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Spring Heel Jack: John Coxon and Ashley Wales

John Eyles By

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Two of the most innovative and impressive albums of the past two years have been Masses and Amassed by Spring Heel Jack, both on the Thirsty Ear label. These albums were particularly notable for the duo—individually, John Coxon and Ashley Wales—joining forces with some of jazz's most cutting edge players. On Masses, they were joined by American improvisers including Tim Berne, Guillermo E. Brown, Mat Manieri, William Parker and Matthew Shipp plus our own Evan Parker, while Amassed mainly featured European-based improvisers including Han Bennink, John Edwards, Paul Rutherford and Kenny Wheeler plus Shipp and Evan Parker again, and—something of a wild card—J Spaceman (aka Jason Pierce, guitarist with Spiritualised). The compositions used on the two albums are largely the same, but sound radically different because of the different players.

Spring Heel Jack's roots were in dance music, with the duo being strong on electronically produced beats. It was really only on their 2000 album Disappeared that they first hinted at a taste for jazz, when they used John Surman on bass clarinet on the title track, and trumpeter Ian R. Watson (of Lob, among others) on three tracks including "Lester"; On these tracks, the soundscapes played down beats in favour of subtler environments more conducive to freer improvisation, a trend that developed further on Masses and Amassed. This January sees another development, as Spring Heel Jack play an eight-date CMN tour of England in the company of Shipp, Evan Parker, William Parker, Bennink and J Spaceman.

On December 19th, I spoke to John Coxon and Ashley Wales at Coxon's home near Columbia Road flower market in East London. I started by asking them about Disappeared and their contact with John Surman.

John Coxon: We had always been a bit shy of calling people, especially people we regard as musical heroes almost. It was the first time we had done that.

Ashley Wales: On that album, it was the first time we had got anyone else to play anything on our records that we hadn't sampled. Before that, we had done all the stuff ourselves. We had never had a live drummer in or anything like that.

JC: We were quite anti—(AW: Musicians!)—kind of anti-musician. But if you are making beats, to play along to them is not the kind of thing we are really interested in.

AW: Also, the studio we had at the time wasn't set up for that. Trying to get a good drum sound is [difficult]...and then you've got all these fantastic breaks played by Clyde Stubblefield or whoever, that have got great sound, great snare, great bass drum—and if they haven't, you can take one from somewhere else. They have got the atmosphere. Someone has spent a lot of time miking up a kit, and they were great drummers.

All About Jazz: So why John Surman? Why did you start with him?

JC: He is one of the greatest living saxophonists. Ashley had been listening to him since he was about twelve years old. He'd been playing me Surman albums since we met. He is a wonderful player.

AW: The track we did, Disappeared, we were sitting there saying, "God, it would be good to have someone like John Surman playing the bass clarinet on there. I can just hear it." Neither of us could find a whole... we didn't want to make a composite. So we thought maybe we should get him to play on it, if he would like to do it. He was the man for the job. That was what that track needed. It was a great track beforehand, anyway, but his playing on it was wonderful. What a beautiful instrument bass clarinet is.

It always sounds bad, that we just rang John Surman up.

AAJ: Why?

JC: It sounds presumptuous. Especially us who are not able to play instruments like that. I play guitar; Ashley plays trumpet. But it is not like these people?

AW: They are consummate musicians. That is what they do. John Surman plays baritone sax, soprano, bass clarinet, alto clarinet, recorder, whatever. He is a fantastic musician and always has been. It is a little bit presumptuous to say, "Do you want to play on this electronic soundscape we've made in the studio?"

AAJ: So, you had the track and then you thought John Surman would be good over the top of it, rather than thinking of him and then conceiving the piece?

JC: Yes, we wrote the piece of music first. And this is the pattern we have followed since then. Originally with Masses the idea was to have individual voices on each track, but then we got more and more interested in the group improvisation thing.

AW: It is difficult if you have a separate player on each piece. What is it?

AAJ: A compilation album.

AW: Do we want to make a compilation album? No we don't. That was always the problem with a lot of drum'n'bass albums. They sounded like compilations of 12" singles. You want something a bit more coherent. If we'd have had soprano sax, trumpet, trombone, what would it mean? Is it like separate sonatas? Is it like a Poulenc album? Flute sonata, clarinet sonata, trio sonata? You know what I mean? You see those albums where they group all their instrumental works together. We didn't really want to make that because they are sort of unconnected, in a way, other than being by the same person.

JC: So when it came to Masses, as we developed the idea, as we wrote the pieces, it became clear that it would be better to do some whole group improvs, some duets, some trio ideas. We kind of developed the idea as it went on. But in a way, it started with that John Surman track.

AW: That was definitely the catalyst. We had talked for years about how great it would be if we could get all these musicians together. One of those things we would sit around and talk about in the studio when we were having a cup of tea.


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