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Rob Luft: Burning the Candle at Both Ends

Rob Luft: Burning the Candle at Both Ends

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Keep smiling—you’re gonna get booked!
—Rob Luft
What kind of musician gets asked to write a concerto for a 65-piece orchestra—the BBC Concert Orchestra, no less—when still in his twenties, and when he has never previously written for an orchestra?

Well, somehow or other, UK guitarist Rob Luft is that kind of musician. Writing for an orchestra is something he has always wanted to do, and the work receives its world premiere at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank on November 16th as part of the 2023 EFG London Jazz Festival. "From Silence Music is Born" pays homage to some 20th-century icons of British jazz—Kenny Wheeler, John McLaughlin, Dave Holland—and will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. The commission came about as a result of his gig with Avishai Cohen at the 2022 Festival, at which the combination of electric guitar and orchestra was deemed a resounding success.

Even for the constantly-traveling Luft, 2023 has been an exceptionally busy year. In the Spring, ECM Records released A Time to Remember, the second album from his project with the singer Elina Duni, and he has just released Dahab Days (Edition Records), the third album under his own name, with a sold-out launch gig at Ronnie Scott's. A few days after the South Bank performance he celebrates his 30th birthday. Not for nothing was his debut album titled Riser (Edition Records, 2017): Meteoric might have been more accurate. But how did it happen?

Rob Luft's stepfather Ian is a guitarist and jazz lover, although not a jazz player. "He took me to see the Allan Holdsworth Trio, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, so I was really infected with the jazz bug when I was 12, 13 years old. He can be found in the pubs of south London playing in covers bands at the weekends." A real Sultan of Swing, in other words. "Yes, but he's not in Dire Straits!" How fortunate are those who have someone like that early in life to steer them in the right musical direction. Jazz, the hidden art form, is hard to discover otherwise. "You need a tastemaker. I'm very lucky to have my stepfather still very close in my life, and he's still my tastemaker. He'll say, 'Listen to this weird thing I heard on Radio 3 at 1am last night.' So he got me into all this music, and as Ronnie Scott famously said, jazz is a terminal affliction. And once you get into it, it's very hard to shake the jazz bug. It's a way of life... It's my raison d'être, it's why I get out of bed in the morning."

By the age of 15, Luft had joined the UK's National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO). It was around then that he hooked up with bassist Tom McCredie and drummer Corrie Dick, and has stuck with them ever since. "That's my main band I like to play with, making my own original music. We used to rehearse in Tom's garage in south-east London. Playing with Corrie and Tom was a voyage of discovery—we went from playing rock stuff, making jazz versions of rock things, playing straight ahead swing. And we developed a little sound world between the three of us. So we ended up doing lots of different projects, and getting roped in to play with different singers and saxophone players, who would call us as a unit. It was very satisfying." They originally met at a bar in Hoxton, East London, called Charlie Wright's, where he ran a jam session. "Unfortunately it was bulldozed a few years ago and it's just a building site now. They had a very nice beer pump in the shape of a saxophone, and a Thai restaurant with.... acceptable food. Occasionally you didn't feel very well the next day after eating it. We played there a couple of times together."

Luft stayed with NYJO for eight years, occasionally arranging pieces for them. "It was a very transient band—drummers would come in, bass players would come in, and you'd get to know lots of people doing that. And when you're very young, it's fantastic."

By his early twenties he had become an inveterate traveler for his work, with about half of his performances outside the UK, much of it in Scandinavia. It began in 2017 when he toured Sweden, Finland, and Denmark with Django Bates' Sgt Pepper project, which involved working with a series of radio big bands. This resulted in him teaming up the following year in a trio with the Norwegian double bassist and singer Ellen Andrea Wang and touring all over Europe. It was through Wang that he met veteran UK saxophonist John Surman, who lives in Oslo. Last December Luft recorded an album (Words Unspoken—due for release in Spring 2024) with Surman at the city's Rainbow Studio, a regular base for recordings on the ECM record label, such as those from Jan Garbarek and Keith Jarrett. In March 2023 he worked in another trio with fellow ECM artist, the veteran Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen, for the Copenhagen Winter jazz festival. A lot of Luft's formative influences have been ECM-affiliated artists, from John Abercrombie to Norma Winstone. "I like the pure aesthetic of the label, the minimalist approach to recordings."

He has yet to conquer the USA, although he and Elina Duni played in New York in April 2022 at Le Poisson Rouge (previously the Village Gate). Isn't it a little surprising that he isn't better known in the US? "Well, it's a long game with the United States, because of the visa issues. It's very hard for me to go and play there without a visa. I had an 01 visa, which is a tier below the green card, but it was valid from March 2020 to March 2022." In other words, slap in the middle of the pandemic. "We got offered gigs in Boston, Harvard University, and elsewhere, but unfortunately we only managed one gig at Le Poisson Rouge, because it takes a lot of organizing to go over there."

Luft is outspoken about what he perceives as American isolationism, which he believes is damaging to the country's appreciation of world culture. "If they're not getting lots of international nourishment, they how can they expect their own citizens to be open-minded about culture and the arts and stuff? There's a whole sound of European jazz—spacious, beautiful, very minimal, atmospheric jazz—that American artists often have no idea about at all. The likes of Keith Jarrett and Bill Frisell are in the minority. A lot of American straight ahead artists might not even consider some of the great ECM artists as even jazz musicians, because [the ECM artists] have eschewed American ideals of what jazz is, and they're not very well-known in the United States. But jazz is a very broad church now. It's 2023, and it's a very wide umbrella, jazz, and it's a shame there's not more transatlantic travel from East to West."

Busy as Luft is, it remains very hard even for him to make a living as a jazz musician. "It's deeply fraught with strife and mental battles and personal mountains to climb, especially at the beginning. You have to go to jam sessions, and stay until the bitter end to get your 15 minutes to play with the other musicians and meet the guys at the end of the night." This observation prompts another question, which is what advice he would offer to young jazz musicians? "Meet the guys, and introduce yourself to the organizers of these jam sessions. I was a very frequent attender at Ronnie Scott's upstairs and downstairs jam sessions when I was in my late teens. I was there all the time and I was a real night owl. I would even say I burnt the candle at both ends, because I was studying at [London's] Royal Academy of Music on the jazz course. That meant 9am starts. I had harmony lessons with Gareth Lockrane or Iain Ballamy or Tom Cawley..."

The social side of jazz contrasts with the world of rock bands, who are often quite insular, just doing their thing away from other people. That really doesn't work with jazz, where mingling with others is central to the culture. "It's such a social, democratic music. You need to meet people and you need to put yourself in places where you can listen to other musicians and get their number, and say, hey, I love your playing, would you like to jam? Because you also never know who's going to be there. I've been at jams where John McLaughlin has been present, or Jeff Beck, or Thundercat has been standing in the front row watching me play a blues or something. And I've been there and I've done it, and I've had the chance to sit in with Larry Goldings or Robert Glasper. They won't remember this, but when I was 20, Roy Hargrove showed up at Ronnie's and came up and played a song with us. Roy's no longer with us, but I'm not going to forget that!

"People now think it's all about social media and Instagram and YouTube and Facebook, and that plays a huge part, I'm not trying to play that down..." But social media is more about marketing than creativity, and as well as going to jams and meeting fellow musicians and putting rehearsals together, Luft believes it's essential to simply be a nice guy. "There are so many killer players these days, and I think being a nice, positive energy in a group context is really important. Billy Higgins, the great drummer, was always smiling on stage, or Jack DeJohnette—always beaming. Those kind of energies are really infectious for the other musicians. So I think, be like those guys and girls—you're gonna get booked!"

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