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Jim Hart: The Art of Juggling


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Sometimes I think, is this just too much, is this too wide a spectrum; but, in all honesty, I just love it all so much. But I do wonder, as I get older, if I'll close some things off and focus on one thing more than another. But, in a way, I hope not.
Jim Hart is one of the hottest young musicians on the U.K. jazz scene. His impressive skills are matched by a level of experience and maturity that belie his age. His musicianship elicited this praise from vibes heavyweight Joe Locke: "Some of the best music I've heard in a long time. Definitely the best vibes playing I've heard in a long time."

An alumnus of Chetham's School of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he was awarded the John Dankworth "Most Promising Musician" award in the BBC Big Band of the Year competition for his drumming, and his skill as a vibraphonist earned him the British Jazz Award for "Rising Star" in 2006, and for miscellaneous instrument (vibes) in 2007.

An avid juggler since his youth, his ability to keep several things up in the air at once has served him well as a musician. In addition to fronting two different bands under his own name, this multi-instrumentalist is also a much sought-after sideman whose wide-ranging collaborations, despite his youth, are already too numerous to mention. His recordings have earned him rave reviews from the Guardian, the BBC, and All About Jazz, and foreshadow a bright future for Jim Hart the vibraphone.

Chapter Index
  1. Formative Years
  2. London Years
  3. Speaking of Vibes
  4. Odds & Ends

Formative Years

All About Jazz: You began playing piano and drums when you were four. You must have come from a musical family?

Jim Hart: Yes, certainly there was always music going on around the home. My mum was always into folk music, she used to run a folk night in Birmingham when she was a teenager and in her early twenties. So, she used to play guitar and sing.

My dad was always involved with choirs, particularly male voice choirs. My brother, who is four years older, is a trumpet player, so he was really involved in music and there was a lot of music at home.

There was a lot of support when I expressed an interest, and they were very helpful—providing me with lessons and encouragement.

AAJ: So, how did the piano come about?

JH: We did have a piano—my dad plays piano. So, there was one in the house and I was keen to play it. And I also started with drums at the same time because I wanted to do both. I was playing drums before there was a drum kit in the house, I was playing pots and pans pretty regularly.

AAJ: That shows a lot of commitment from your parents to let a small child loose on drums.

JH: Yes, I was probably about five when I got a kit at home. I went to take lessons and they told me to come back later because my hands were too small. They said, "Come back next year when you can reach the pedals."

AAJ: What kind of music were you exposed to around the house?

JH: Because my brother was older, he was already taking trumpet lessons. The only guy who was around was a jazz trombonist, so through him he actually got introduced to jazz quite early.

So, some of the earliest things I remember, apart from male voice choir things, was some of my mum's Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and people like that. Some of the things that really made an impression on me were Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960), Oscar Peterson, you know we had just a few jazz things in the house, it was mostly through my brother.

AAJ: Did your brother stick with music?

JH: He left it for quite a long time when he was eighteen or nineteen, but now ten years later he's gone back to it in a very keen way. He's in an amateur band, and he called me the other day and said they've already got thirty gigs booked this year. He's playing jump-jive music and he was in a reggae band before, so he's really actively involved.

It's a shame he quit back then because he was a very good jazz player and improviser, but he's getting his chops back together and sounding good.

AAJ: You started playing jazz when you were around ten, so who were some of your first jazz heroes?

JH: Chick Corea was my biggest hero for years. My piano teacher was from Philadelphia and heavily influenced by Chick. So, we worked on a few transcription things, like "Spain," "No Mystery," and things. So I listened to quite a few of his records, especially the Return to Forever stuff.

Oscar Peterson would have been another of my big heroes, the trio with Ray Brown. I had compilations of various sax players, and I was into Cannonball Adderley without really knowing who he was. He was one of those guys who was on a compilation, and I just loved his sound. Of course later I really got into him and discovered his whole legacy and who he was, and the enormous amount of stuff that he did.

When I was sixteen I went to music school in Manchester, so for me that was a real period of consolidation. I met a couple of guys who had really big record collections. So I started to explore in much more depth names that I knew, and recognized what they did, but I really didn't know that much about them. People like Miles, Cannonball, John Coltrane, and Bird—you know, basically I got to check out nearly all of their records. I got to know their various bands and understand how it really all fit together.

AAJ: How about in terms of drums, who impressed you?

JH: Yeah it wasn't until I got to Chethams (School of Music) that I really started to take jazz drumming seriously. Up until that point I played a lot of funk, but I really wasn't focused on jazz drums. As a child I'd always been into Buddy Rich, later I got into Sting and Vinnie Colaiuta, and groove players. I guess I kind of knew about Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and definitely Max Roach.

But I really didn't take jazz drums too seriously until I met Dave Hassell. He was my drum teacher in Manchester and he encouraged me to look at these guys in more depth, people like Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes—who is my favorite drummer of all time. So Dave really introduced me to him and showed me what an amazing musician he is.

And Tony Williams, Billy Higgins—you know, just seeing how many amazing personalities there were in music, and their scope and depth on drums.

London Years

AAJ: How important to your musical development was your extra curricular musical activity with other like-minded students at Chethams?

JH: It was phenomenally important. We had the opportunity to play all day long if we wanted to. Because I was there in sixth form, and most of the guys who were interested in playing jazz were around the same age, we had a fair amount of freedom and obviously great facilities at our disposal.

So, we were at that age where we were all able to play, but we hadn't done a lot of playing with other people. We spent so much time hanging out and listening to music, playing each other music, and discovering music together. Then we would go and try to play it. So that really prepared me for London—you know, that approach is definitely how it works on the scene here in London. I think it will probably be like that for the rest of my life. It's great, you meet new people and you expose each other to new music, and you play together and you just keep that enthusiasm and that energy for making music.

I once lived in a house with six jazz musicians. We lived together for seven and a half years. We had two big playing spaces, one of which was my room and the other was another room. It was just an amazing life. We just hung out and explored music together, we practiced, wrote, and listened.

AAJ: Were you split between drums and piano?

JH: Yeah, I was starting to get my jazz drum thing together, but I was probably more advanced and comfortable playing jazz on piano.

AAJ: What were some of your fondest memories at Guildhall in London?

JH: That's a good question because I had quite a mixed experience at Guildhall. I guess the fondest memories would be the same as at Chethams, meeting lots of new players who were at a higher level. There was a player, Andrew McCormack, who was in my year, and he was a phenomenal pianist who was already really advanced and leagues ahead of the rest of us. We lived together for a while and he was from London, so he also knew lots of players from the London scene. So I met a lot of his friends, people like Tom Skinner, who ended up as the drummer on my first Gemini recording Emergence (Loop Records 2006).

Some of the teachers were great. I really liked Martin Hathaway and Simon Purcell, they had a very methodical and interesting approach to teaching improvisation, which is such a hard thing to do. Pete Churchill was a phenomenal teacher of harmony with whom I had piano lessons.

I didn't have such a great time as a drummer there as a student, but I did have a great time playing there. It's really where I started developing my kit playing, but I wasn't too happy with the drum tuition I was having. I eventually let it fall off because it didn't match up to the work I had done with Dave Hassell at Chethams, and I also started thinking more about vibes at this time.

Speaking of Vibes

AAJ: Piano and drums would seem to be an ideal foundation for anyone who is interested in playing the vibes?

JH: Yes. Once each term we would do a small recital, about half an hour, so for one of these recitals I decided I would do one tune on vibes. So for half of the program I played drums with a piano trio and then I had another drummer come out and I played something I composed for vibes.

I really enjoyed it, and I got some great feedback from other students who said, "Wow, we haven't heard you do that before, that was great!" But I didn't do it again for about another year. I probably had left college by the time I did it again. I was hanging out with a great flautist, Gareth Lockrane, who knew that I played vibes and that I had a set down in Cornwall—I didn't mention this before, but a very good friend of my first piano teacher gave me a set of vibes which I still have—set up next to me now. An old Trixon set. He just got too old to play it, so he gave it to me when I was about eleven. So I always had this instrument around at home.

It's weird that I didn't get more into it earlier, I never really thought much about them.

AAJ: Do you think that perhaps it was advantageous that you learned piano before you concentrated on vibes?

JH: Potentially yes, because I did a lot of gigs on piano when I first left college. I did a residency in a bar, and it was a duo residency, so I would just call whomever I wanted. Most of us at that age were happy to work through a bunch of standards for fifty quid and a steak dinner.

So I did that three times a week, and I don't think I would have been able to do that as a vibe player. I did that for two or three years and it was great, I learned so many tunes doing that. So yes, you're right, it was a very formative period for me, and advantageous for my piano chops.

So it was really Gareth Lockrane who offered me some gigs with him if I would bring my vibes up to London from Cornwall. So I brought them up and began practicing, and he was true to his word and gave me some gigs [laughing] and put some outrageous charts in front of me that I couldn't really play—he really roasted me.

Then Gwilym Simcock, who was really a good old friend from Chethams, called me to work with his band on vibes—and the rest is history. So it was those two guys who really gave me a break as a vibes player.

AAJ: You thanked Joe Locke on one of your CDs, could you expand on that?

JH: So, Joe and I are quite close and good friends now, and that's something I'm really happy about because I just think he's an amazing force for good in the world.

I met him when he came to the Royal Academy of Music in London. One of the guys I lived with was a student there, so after I left Guildhall I used to go there and hang out a lot with him and Gwilym, and I got to know the head of the music department. So he called me up and said that Joe was going to do a masters class there, and because they didn't have any vibes players at the college at that time he asked if I'd like to come and sit in so Joe would have someone to work with.

So, of course, I went and sat in on this master class and that was kind of the beginning of our friendship. He was very encouraging and very nice about my playing, picked out some holes, and asked me if I would like to come to New York and study with him.

I did think hard about doing it, and decided against it, but I did take the opportunity of getting together with him for lessons several times when he came to London. I would always go back to the Academy when he came over—which he was doing fairly regularly for masters classes. So we saw each other quite a bit and he helped me with my playing.

He started following what I was doing in terms of recording, and a couple of times he sent me emails and called me up out of the blue just to encourage me. He would say something like, "Hey man, I'm listening to your record and I think it sounds great, keep doing what you're doing." He's talked to other people about me and has been very gracious, so I've very grateful to him.

When I was in New York recording with Michael Janisch he lent me a set of vibes for a week out of the kindness of his heart. So I'm in his debt.

AAJ: At first blush it seems vibraphone players are at a disadvantage as soloists compared to keyboardists—four mallets vs. ten fingers. After thinking about it, I suspect that is conceptually wrong because a pianist is generally soloing with the right hand, while a vibraphonist when soloing is constantly alternating between the left and right hands. As an outsider, I would guess that symmetry coupled with the tactile quality of physically hitting the notes, makes the vibes an exhilarating instrument to play?

JH: It's an exhilarating instrument to play, that's for sure. Very physical because the notes are so big. If you think about a piano, you can spread an octave between your thumb and little finger. The vibes only has three octaves, and it is almost as wide as if you spread your arms out side to side. So you're covering a lot of distance for a short range of notes. So in order to play a line that might require you to move your hand six inches, you're moving your whole body, swinging your hands left to right, so it's quite physical and that gives you a certain feeling. But in terms of the ten fingers vs. four mallets thing, I tend to make more of a comparison to the guitar in terms of putting down a line and being able to comp.

With piano you can play a line and a chord, but with vibes or the guitar, you play a line or a chord. It's not really possible to play a line and put a chord underneath it.

AAJ: Can you also think of it in terms of let's say a saxophone? Okay, with vibes you can play chords, but when you're soloing on sax or vibes you're alternating between hands.

JH: Well I try to integrate chords into what I'm doing, that's something I practice quite a lot, playing chords in the spaces of the lines. That's what all my favorite guitarists do, so actually I listen a lot to how guitarists do this, like Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Wolfgang Muthspiel. And I really try to think about how they will go from single note lines to even just two or three note chords, and change the texture of a line.

Like tonight I have a trio gig with Mike Janisch and Dave Smith, and for me that's really an ideal situation to use the vibes to its full capacity. You're never really comping fully behind a front-line soloist, maybe just behind the bass solo. So if I'm just playing a single note line in this formation it's going to sound a bit thin, so you really have to think about combining all of your techniques to come up with a rich musical texture.

AAJ: Speaking of guitar, I noticed on your first solo CD you have a piece where you get an electric guitar sound out of your vibes.

JH: Yeah, I use a pickup system on the vibes so I go through a guitar amp. So I do have the option of adding some distortion, or delay. You know the vibraphone is actually a pure sound, it's one of my slight frustrations with the instrument, I'm really envious of guitarists because I don't have that option of pulling out different harmonics and overtones from the notes, bending the notes, or bringing out different frequencies by slightly damping the strings or whatever it might be. It's a difficult instrument to make sound human, you probably have the least ability to affect the note.

AAJ: Have you given much thought to any technical enhancements?

JH: Sometimes I use a double bass bow, so that way I can start from nothing and crescendo into the note. And using a rubber mallet you can bend a note, so I do a bit of that. And using the guitar effects, like a ring modulator, distortion, delay, and a bit of reverb to sometimes exaggerate the feeling of what I'm playing.

AAJ: When you compose do you switch back to the piano, or stick with the vibraphone?

JH: It varies. I used to always write at the piano and then find that some of the things wouldn't work well on the vibes. So starting with my second CD Narrado (Loop, 2010) I wrote most of it on the vibes. Now I use Sibelius a lot, it's is a software that allows you to compose on the computer. Then to see if it works I'll go to the vibes or the piano.

I've discovered over the last ten years from transferring what I've learned on the piano to the vibes, I've found that much of it just doesn't work. Either you're dealing with five or six note voicings or the thing simply isn't playable. So you have to find a way of getting that same feeling on the vibes with its limitations.

It's been quite interesting and actually it's probably helped my piano playing. I've had to throw a lot of unnecessary notes away, and refine five or six note voicings down to the four most important notes. I get it down to that and then everything is a choice, so it's really been rather educational finding the most important sounds.

AAJ: Are you disciplined about your composing, or do you just wait until it comes to you?

JH: [Laughing] I'm quite good with deadlines. When I have things I need to write for I find I don't have difficulty coming up with stuff. I don't write all year long, or every day.

AAJ: On your three solo releases you cover a wide range of styles, from the freedom of Gemini, to the sensitive interpretations on Words & Music (Woodville, 2010), your tribute to the art of song. On all three, as well as your work with Neon, I get the sense that you aren't discovering something new, rather you already seem to be very much at home all over the musical map.

JH: Thank you, and I do feel like that, and sometimes it worries me in terms of the perception of my musical identity. You know, I play drums with Cleo Laine, and I play a lot with people like Alan Barnes doing things like Benny Goodman projects, and I do all this stuff with the Loop Collective which is mainly pretty much avant-garde, then I do my Gemini which isn't quite as avant-garde but still a bit left field, and then my quartet which is pretty straight ahead.

So sometimes I think, is this just too much, is this too wide a spectrum; but, in all honesty, I just love it all so much. But I do wonder, as I get older, if I'll close some things off and focus more on one thing than another. But, in a way, I hope not, you know what I mean?

AAJ: Sure, in a way it's a natural process of all the interaction you've got going.

JH: Yeah, everyone's got something different to bring and to say, so it brings out a different part of me. I just hope I can hold on to my own voice all the time, regardless of the situation.

I was watching an amazing thing online, Hal Galper's master class. He was noting that the strength of a good jazz musician is to be in various situations and still retain your own voice.

Odds & Ends

AAJ: What's something that you've got on your iPod that might surprise your fans?

JH: I play drums in a really cool blues/rock originals band called Sister Mary and the Choirboys, and we're all into a duo from the States called The Black Keys, it's a guitarist and singer and a drummer, and that's something outside the jazz world. They've got a really cool album called Brothers (Nonesuch, 2010) and I'm listening to that quite a lot and it's really good.

AAJ: Speaking of Neon, Here To There (Basho, 2007) with Stan Sulzmann and Gwilym Simcock is a great recording—saxophone, vibes, and grand piano without drums or bass. On the final cut, "Sweets," Simcock also overdubs a French horn and Sulzman overdubs flutes—it's such a great sound.

JH: Yeah, that's Stan all over that tune and it's just a really great piece of writing and arranging—beautiful. I forget about that as we never played it live because of the overdubs, but yeah that is a really great tune, and it's nice to hear Gwilym on French horn, I don't think he does much of that anymore because he's so busy with his piano playing. But it's also great seeing him get European wide, perhaps worldwide recognition. He's flying really high and that's great, but I miss playing with him as regularly as I used to.

AAJ: I'm curious about your attitude towards overdubbing, I noticed you haven't overdubbed any piano or drums on your recordings so far.

JH: It's not because I'm against it. I think when you're in the studio and you've got those facilities available to you, it's definitely an option. I'm totally in favor of it, I guess the only reason I haven't done it is because I haven't felt the need on those sessions. [Laughs] I always get great drummers to work with, so there's no point in saying, "Well, I going to overdub myself on this one, you just go get a pizza or something."

I have got this new project with Ivo Neame that we're premiering at the Loop Festival in March which is called Duo Plus. He's a great sax and pianist, so we're doing this thing where he plays both, and I play drums and vibes. We mix it up with all the different combinations, there can be drums and sax, vibes and piano, vibes and sax. We've done a few gigs like that recently, and Rory Simmons a great trumpeter from the Loop Collective happened to be there, and he came and sat in. And suddenly there's this fifth instrument and all these new combinations.

So we're going to have him on a few tunes as the "plus" and we're going to have Orin Marshall who's an amazing tuba player from London who will also join us for a couple of tunes. So Ivan and I have been writing a bit for that, and with the tuba you can almost have a piano trio. It's going to be exciting and I'm going to get to play quite a bit of drums on that. That will actually be the first time I get to play drums on music that I've written.

AAJ: I noticed you spent some time in Brazil, I wonder if you could share a bit from that experience.

JH: Oh God, where to start. The overriding feeling I had coming back from Brazil was the sense of injustice that I came from a country where folk music was no longer celebrated by the folk.

In Brazil it seems like everyone you meet is connected with the music of that country somehow, even if they just dance, or sing. There's this tremendous wealth of traditional music and the majority of the country seem to know all of the songs.

There's live music everywhere, and if the band starts playing one of these songs, the entire place is singing along. And this happened everywhere we went in Brazil. It was like, wow, this is amazing! And it's great music, it's like jazz standards, they've got these rich harmonies, killing grooves, and everyone singing and dancing. I just felt the entire country placed an enormous importance on their culture.

So I came back and I thought, I can't think of a tune in England [laughs] apart from "We Are the Champions," "God Save the Queen," a line from "Auld Lang Syne," or "Happy Birthday" that everyone would know. I just thought, this is so sad. I think in other countries it's like that too. Like in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland they've got that strong folk roots, so I'm surrounded by the countries who've got this rich folk tradition, and yet we don't have it.

But the music of Brazil is amazing, I was in love with it before I went, and I discovered so much more when I was there. I got to see the Olodum drummers in Salvador. I knew them from when they collaborated with Paul Simon on the Rhythm Of the Saints album (Warner Brothers, 1990).

That was just incredible, the power of it. They were up on the stage and then the audience was below them and facing them, they were all dancing in unison doing the same dance, and the drummers were all kind of swinging back and forth as they played. Salvador has a real African feel to it, much more so than in the South in Rio or Sao Paulo. So there was this face-off between the drummers and the dancers and the energy in the room was just amazing.

We were standing to the side so we could see the drummers to the right and the dancers to the left, so that was definitely one of the most powerful experiences I took away from the trip. The beat of the drums was just hypnotic.

AAJ: Do you have any hobbies outside of music?

JH: I'm quite a keen juggler, I've always juggled since I was about thirteen. I took it quite seriously, I actually thought about going down that road and being a street performer, or joining a circus or something. I've got a few circus skills, I can ride a unicycle and my dad was a gymnast, so I was always kind of interested in acrobatics. So I keep my juggling up, and I enjoy swimming regularly. I sail, I windsurf, and I surf when I go home to Cornwall. So those are my interests, but some are harder to keep up here in London.

AAJ: I know you were in the States, but it's a bit difficult for Europeans with the work permits and everything. But I was wondering if there are some Americans you are interested in working with?

JH: I did a collaboration with Ralph Alessi here last year. He's a great trumpet player from New York and one of my favorite musicians on the planet. We did about a week's worth of gigs and I hope that's the first of many. I'd really love to work with him again, it was really some of the most enjoyable music making I've ever done, and I'd really like to do more with him again. We also recorded one of the gigs and if it's okay with him we'd like to release it, it was with my trio, Mike Janisch (bass) and Dave Smith (drums.)

So I'm planning a trip to New York in June and I'm hoping to meet up with him then.

AAJ: Anything else on the horizon?

JH: The new Neon Quartet will be touring in the UK from mid April to mid May, I think we've got about ten gigs lined up.

AAJ: So just for fun. Let's say you get to be part of a seven piece band made up of your musical heroes who are no longer with us, who would they be, and if you could only play the music of one composer who would it be?

JH: So it would be Elvin Jones on drums. I'd like to get Dennis Irwin on bass, it was really sad that he died last year, not old at all, he was an amazing bassist. Thelonious Monk on piano [laughs] and find out what that would be like! Coltrane on tenor sax and Miles on trumpet. Finally, Roland Kirk on flute or whatever else he happened to have with him. And seeing that Monk is in the band, we could do Monk's music.

Selected Discography

Neon Quartet, Catch Me (Edition Records, 2010)

Jim Hart Quartet, Words & Music (Woodville Records, 2009)

Jim Hart's Gemini, Narrada (Loop Records, 2009)

Neon Quartet, Here To There (Basho Records, 2007)

Jim Hart's Gemini, Emergence (Loop Records, 2006)

Photo Credit
Pages 1, 2: Courtesy of Jim Hart

Page 3: Mike Stemberg

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