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Matthew Halsall: A New Dawn

Photo credit: Emily Dennison

Chris May By

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After touring Into Forever for a couple of years I was exhausted. It was a big project. So I took time out and I realised that in terms of what I’d set out to do as an artist, I’d hit a brick wall. I needed to reflect on the journey so far and think about how to move forward. —Matthew Halsall
After five years without the release of any newly recorded material, the British trumpeter and composer Matthew Halsall has returned in winter 2020 with a fresh new band and a sparkling new album, Salute To The Sun, on his Gondwana Records label. It is more than good to have him and his music back.

Based in the northern city of Manchester, two hundred miles and a lifestyle away from London, Halsall debuted in 2008 with Sending My Love, on which he unveiled his distinctive take on the spiritual jazz of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders and the less-is-more modalism of Miles Davis circa Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959).

Between 2008 and 2015, Halsall released six albums under his own name: Sending My Love, Colour Yes, On The Go, Fletcher Moss Park, When The World Was One and Into Forever (all Gondwana). For reasons he talks about below, Halsall then took an extended sabbatical before returning with Salute To The Sun. He plugged the intervening years to some extent by producing and playing on Dwight Trible's Inspirations (Gondwana, 2017), an album which featured members of the Gondwana Orchestra, and releasing an archive collection of his own material, Oneness (Gondwana, 2019), a triple album of previously unissued recordings made with his first band in 2008.

Halsall was born and brought up in the north of England. His parents were outward looking, culturally active people—his father taught art, his mother was an artistically inclined entrepreneur—and he was exposed to live and recorded jazz at an early age. He started playing cornet when he was six and from that age he would accompany his parents to Sunday afternoon jazz sessions at The Mill At The Pier in Wigan. When he was twelve, his hands now big enough to allow him to play trumpet, Halsall joined a local youth big band, of which he was the youngest member. As a young teenager, again at The Mill At The Pier, he attended masterclasses conducted by visiting trumpeters including Roy Hargrove, Maynard Ferguson and Bobby Shew.

Severely dyslexic, Halsall did not do well at school until, in his mid teens, he entered the supportive Maharishi School, where his ongoing interest in yoga, meditation and Eastern philosophy grew. He then studied sound engineering and production at Liverpool Institute For Performing Arts (LIPA). On graduating, he moved to Manchester where he became part of the spiritual jazz movement centred around the city's Matt & Phred's club.

In this interview, Halsall talks about the circumstances which led to the forming of his new band, about his new album and why it was preceded by a five year hiatus, and about Gondwana Records, which has grown into a successful label releasing albums by tenor saxophonist Nat Birchall, a member of Halsall's band until around 2014, Portico Quartet, Mammal Hands and GoGo Penguin among other, mainly northern-based artists. Halsall concludes by talking about six key albums in his life. He begins by answering questions about Gondwana Records....

All About Jazz: It's a wonder how you manage to be a dedicated musician and composer and also run a successful record label. Another great trumpeter, Charles Tolliver, did it with Strata-East, of course, but running a business and being a musician seem such different disciplines.

Matthew Halsall: In the beginning it was fairly easy. My mum was an entrepreneur and had shops and businesses. She had a shop called Gondwana, importing really beautiful clothes and furniture from all over the world. I used to work there when I was young and I picked up the cogs of running the business side of things early on. And I always liked the idea of working independently. At school, I had a bike business, doing up bikes and selling them to my mates. I managed to make money pretty easily and I was comfortable with that process and I quite liked taking risks.

AAJ: So founding a label was the natural thing to do.

MH: The thing was, I felt protective of my music and in 2007, when I was ready to start recording, I didn't feel it fitted in with what any label of that time was doing. I had saved up about £1000 [about $1,300], so I formed Gondwana and started to build a team: a recording engineer who was really good, Brendan Williams, who helped me a lot, and a bunch of musicians who were part of an important movement that was happening at Matt & Phred's club in Manchester. We were happy and proud to be doing something independent in the north of England. It wasn't like we were selling hundreds of thousands of copies but everything recouped and made money. The first nine or ten Gondwana releases were all Manchester artists—myself, Nat Birchall, GoGo Penguin and John Ellis and Phil France. The heart of Gondwana is still Manchester.

AAJ: In the eight years from 2008 to 2015 you released six albums of newly recorded material under your own name. How come there was a five year gap between 2015's Into Forever and 2020's Salute To The Sun ?

MH: The main thing was that after touring Into Forever for a couple of years I was quite exhausted. It was a pretty big project. It was eleven to thirteen musicians on the road and I didn't have a tour manager and having to deal with that many musicians was quite intense, organising the travel and accommodation and so on. So after that, and working with Dwight Trible, I took some time out—2018 was the tenth anniversary of the record label—and I realised that in terms of what I'd set out to do as an artist, I'd hit a bit of brick wall. I needed to reflect on the journey so far and think about how to move forward.

AAJ: Well, you're back with a banging album now.

MH: I'm really proud of this record. I feel like it's the start of an exciting, new, energised period of my life.

AAJ: Apart from Gavin Barras on bass, it's a totally new band. Is that a consequence of your period of reflection?

MH: It's actually because by 2018 most of the musicians in the band had moved to different parts of the country. Fortunately Gavin has stayed in the north—he lives about twenty minutes from my house. Gavin has been in the band since before the first album and we've built up quite a telepathic way of playing together. I think he is quite special. From 2008 to 2018, all the musicians I'd been working with had been living in Manchester and Leeds or elsewhere in the north and it was easy to get together and rehearse. I like to rehearse weekly and I'm also constantly recording. But when people started to move away that became increasingly difficult. The nail in the coffin was a rehearsal I called for us to work on new material. Paying for the musicians' travel costs and the rehearsal space and everything cost me about £700 [about $900]. And I realised, I just can't do this, it's not working anymore. The composing never dried up, I've always continued writing. The problem was pulling all the musicians together. It had come to a point where it was impossible to move forward.

AAJ: Parting with the band must have been quite a wrench.

MH: I am a fiercely loyal bandleader and individual and anyone who had stayed in the north I would have happily kept in the band. But I wanted to rehearse frequently and record new material and I also wanted a residency in Manchester where we could test out the new material live. It just wasn't possible with people scattered so widely. So I started head hunting and by late 2019 I had managed to build a great team of new, local musicians I thought had the right energy and enthusiasm, and that's the band on Salute To The Sun. We've actually recorded about three other albums that haven't been released. This was the second one we recorded. As a composer/producer I don't worry about having to release an album at a predetermined time. I record all the time, lots of different music that could potentially be an album five years on. It doesn't matter to me when it is released, it's just about recording it and seeing if it works and going on that journey together.

AAJ: I love the rain forest vibe you've got on the album with the tuned percussion instruments.

MH: Growing up in a place in England that is slightly cold and rainy like Manchester, escapism has always been quite important to me. Making music that is exotic and warm and tropical and friendly, I've been really drawn to that. I've always liked that idea when it's expressed in art, like in paintings by Paul Gauguin and Peter Doig and Henri Rousseau. Lots of things like that pulled me into the sound of this record. I sat and listened to field recordings of jungles and rain forests for hours and hours. There's a whole world I've discovered with YouTube, like two-hour field recordings you can put on in the background while you sit at the piano and compose. Things like that and having the new band gave me a sense of energy and direction with this record. The title comes from my time at the Maharishi School. One of the really beautiful things we did collectively at the start of every day was practice the sun salutation. I loved that experience, starting the day with some positive yoga. The name and the whole thing has been stuck in my mind ever since. So it was nice to reference that. And with things like "Mindfulness Meditations," I've been studying a lot of mindfulness meditation over the last ten years or so, going to group meditations and stuff. So it was good to incorporate some of those things into the titles and the sound of the record.

AAJ: The closer, "The Energy Of Life," has a darker feel than the other tracks.

MH: It is a bit of a curve ball. That came out of the monthly club residency we had. We needed something quite heavy and a bit darker, a 1970s kind of thing inspired by Strata-East and Black Jazz records. We've actually recorded quite a lot of material in that vein. I tend to make two kinds of albums. Possibly it's down to the time of day I compose them. I compose early in the morning or really late at night and the late at night stuff tends to be quite dark and good for playing live. When The World Was One and On The Go were composed late at night. Fletcher Moss Park and some of the other albums including Salute To The Sun were composed really early in the morning, just as the sun was rising. Five, six, seven o'clock in the morning. My piano is right in front of the window so I get to see the day begin. I think the next album will be more club ready though, more kind of the heavier groove.

MATTHEW HALSALL: SIX MUSICAL EPIPHANIES

Selecting just six key albums from the huge library Halsall keeps as a musician, DJ and jazz fan cannot have been easy. But he did it. Here they are, along with his reasons for choosing them...

Miles Davis
Kind Of Blue
Columbia, 1959

Between the ages of, say, ten to sixteen, when I was starting out as a trumpeter, Miles Davis and Chet Baker were the two players I was mainly obsessed with. On this album, Miles Davis' solos are so, so beautiful. I've studied the record a lot and worked out all of his solos on it and done the play-alongs. I've really dug deep into it. Early in my career in jam sessions with other musicians it is probably the album I would play the most tunes off. It was crucial to me when I was gaining confidence and finding a direction as a trumpet player. All the other musicians on it are incredible as well. For me, it's one of the all-time greatest records.

Yusef Lateef
Eastern Sounds
Moodsville, 1961

The reason I picked this is that it is one of the earlier exotic, if you like, jazz records. Yusef Lateef's playing is so soulful and intimate and deep. I just love "The Plumb Blossom," the interesting instrumentation he uses on that, and the percussion he uses, and just the way he plays with such freedom and such a spiritual feel. And "Ching Miau." When I'm DJing I love playing that track. Both of those tracks I play regularly as a DJ. I think Nat Birchall put me on to the album actually, it was quite late in my life that I discovered it. I was obsessed with Yusef Lateef from that moment on and went and bought everything by him.

Alice Coltrane
Journey In Satchidananda
Impulse!, 1971

I discovered Alice Coltrane through a gig I went to hosted by the DJ Mr. Scruff, who is a very important DJ in my life. He's educated me on so many genres of music. A friend's parents used to sneak us into Mr. Scruff nights when we were about fourteen or fifteen, early on in his Keep It Unreal sessions. And at one gig he played Pharoah Sanders' "You've Got To Have Freedom" off Journey To The One. I'd never heard the album and it totally blew my mind. So I went and trawled through every Pharoah Sanders record I could find and in the process discovered Alice Coltrane and Journey In Satchidananda. It melted my brain. It completely locked into what I what I wanted to do as a musician and composer, this meditative, free-flowing jazz. It was the reason I started using the harp and tambura on record. Everything about it is great. Cecil McBee is one of my favourite bass players of all time. Rashied Ali is great on it. I think it's probably my favourite Pharoah performance, very deep. And Alice is wonderful from start to finish.

Clifford Jordan Quartet
Glass Bead Games
Strata-East, 1974

This one came late and again through Nat Birchall. He had an original copy at his house in the countryside near Glossop. I used to stay over there a lot. Nat put it on one night and it was just incredible. I think the production on it is so great, the sound of Billy Higgins' drums is amazing. And it's got Stanley Cowell and Cedar Walton, two of my favourite pianists. Clifford Jordan's playing is extraordinary. I love most of the tracks, and particularly "John Coltrane" and "Eddie Harris" and "Maimoun." I play them all the time as a DJ.

Pharoah Sanders
Journey To The One
Theresa, 1980

After hearing "You've Got To Have Freedom" at the Mr. Scruff gig, I remember rushing home and the energy and inspiration just mounting to a really high place. I think my first two albums, definitely Colour Yes, were inspired by the elevating tracks on this album. I love "Kazuko Peace Child" with the koto on it, and "Soledad," which has sitar and tambura. I'd never heard these instruments on a jazz album before. You've got to imagine a young, fifteenish person who'd grown up in the big band world, being introduced to "You've Got To Have Freedom" and "Journey In Satchidananda." It was jaw dropping. Fantastic musicians on this record, too, like Idris Muhammad and Eddie Henderson. It's an exciting record, very eclectic and broad. I've heard Pharoah play some of these tracks live and it's incredibly beautiful.

The Cinematic Orchestra
Every Day
Ninja Tune, 2002

There are multiple reasons why this record is important to me. A lot of the musicians on it were playing at Matt & Phreds in Manchester, like Phil France and John Ellis. After I got back from studying sound engineering at LIPA, I had a friend who worked on the bar at Matt & Phreds, and I used to go pretty much four or five nights a week and sit at the bar, and get a couple of freebies off my mate, and watch all these amazing musicians. I was in awe of them all and also with the way Jason Swinscoe pulled this album together and brought in such an eclectic sound. And the fact that it's got Fontella Bass on it. As a producer rather than a performer, this is a record I keep being drawn to, trying to make something with such an eclectic sound. The loops of harp and the samples of African tribal singing, there's so many different things on it. My ears prick up whenever I'm listening to it.

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