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Trish Clowes: Sounding Colors, Playing With Gravity

Trish Clowes: Sounding Colors, Playing With Gravity
Ian Patterson By

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It’s social music. You’re connected to people and you’re affected by people. At times you can’t help but be moved to speak out on certain issues, and it should be encouraged more —Trish Clowes, saxophonist, composer
If it hadn't been that day, twenty some years ago when the young Trish Clowes first felt the pull of the tenor saxophone, it would surely have been another.

Barely in her teens at the time, Shropshire-born saxophonist and award-winning composer Clowes already played piano, clarinet and sang when she went to see her Dad, an amateur trumpeter, play with the local big band. "When I heard a tenor saxophone feature on "In a Sentimental Mood" I thought 'Wow! That's a really cool instrument.'"

A small light flicked on inside Clowes' mind but it wasn't a life-changing moment that would define her path. "It was never a plan to be a professional jazz musician. I didn't really think I could become one," Clowes admits. "I just sort of got into it."

Within a few short years, after gigging regularly around her hometown, Clowes passed an audition—much to her surprise—for the Royal College of Music in London. It wasn't long until her path became clear. "I had this sort of epiphany where I realized that my whole life revolved around music and it was just a question of how to go forwards with it really. When I decided to go for it, I was all in."

There was no looking back. Since then Clowes has been selected as a BBC New Generation Artist and has been championed by the likes of Jamie Cullum, broadcaster/curator Fiona Talkington and renowned jazz critic John Fordham. She laid down a significant marker with Tangent (Basho Records, 2010), an adventurous coming together of jazz and orchestral colors. Three more well received albums followed.

Not one to tread water, Clowes is the founder and curator of Emulsion—a festival/project dedicated to genre-less new music—and Professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. As if that wasn't enough, Clowes fills the empty hours studying a PHD and is also an ambassador for the charity Donate4Refugees. Perhaps her strength as a leader comes from all the different challenges she sets herself, both professionally and personally. "You can learn something from every situation," says Clowes. "It's a constant learning process."

Ninety Degrees Gravity (Basho Records, 2019) marks the second outing with her outstanding My Iris quartet—surely one of the most brilliant small jazz ensembles in the UK—and is arguably Clowes' most assured and impressive recording to date.

"The one you've just done always feels like your best one," says Clowes, a little modestly. She is quick to sing the praises of her quartet members Chris Montague, Ross Stanley and James Maddren, a line-up cemented in 2016 when Maddren joined the pre-existing trio. "The feeling with the band, the way we are growing, it feels more and more special as we build on things," says Clowes. "There are just so many colors and textures that I can get out of the ensemble. "

Clowes, Ross and Montague formed the trio in 2014, with unusually, neither a bassist nor a drummer. "A lot of the time for us as jazz musicians, even when the drums aren't there, they're almost in our heads," explains Clowes. "One of the things I've come to love about this band is being able to play everything from the quietest, most delicate textures to kicking up a storm. The drums allow me to enjoy that a lot more," she laughs.

For Clowes, however, the music is not so much about instrumentation. "I think it's just people really. When we started the trio, it was just wanting to work with Chris and Ross. I knew them pretty well and it kind of dictates the way you arrange the music, the way you comp for each other, the way the music unfolds. It was a really amazing experience."

Clowes met Montague and Maddren while they were all studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London in the mid-2000s. "I met Ross at a similar time," recalls Clowes, "though he was in a different college." When the trio became Clowes main gig, she soon realized that she wanted to add Maddren to the mix. Needless to say, the addition of Maddren transformed Clowes' music.

"It was really interesting because as a trio we had thought so carefully about how to comp for each other without drums, so in a way, when James joined, it kind of freed him up to do other things. It gave him more options." So many options, in fact, that Clowes describes his contribution as "an integral part of the music."

Maddren is all fired-up on 's pulsating opening number, "Eric's Tune," named in honor of former Weather Report drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt.

"I'd been listening a lot to early Weather Report and this particular album, Live in Tokyo (Columbia, 1972)," says Clowes. "I was just totally blown away by the drumming. I still don't think I've heard anything as incredible as that. I listened to that record a lot, thinking about the grooves Gravat was implying within the context of the group and wondering if I could translate that into some writing."

Though Clowes' music is not overtly informed by jazz-fusion's 1970s hey-day, when Miles Davis with his Bitches Brew band, Weather Report, Chick Corea's Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra scored enormous commercial success, the saxophonist is fascinated by their musical melting pots.

"What's really interesting about that period of music was the access that a lot of those musicians had to new colors. Until that point jazz had been restricted to acoustic instruments and acoustic sounds. With electric instruments everything dramatically changed. They played in bigger venues and that affected the music. I imagine those musicians getting really excited about all the sounds they could use, particularly as they started moving away from standards and started doing their own thing," says Clowes.

"When you think of a musician like Charlie Parker with his love of Varese and Stravinsky, musicians then had all these colors and sounds around them, but they didn't have access to them. Most of them didn't have access to orchestras. I was listening to [Miles Davis'] In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) the other day and I thought this was the first time they did this. What were they thinking of there? What it must have felt like to imagine those sounds? And the amount of space..." Clowes marvels.

Common to both Weather Report and electric-era Miles Davis was Wayne Shorter, an important influence on Clowes. There is the ghost of Shorter's sound in Clowes' own playing and in her writing too, at times, notably on the fifth track of Ninety Degrees Gravity, "I.F."

"Wayne's a massive hero of mine," Clowes acknowledges. "His last quartet started around the time I was seventeen or eighteen. I was getting much more seriously into jazz and getting gigs. When I was trying to get repertoire together, working from Real Books, as were all the older musicians around me, I suddenly realized that all my favourite tunes were written by Wayne."

Clowes recalls vividly the first time she saw Shorter with his quartet of Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade. "It absolutely blew my mind. I got Footprints Live! (Verve, 2002) and I must have spent a good eighteen months completely immersed in it. As complex as that band was in some ways, it was also really quite straightforward. I love Wayne's role as a horn player; he wasn't dominating the soundscape with solos for the sake of it. It's really been my guiding light to how I approach playing. How do I get there?" Clowes laughs.

Like Shorter, Clowes is a fan of science fiction, so much so that the title of Ninety Degrees Gravity was lifted from Denis Villneuve's alien-arrival film Arrival (2016) as was the album's second track, "Abbot and Costello," which references the names the film's investigating team give two of the seven-limbed visitors.

The first time Clowes' My Iris quartet played "Abbot and Costello" [check out Rose Hendry's video below] live was in Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, during its 2018 Irish tour. "When we came off stage Ciaran Ryan, the guy who set up the piano for us, said: 'Oh, did you hear the film composer Johann Johansson has died?' Johansson, who composed the music for Arrival had died earlier that very day. "It was really weird," recalls Clowes.

That Irish tour also provided the album's one live track, "Lightning Les," from the quartet's gig at the National Opera House, Wexford. "It was just random chance that a live version ended up on the album," explains Clowes. "The sound guy [Ollie Dempsey] asked if he could record it with his new toy and I said, yeah sure. We did the studio recording pretty much as soon as we got back from Ireland and I didn't listen to the live recording straight away. It was my husband who listened to it first, and he said 'Trish, come and listen to this, it's really great.' I sent it to the guys and thought it would be really nice to have a live track on the album."

One track on the album, the epic "Free to Fall" features Clowes on vocals. For Clowes, there's no great difference between playing tenor saxophone and singing. "Essentially, performing, it feels like the same thing. It's maybe more vulnerable because the voice is not my main instrument, but I kind of like that as well. In this group we all bring our vulnerabilities and put it all out there. It's a chance to frame the music in a slightly different way. It's about color really," Clowes explains.

"Judging by audience responses people connect to the human voice. We play music that is interesting to us as a band, but I also want to communicate with people. I think the voice helps make that connection."

It's not the first time Clowes has sung on one of her recordings, having lent vocals to "Muted Lines" on My Iris (Basho Records, 2017). Clowes commissioned the composition from composer, singer and harper Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian, who incorporated lyrics from a poem by sixteenth century Armenian poet Nahapet Kuchak.

The lyrics address the exile of refugees (Horrocks-Hopayian's own descendants fled eastern Turkey a century ago during the Ottoman government's genocide of Armenians) a theme all too common in today's world. The composition would win Horrocks-Hopayian a BASCA British Composer Award in 2017.

Clowes became more hands on in responding to the global refugee crisis when she became an ambassador for the charity Donate4Refugees. The seed was planted when Clowes received a commission for the BBC Concert Orchestra. "It was going to be a family concert and I thought it could be an interesting opportunity to raise the refugee crisis in an appropriate way," Clowes explains.

"We see the boats and the tragic stories, or the stories of those who have done exceptionally well, but most have us have no idea what it's like for refugees who come to this country. I wanted to find out more."

Clowes got in touch with the Refugee Day Centre in West Croydon, London, who in turn connected her with Amber Bauer, the founder of Donate4Refugees. Bauer had been volunteering at the Refugee Day Centre and, Clowes relates, was determined to make a greater contribution. So, she gave up her job and founded Donate4Refugees. Rather than founding another NGO on the front lines, Donate4Refugees raises money for effective small initiatives already on the ground. They can apply to Donate4Refugees and access money quickly so that they can get aid and assistance to people in need of help without delay.

"Amber's an amazing woman," says Clowes. "She asked me to be an ambassador for her charity and I said, 'yes, of course.' I'm not a full-time charity worker or anything like that but, I try and raise awareness whenever I can."

Clowes doesn't preach or kick up a fuss, instead using her platform in more subtle ways. "The power of suggestion is so incredible. It doesn't have to be blatant," Clowes says. "Black music in America? The amount of strong, powerful, and distressing messages that have run through that music, whether its through Abbey Lincoln or through Joe Henderson's tune titles, it's all there to be seen, heard and absorbed. It's social music," she adds. "You're connected to people and you're affected by people. At times you can't help but be moved to speak out on certain issues, and it should be encouraged more."

Another issue that Clowes has felt obliged to address is the lack of live opportunities for new music. Her response was to found Emulsion, a festival-cum-project designed to present adventurous new music, with no regard for genre.

"Emulsion started because I was frustrated at how restricted programming can be in how different genres of music are presented. I wanted to put on events that were a bit more about what the artists are interested in, rather than having to fit the music into any kind of genre."

The first edition of Emulsion was held in 2012, and although it continues to this day, it is, explains Clowes, something of a moveable feast. "We've never set a time of year or even a venue. We just plan from project to project and, of course, it is limited by money."

In spite of the challenges in presenting contemporary, and often improvised music, Clowes remains undeterred. "It would be easy to get put off by how frustrating it is to present new music, regardless of genre, so I feel it is my little flag, to try and keep commissioning people that you want to work with, not because it's fashionable, but for musical reasons. Anything goes. If someone has a cool idea I try and make it happen."

With all the balls Clowes is juggling, the act of writing her own music can also prove to be challenging. "It's about setting time aside. Sometimes things just come to you and you can just go with it. Often the first things you write are rubbish and it's about getting through that. It's a kind of a confidence thing and trusting that you'll get there," Clowes explains.

"Then sometimes if I haven't got much space to write because I'm busy doing other things this kind of energy—which is difficult to describe—builds up and it's a question of finding a couple of days to start working things out. Other times if I've got an actual deadline, maybe I have a gig and I really want to get a couple of new tunes for it, it's a question of trusting yourself. Composition is just making decisions really," Clowes says, laughing. "Okay, we're going to go with that and see what happens."

Trust is a word that Clowes comes back to time and again: trust in her quartet musicians; trust in her abilities; trust that the muse is never far away. Someone who has shown complete trust in Clowes is Christine Allen of Basho Records. Christine just lets me get on with what I want to do musically," says Clowes. "It's been really amazing to work like that, particularly with the My Iris team."

With Ninety Degrees Gravity Clowes quartet is attracting attention from beyond the UK and Europe, with invitations to both the Rochester International Jazz Festival and the Toronto International Jazz Festival. The live arena is Clowes' laboratory and her playground. "I love writing music and coming up with starting points that celebrate the individuals in the band but I wouldn't want to do it without the live aspect," she says. That's where all the fun is."

One of the biggest buzzes Clowes gets from playing live is from introducing her music to the unconverted. "There's nothing better for me than someone coming up after a gig and saying, 'I've never been to a jazz gig before but I really enjoyed that.'

Despite the challenges of touring in his day age, Clowes remains optimistic about the future of jazz. "I think there are more people studying jazz now. Certainly, at the Guildhall the course is getting bigger, and hopefully with that, more diverse, though there's still a lot of work to be done there," Clowes recognizes.

Having done her degree in a conservatoire Clowes is aware of jazz's sometimes uneasy relationship with formal, academic study. "A conservatoire is like the opposite of where jazz should be, in a way, but on the other hand it's this incredible, highly artistic music that requires such incredible musicianship. The challenge for all of us going forward is to think about how we pass this music onto people without letting ourselves get too affected by the walls of the conservatoire," says Clowes, laughing.

With critical acclaim taking her music her to more and more international audiences, with her own festival pushing musical boundaries and a prestigious academic position to boot, does Clowes feel she has scaled the mountain?

"I think like most musicians you always feel that you are climbing a mountain. I've never had a specific idea in terms of what I want to arrive at. Musically maybe , but I rarely think more than six months to a year in advance. I just feel incredibly lucky every time I get to have an amazing experience.

"You use those experiences to keep you going through all the hard work that is required in between. A friendly mountain, maybe. A mountain with lots of peaks and troughs," laughs Clowes. "It feels like a massive, ongoing experiment. It's really fun."

Photo: Courtesy of Dannie Price
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