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Waldo's Gift: Capturing the Moment

Waldo's Gift: Capturing the Moment
Luke Seabright By

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If you were to somehow draw a map of the UK along cultural rather than demographic lines, suddenly London wouldn't be so disproportionately large. After all, the most influential pop group of all time came from a small city a few hundred kilometres north of the capital. Bristol is another town that has carved out a significant place for itself on this map. Today, it is perhaps going through a slight identity crisis, or at least it is having to reinvent itself. Many people still associate it with genres such as trip-hop and drum and bass that in the '90s gave the city huge international exposure. But Bristol's music scene has continued to evolve, and more recently, popular bands such as Idles are helping to put it on the map again.

Like in many UK cities today, Bristol's new jazz scene is thriving. Recently All About Jazz had the opportunity to meet with Alun Elliott-Williams, Harry Stoneham and James Vine, the three members of Waldo's Gift. One of their tracks was featured on the 2019 UK jazz compilation album Whiskey Juliet Foxtrot and they have now released a full length album, Improvisations. The clue is in the name. The album features excerpts from one of their live sets at the Gallimaufry in Bristol from December 2018. It is all fully improvised.

A fascinating feature of spontaneously created music is that it is intrinsically ephemeral, a pure product of the moment. Think of any jazz record (and Improvisations can certainly be considered one): each solo is a recorded trace of an instant of genesis, and had the album been recorded shortly before or after, it would surely sound completely different. This idea of capturing the moment quickly became a sort of obsession for the trio who tried to carry the concept into all the stages of their creative process.

So how might you go about that? By getting an artist to do stream of consciousness painting to the sound of your music. Or by filming a dancer reacting to it for the very first time. The latter scene you can catch in the new music video released for their single "Kaleidoscope." It is an outstanding effort from an exciting new band, and their sound, seamlessly weaving through complex math-rock beats, drum and bass grooves and virtuosic jazz fusion, is one of the most original to come out of the Bristol scene.

All About Jazz: How did the Improvisations project come about?

James Vine: The band is about two and a half years old now. Three years ago me and Alun met in Bristol and we started jamming. We were making some cool sounds and this venue, the Gallimaufry, was looking for something to happen on a regular basis, every Wednesday. A sort of residency. I knew the owner so I told him that I'd just met this guy and we were doing some cool stuff and would he be interested. He agreed to book us a one off gig and see from there. At that time, Harry had just moved to Bristol. Him and Alun had been to university together in Southampton.

AAJ: How did you (James) and Alun meet?

Alun Elliott-Williams: I used to play with James' partner, doing jazz duo gigs. James would often show up, we got to know each other and he eventually suggested we play together. Harry happened to be coming down to Bristol around that time. He was mainly a guitarist before joining the band but I told him to play the bass instead.

JV: The band almost came about because there was this residency gig. We started playing at the Gallimaufry on Wednesdays and as a result of gigging every week, we quickly got bored of always playing the same tunes. So we naturally started improvising more and more, to the point where we ended up doing entire sets of fully improvised music. We got better and better at it and were able to start composing on the fly.

AAJ: What was the musical starting point? What were you aiming for when you first started playing?

AEW: The first stuff we were writing was actually more in the cross-over between metal and math-rock. There were jazz elements, but it was very arranged and composed. However, due to the nature of improvisation, we've since been free to explore whatever we want.

Harry Stoneham: At the time we had actually recorded an EP of completely composed riffs. We had recorded three of our early tunes. But at that stage it wasn't representative of us as a band, so we gave it another year to fully explore the improv thing.

JV: That was basically a math rock EP and quite different to the kind of sound you hear on the Improv record. We were already playing that sort of sound at our gigs but for some reason we didn't think it made sense to record an album of fully improvised music. We had some written tunes we could have recorded, but we felt like that didn't work either. So we had a bit of an identity crisis. After a while, a friend said to us 'you guys are writing an album's worth of music every week at this venue, so record one of the gigs, or record five of the gigs and pick your favourite one.' That's what we did. In December last year we decided to record two gigs and see what happens. No pressure. In the end, everything you hear on that album is taken from one 90-minute set.

AAJ: The sound quality is good, are they used to recording live sets in this venue?

JV: No, the sound is actually pretty DIY. Harry mixed the whole thing. Obviously, doing a gig there every week for two years, we got to know the engineer there really well. He works on much bigger venues and he's a real pro. He was very keen to get involved.

As soon as the concept started growing, this idea of being super honest about the process and recording what happened on that one night, I got kind of obsessed with that philosophy of capturing the moment. In tandem to our gigs at the Gallimaufry, we've been doing these nights where an artist called Holysseus Fly (who is a member of another Bristol band called Ishmael Ensemble) would come and paint during our gigs. We would be playing, and she would do art improv, sort of synaesthesia painting, on a canvas. These nights were super fun. She would always get a fantastic response, and everybody loved her work, so it was really a no brainer to get her to do the album cover. The artwork is one of maybe five paintings that she did during that set and we picked our favourite for the cover.

We then decided to push the idea even further. The mixing process was very honest, there's no frills or add-ins, we just took segments of that gig and cut them into tracks. Then came the idea of the music video. We decided to film someone reacting to the music for the first time. We'd done some shows with a band called Nihilism who are in London. One of their members, a jazz violinist called Saskia Horton , is also a dancer. We'd met her and the whole band when we'd done some shows with them in London and in Bristol. Again, it was an obvious choice. She's a jazz musician and a dancer, she knows improv. It was a no-brainer: if we do a dance video it has to be her.

AAJ: We're talking here about the music video for "Kaleidoscope." So you're filming her reacting spontaneously for the very first time? She's not heard this music before?

JV: The final video you see is probably something like take 4. We didn't give her the track beforehand. We wanted her to react naturally to the music. However, it took a few takes to get the camera and the lighting right. And by take 4 we had it so it's still fresh. It was super exciting to do that and see her appropriate the music in a different way, through dance.

AAJ: In the video you also have superimposed paintings, was that also made spontaneously on the day?

JV: We played back the now finished track to Holysseus Fly and got her to splurge onto A4. I've got them all in the next room, about 300 pieces of A4 paper. Some of them only have a few dots, some have big squiggles, others are completely covered in paint. We asked her again to just react to the music. A friend of ours, Fred, is a visual animator and cinematographer. He directed the video and also does live visuals on our shows. He's almost a part of the band. He animated the video with the paintings. Obviously here it couldn't be fully improvised as it's quite a labour-intensive process. Nonetheless, Fred's process also involved going with what the technology does. There's these brushes you can use in Adobe Premier which does this frame to frame guessing thing. You can make it follow Saskia's hand for example. It's imperfect so you get this weird glitchy effect but we went with that premise of seeing what happens with the tools at our disposition.

AAJ: There's different ways to go about improvising. When you recorded the gig at the Gallimaufry, were you trying to approach the moment as close to blank slates as possible, or did you already have some sketches of structures or melodic motifs?

JV: The mindset of the album was very much let's just go in and see what happens. But there's obviously habits, styles I guess, that we fall into and know how to transition through.

HS: In traditional jazz soloing, you play the head of the tune and then improvise over the chord changes. Every musician has their own vocabulary within that music. What we started to do as a band was develop our own vocabulary together if that makes sense. You develop ways of communicating with each other and familiar ideas that you don't play exactly the same every time. And then there's times when you're truly on the edge of your seat, when you're creating something that you've never ever played before as a group. Over a year or so of gigging we'd developed a catalogue of ideas that we could bring out at different times and allow them to evolve and grow. The only thing we would really think about before a gig is how we were going to open it, what key we would start in for example.

AEW: The start of the album was actually inspired by Jonny Greenwood. It was a textural idea that came from a film score that he did called You Were Never Really There. The whole opening of the album has this wind chime effect that's created by just layering loads of notes on the guitar. There's a chord progression on top of that, and I just took the basic idea of that texture as a template for the opening.

The question is an interesting one when you ask about how prepared you are when you go into improvisation. It leads to the question of how improvised you can really be. Obviously, I'm trying to be as true in the moment as I can possibly be, but there are of course ideas and patterns that I will fall back on. However, the best gigs we have are when we're really trying to push that spontaneity with our instruments. Now, the first Wednesday of every month, we actually get to play with just the trio, and those have become our most experimental nights.

AAJ: Just the trio rather than what?

AEW: On other weeks we often have guests who augment the trio. We also do rework nights where we rearrange the music of producers or composers that we like and turn it into templates for improvisation. They've been great because we've had to learn loads of new music. We've done rework nights of Aphex Twin, Radiohead, Flying Lotus , and that's totally informed our sound. So when it comes to that first Wednesday of the month, that's when we really share pure improvisation between us.

HS: It's become a sort of playground, a safe environment in which we can test ourselves. If you're on a big stage, you don't necessarily want to be going into extremely experimental territory where you can't anticipate the results.

AAJ: You're currently touring for Improvisations. Now that you've got an album with named tracks, are they templates for songs?

AEW: No we never played them again. It's somechat counter-intuitive but what excited a lot of the people coming to see us is that you're not going to see the same set again. That gives a real uniqueness to every single night. Of course, this also adds an extra layer of challenge because, since we have no template, we try to make our improvisations compositionally coherent. For instance, as one of the melodic instruments, I might be saying to myself that I need to be remembering and developing themes. We need to try to make a piece that's a composition as well as having the spontaneity of improvisation. That's been one of the big challenges of this music.

HS: Since the start of this year, we've started treating our sets more like DJ sets. Rather than stopping and starting between pieces, we try to have one complete flow and make a one hour or hour and a half continuous set. The piece might slow down, start changing vibe, then build up and head off into a different direction in one long interconnected journey.

JV: We're very conscious that, depending on how you look at it, you could say our shows are just three guys mindlessly splurging out on stage, but we really want it to be about that connection to the moment. We often explain that concept at the start of the gig. We'll say that we're going to try something now and we want you the audience to accompany us. We're expressing ourselves, connecting to this moment and we want you guys to do the same. It's almost a form of group meditation and we're just a vehicle.

AAJ: A key dimension to improvised music, especially group improvisation, is communication and interplay. It's about being responsive to your partners on stage through active listening. How have you felt that evolve as you've been going through this process?

JV: Going back to the start, we would often shout to each other when we wanted to do something different. At this stage, things were new, we didn't really understand each other's playing, so if you wanted to go quiet, the best way was to shout 'QUIET.' But now it feels a lot more intuitive, although you'll actually hear us shouting at some points in the album. We've never taken a formal approach to non-verbal communication, like Kneebody for example, where the trumpet might play a certain rhythm and that means guitar solo, or drums drop out, something like that. We've never gone that far in creating a language. It's more of an intuitive process where for instance, I know that I can play a certain drum fill and that Harry will respond in a certain way. It comes back to habituation. As we said previously, the most exciting parts of a gig are the moments when we're really on new turf, that's where the most energy probably comes from.

HS: In a way it's a lot like language. If you're improvising with people that you play with regularly, it's a lot like talking to your mates. There's a fluidity and ease about it. We're very luck to be able to play so many gigs together and develop that, not that many bands have that opportunity.

AAJ: Where does your name come from?

JV: Do you know the producer Hudson Mohawke? He released a mixtape called Hudson's Heaters, in 2006 I think, and on that mixtape is a track called "Waldo's gift." It's amazing. Actually, it kind of sums us up, it's got guitars in it, big dirty bass and wonky drums so maybe in a way we've come full circle with it.

HS: That track is actually a reference to a song by Velvet Underground called "The Gift" which mentions a guy called Waldo. We just found this out, we didn't know about this.

AAJ: What do you have to say about the musical ecosystem you're in at the moment, the Bristol scene, what's it like?

AEW: It's more scenes than a scene. There are pockets of different things going on. Bristol isn't very big, but it has this feeling of being big when you see how many artists and creatives are living there. I'm still discovering new bands that I've never heard of, who are based in some corner of Bristol that I'm not familiar with. We've managed to carve a niche for ourselves in a particular scene that gravitates around the Gallimaufry. And we've kind of come up at the same time as a band called Snazzback, that also has a residency there on Thursdays. They've been making waves as well. There's been a lot of momentum in the last two years.

HS: Outside the Gallimaufry, there are also bands like Ishmael Ensemble who've been very successful, and another band called Hippo that we know really well. We put all our stuff out through a collective called Astral Tusk. Bristol is very closely knit, and has a disproportionately large musical community for such a small city. It's the kind of place where you just walk down the street and bump into people you know. You don't really get that in London. It's a great place to cultivate creativity. The cost of living isn't nowhere near as high as in London so you have more time to spend on creative output.

AEW: If you want to start a band, really shape it and get somewhere with it, it's kind of the ideal place. London is a big, chaotic, competitive place. Your opportunities are far greater but the one bane of that is that it can be difficult to really focus on one project.

AAJ: Maybe it's too early to be talking about the next thing, but are you already looking in a new direction?

JV: The Improvisations tour is coming to an end. We're thinking about recording some new stuff which isn't improvised and doing studio work again. It's been such a pleasure doing an improvised show and taking it around the UK. Because we've been doing it a lot in Bristol so people have gotten used to it, but then bringing it to a new place and feeding off that energy as an audience discovers it for the first time, like in the music video, that's been wonderful. However the next step is exploring compositional work and using that as a starting point for improv. Many things in the pipeline, but it's still early days!
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