"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 energywhich is difficult to describebuilds 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