Two of the most over-used phrases in music journalism are "overnight star" and "out of nowhere," and so apologies for starting with them here. But when it comes to describing British saxophonist Nat Birchall, they have an unusual degree of exactitude. Birchall, born in 1957 in the rural seclusion of the hill country of North-West England, where he still lives in 2010, and a saxophonist since 1979, didn't make an impression on Britain's national jazz scene until 2009, when he released his second album, Akhenaten
, on fellow Lancastrian, trumpeter Matthew Halsall's Gondwana label.
The media embrace was immediate, andpractically overnightBirchall and his John Coltrane
and Pharoah Sanders
-inspired "spiritual" jazz became hot topics of conversation. 2010's follow-up album, Guiding Spirit
, also on Gondwana, has raised the temperature further. Without warning, Birchall has become a name to reckon with.
Using, basically, Halsall's uniquely empathetic bandHalsall, pianist Adam Fairhall, bassist Gavin Barras and drummer Gaz HughesBirchall has made two of the most exquisitely soulful and lyrical albums of the new century. They reflect his love of both the Coltrane/Sanders astral jazz oeuvre, and also of the "conscious" reggae which was his original route into music. The reggae connection isn't explicit on the discs, but the spiritual reasoning which is part of its legacy is key to Birchall's outlook on life, as can be inferred from the titles he gives some of his compositions.
Birchall began playing with bands in the mid-1980s, in jazz-funk, jazz-rock and Turkish jazz-fusion outfits. In 1992, he formed his own Corner Crew group, playing a jazz-influenced hip-hop style featuring a rapper and sampling. It was, Birchall recalls, a fine band, but "it often felt like I was simply complementing the groove that was determined by the rhythm section." In 1998, he formed Sixth Sense, who released the hard bop-rooted Sixth Sense
on its own, eponymous label in 1999.
A new band followed in the early noughties, but still Birchallfar away from the bigger pool of musicians centered around Londonwas struggling to find like-minded colleagues. "Experience has taught me that you can't get anyone to play a certain way if they don't want to, or can't feel it," says Birchall. "When it comes down to it, they are going to play what is in their hearts. So you have to wait until you find the right people to play with you in the way you'd like."
So Birchall continued, "playing in a bubble," as he puts it, "alone in the music," until meeting Matthew Halsall in early 2007. And the outpouring of love and spirituality on Akhenaten
and Guiding Spirit
sounds all the sweeter for the long years in the wilderness that preceded them. All About Jazz:
Let's start at the beginning. What was the first music you can remember hearing? Nat Birchall:
The first I can recall was on the radio my parents had in the kitchen. Someone singing "English Country Garden." Many years later, I heard [saxophonist] Charlie Parker
quote it at the end of one of his live performances. It seemed for a moment as though he was acknowledging my earliest musical memories from beyond the grave.
I didn't study music at school, but I started buying records in late 1971. Isaac Hayes
' "Theme From Shaft" was the first one. Back then, most people my age in the area were either into progressive rock or soul, but something about reggae spoke to me in a way that soul or rock music didn't. I started to buy all the reggae records I could find. In the mid 1970s, I would go to Liverpool, to a specialist reggae shop in the Toxteth area, to buy tunes. AAJ:
So reggae was your first love? NB:
Oh yesand it's still a big love. But in the mid 1970s I was into roots and dub to the exclusion of anything else. I would spend all
my money on these records, and the people in the village would be like, "What the hell is that? You're weird!" Coming from the northern countryside I didn't meet too many black people until I was in my late teens, so I was a man alone in the music I was listening to. And I think maybe I've always had this thing that my music is not what the majority of people are into. I loved the music deeply, but I never thought of myself as someone who could actually be a musician.
It was reggae that got me playing saxophone. In 1979, I lent some albums to two friends who were going to take up saxophone and flute. I dug out all my records with sax and flute on them. They were mostly reggaeI had one jazz album, Coltrane's Blue Train
[Blue Note, 1957]. Somehow, in the process of digging these discs out, I got a yen to learn myself, and shortly afterwards I noticed an old alto in the back of a record shop, that the guy was going to use in a window display. I persuaded him to sell it to me for £20.
After playing it for five minutes, I knew I had to take it seriously. I really connected with it. I could hear the sound in the instrument that I'd been hearing on all the Jamaican records I'd been buying. So I saved up some money, borrowed a bit more, and bought a decent vintage alto. A year later I traded it for a tenor. I also started to listen to jazz. I knew that all the Jamaican horn players I lovedCedric Im Brooks
, Tommy McCook, Roland 'Ringo' Alphonso
were jazz players and their music was influenced by Coltrane. And I started to buy jazz records. AAJ:
Did you take any lessons? NB:
I started to take lessons as soon as I got my first decent saxophone, with a local player, Harold Salisbury. He was getting on towards middle age, and most guys of that age in Lancashire, back then anyway, were into big band swing stuff. But Harold was really into "modern" jazz. I already knew about Coltrane and Sonny Rollins
, but he turned me on to other saxophonists, like Billy Harper
and George Adams
. I would leave each lesson with a pile of LPs, tape them all and go back 2 weeks later for another lesson and more LPs.
I think I maybe had 10 or 12 lessons or so before I stopped going. Harold was a very enigmatic teacherso enigmatic that he'd almost never tell me anything specific, insisting that I could/should work it out myself. I see the value in it now, but back then I felt that I really needed something concrete to practise, so I kind of drifted away from the lessons.
I didn't have another formal music lesson until 1994, when I did an HND [Higher National Diploma] in jazz studies. I'd always played by ear. I thought all non- classical musicians did. But you can only go so far in jazz that way, unless you're gifted, which I'm not. So I really had to buckle down and learn the theory.