John Law: Deeper into the Music

Jakob Baekgaard By

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John LawAAJ: How did the Art of Sound Trio come about? What were your visions for the project? Could you describe your working relationship with Sam Burgess and Asaf Sirkis and the process of recording the project?

JL: The trio with Sam and Asaf started off as one idea and has been gradually taking on other characteristics since then.

Basically I started the trio, back in 2005, as part of my on-going attempts to try and actually learn to sound and play more like a jazz pianist. But I always wanted a highly interactive trio, with everyone contributing and capable of going different ways. And that's gradually become ever more important. So whatever I was thinking when I first approached the guys to play trio with me, it's now become a group where we really try and do all aspects of contemporary trio playing. Extreme dynamics, mixing influences from classical, jazz and now even some rock influences. I'm gradually adding some more sounds as well. Slight distortion and delay effects on piano and bass. And I've got a number of toys I use: two (yes, two) kids' DJ toys, two Buddha machines (great little toy with nine in-built drones and a pitch altering capability, so I can phase them in and out) a dub siren module oscillator (which does whacky siren effects which I can alter live) and I also use live talk radio on one tune. I'm not exactly sure whether I've gone too far in this area and I'm going to rein it all in, whether I'm going to add something more or whether I'm going to stick with this.

The percussion side is also changing. Already a year ago I emailed Asaf and asked him whether he would like to play glockenspiel. He said he would learn it for me. And so we added that to Asaf's kit. He is also going to incorporate the Hang (which he plays with Tim Garland's Lighthouse project) and the darbuka into the trio. And then maybe just a small xylophone (a sort of kids' one, not a massive orchestral one, which he has however played with me). I think that'll be it.

I first played with Asaf back in 2005. I fell in love with his sound straight away. His accompanying is ultra sensitive and his solos have, for me, redefined the way I've listened to drums. Sam came into the trio shortly after that. His immense strengths are that he is awesome on first tempos, swings like crazy and no-one can touch him on a ballad. He's remarkably eloquent. Sometimes to the point that I want to cry.

It's a very democratic group, musically. We all have input into arrangements, even though we only play my tunes. I just feel I can learn so much from these two musicians that I feel very humble working with them.

Recording the recent CD Congregation was a mammoth achievement. We recorded so much music! In just two days. We all worked really hard. The studio is called Artesuono, from which I took the group's name and also the name of all four Art of Sound recordings, volumes 1 and 4 being trio and 2 and 3 solo. The two solo recordings I recorded in just two days, in October 2007. Many of the compositions on these two solo recordings are also recorded by the trio, which gives rise to the possibility of comparing solo and trio versions.

AAJ: Some of the compositions come with dedications. Could you expand on the story behind some of them?

JL: Three of my compositions in the Art of Sound series are dedicated to musicians. "Twist" is dedicated to an Austrian vibes player and composer Friedrich Philipp-Pesendorfer (known as Flip Philipp) who plays for the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and writes very Monk-influenced, tricky compositions. I did a bit of touring with him and ripped off the feel of one of his tunes, which he called first "Let's Twist" and then later simply "Let's." (By the way, I often acknowledge a debt to some other composition which influenced me writing one of mine, by hiding a link to the other composition in the title I give my tune. Even without any dedication. I try and leave a thread for later detective work!) The tune "Method in My Madness" was partly stolen (though I would say also improved in the process) from a tune by Jon Lloyd called simply "Method."

John Law The Art of Sound Trio (l:r): Asaf Sirkis, Sam Burgess, John Law

The composition "Watching, Waiting..." is inspired generally by the music of Tom Cawley. Tom's a wonderful composer and pianist. When I first heard some of his compositions I felt really down and wanted to give up. I felt I would never ever be able to write as beautifully as some of his stuff.

But in the end I did what I always do, I tried instead to incorporate some of his magic and make it my own.

The two compositions on Chorale: The Art of Sound, Volume 3 which are dedicated to Stephen are very personal statements. They're in memory of a younger brother of mine who died in 2006. A really dreadful time. One of the pieces, called simply "?" I just sat down and played pretty much the way I then wrote it out.

AAJ: What are your plans for the future?

John Law

JL: Future plans? Well I'm going to be doing more trio and solo concerts and touring. Maybe a couple of more trio albums are in the pipeline. I'm going to be taking some time off this Autumn/Winter to write a whole load of new trio material that's in my mind. Hopefully about ten new compositions. Maybe more...

Outside the main jazz activities of mine, trio and solo work, I have a couple of plans more in the area of classical music. I would like to write a through-composed piece for orchestra. I've written a couple now, in response to being asked to submit something to the London Symphony Orchestra. Neither of my last submissions have actually been chosen and I'm working on something currently which I think will work really well, so hopefully will be chosen this time.

And there's another idea I'm planning: I want to do a project called Goldberg. I'm commissioning, once the funds are in place, an artist to do an animation, which will be about three or four minutes long and on a continuous loop. As a background to this I'm going to write a piece of electronic music based on the chord structure of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Sort of very subtle, unobtrusive ambient sounds. This will be a kind of installation. But then once or twice in the day I'll actually play the whole piece, live, probably behind a screen. A strange idea but I do play pieces from this work most mornings, as part of my warm-up routine. So I sort of conceived this idea along the way.

And later, ultimately, my plan is to actually get back more to freely improvised playing and instant composition. I really only see this period I'm in of writing lots of interesting (I hope) compositions and cute ballads for the trio and for my solo work, I see it as a learning process that will hopefully inform my free playing more. I'm hoping thus to emerge as a better, more melodic, free player. I'll never go back to doing only energy music and that sort of thing. But I hope to incorporate many aspects of free music as well as the tunes approach and then play totally openly, without preconceived ideas. And I mean trio as well as solo. I was really impressed with the last e.s.t. album, the way they played freely (and of course treated it a lot in post-production). Made me think I'd really like to do a more abstract trio recording myself, one day.

But lastly I have to say I just want to get better. I realized this only recently. I'm involved in lifelong learning, simply because it turns me on. Not because I want to get better. Not because I want to achieve this or that. I just simply like learning things. Of course it would be naive to not concede that, along the way, I do notice new things I've learnt. Without some sort of positive feedback it would be difficult to maintain this interest in learning. But I really do love it for its own sake. And while I'm earning just about enough, from playing/writing/a bit of teaching, so that I can actually sort of support my family, then I don't have the issue of having to justify my continuous focus on study.

So I'm going to carry on trying to learn. For example, in harmony, I've recently realized I've been using chords completely without thinking, and they're not sophisticated enough. My hands and fingers have just been automatically falling into those learnt patterns. So I've been relearning and trying to delve deeper into harmony. I want to make a proper study of some of the Ligeti Piano Etudes, particularly some of the later ones, from Books 2 and 3. Harmonically there's a lot of material there that fascinates me. I'd like to one day sit down and make a proper study of Brad Mehldau's remarkable solo album Live in Tokyo (Nonesuch, 2004), just to find out how the hell he actually does what he does.

These things. And more.

I just want to find out new things in music. Because I want to and it's inspiring.

Selected Discography

John Law, Congregation: The Art of Sound, Volume 4 (33 Jazz, 2009)

John Law, Chorale: The Art of Sound, Volume 3 (33 Jazz, 2008)
John Law, The Ghost in the Oak: The Art of Sound, Volume 2 (33 Jazz, 2008)
John Law, The Art of Sound, Volume 1 (33 Jazz, 2007)
John Law, Out Of The Darkness (Slam, 2006)
John Law, The Moment (Cornucopia, 2001)
John Law, Abacus (HatHut, 2001)
John Law, Strange Stories (Cornucopia, 2000)
John Law, Songs Without Words (Eos, 1998)
John Law, Chants (Cornucopia, 1998)
John Law, The Onliest—Pictures From a Monk Exhibition (Future Music, 1996)
John Law, Exploded on Impact (Slam, 1993)

Photo Credits:

Page 1, 8: Mel Day

Page 3: Bob Meyrick

Page 5: Mel Day

Page 7: Andy Webb



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