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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.

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