built this stuff but now we need to bring a little bit more of the student-mentor relationship back. Not the student-teacher, but the student-mentor relationship, where staff have more comradery with the students, and there's that kind of equal, you know: "we're in this together—you're part of the club now, so let's play together, let's jam, let's listen to music, talk and find a space for you." We've almost become promoters in terms of trying to set up nights, find resources to bring staff in for collaborative student and staff events, jam sessions, and those kind of things—going away together, playing, and trying to bring it back to the old school.

AAJ: How does the overall image of higher jazz education in UK look to you?

JS: Well, pretty much every music college in the UK has a jazz course. There's around 150 amazing graduates coming out of music colleges in the UK every year. They've all got gigs and these amazing projects together—so mature. It is really revitalizing the scene, despite the economics of it. And that's not the point! I mean, people say that you'll never make a career in jazz, but they're missing the point. In terms of the art, it feels more colorful than ever. When I speak to young musicians, they seem really genuine. The scene felt so much more divided when I came out of Music College.

AAJ: Why did it feel divided?

JS: My impression of it back then was that as a young musician you felt you had to fit into one camp or the other: you were either into the free scene or into the standards, you were a bop-head or you were into the funk stuff—the Herbie thing, etc. Seemed like everyone somehow fell into these different camps.

AAJ: Is it different now?

JS: It feels really different to me, yeah! I think that young musicians are really supportive of each other. People talk about genre-less music—it's kind of a hip phrase at the moment: "We don't want to be called jazz musicians—let's not try and define it." And I think it's a great thing! What I love about jazz is the energy, the complexity, the depth of musicianship when you're listening to somebody who's got the wisdom as well as the technique. And that comes with maturity and experience. There's a lot of fresh music from the younger generation that doesn't necessarily have that weight to it, but at the same time it's exciting, genuine, and it reflects an aspect of the spirit of the music, which is about being bold and brave in trying to break down boundaries. I see a lot of that and I think audiences are getting used to it too. I mean they're going to gigs and thinking: "I know that whatever I'm going to hear is going to have that kind of stamp of musicianship, and it's going to really challenge me"—those two things.

AAJ: We covered a lot of ground, so I will only ask one more question—what about future? Do you already have something in mind for future releases?

JS: Whilst we've been doing this tour we've been playing some new material—one set of the album, and one set of the new stuff. I think we've nearly got enough to make another album. It would be nice! The idea is to record as soon as possible after the tour and capture energy, so hopefully sometime in the New Year. I also have a great time with Pete and Dave—so want to keep playing as much as possible with them.

AAJ: But how does it work—do you meet with them on a regular basis, or an opposite?

JS: Just for the gigs, really. We try to get a bundle of gigs together and then we'll meet for a few rehearsals before. It would be nice to do some more travelling, too. But that's difficult. I mean, maybe that's the thing, with the not teaching: people spend time promoting themselves and that's what I find really difficult, because I haven't got time to do that.

AAJ: Would you say that it's the most important thing for musicians these days?

JS: It is, isn't it? It is, because you've got to be self-contained these days. Going back to the economics of it, you got to make it all happen for yourself. You've got to be on the phone all the time with promoters. You can put something together and be really proud of creating a product. Then you send it off to 200 promoters or journalists, and you're hearing back from two percent. So you ring again! I must admit that my hustle-skills have definitely gone downhill. Not sure whether that's getting busy with life, or just getting older and more knackered [laughs].

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