I’m really delighted to have the opportunity to tour with my quintet in the coming weeks, and am currently in the process of writing a new set of compositions, which we will perform on the tour and then record shortly afterwards. The tour dates are as follows:
24/05/16 – The Spotted Dog, Birmingham
25/05/26 – Dempsey’s, Cardiff
26/05/16 – Soundcellar, Poole
27/05/16 – Fusebox, Leeds
29/05/16 – Future Inns, Bristol (afternoon gig)
30/05/16 – The Wonder Inn, Manchester
31/05/16 – Jazz Café, Newcastle
01/06/16 – The Lescar, Sheffield
02/06/16 – The Vortex, London
The first music I remember discovering in a truly mind-blowing way, that didn’t primarily come from my parent’s record collection but expanded my horizons and changed my sense of the world, was the blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell. The next discovery to have a similar impact was the music of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler – a cassette with Ornette’s ‘Change of the Century’ on one side and Ayler’s ‘The Hilversum Session’ on the other, not-at-all incidentally both featuring Don Cherry. I’ve been thinking recently about these two revelations, as I’ve been writing new music for my quintet and contemplating what I really want to do as a composer.
When I first heard Ornette and Ayler, I immediately and instinctively heard them as intimately related to the blues I already loved – and less obviously heard in both things a spirit very familiar from the liturgical music I heard and sang in synagogue; emotional, mysterious music with an intense vocal quality and sense of complete commitment and abandonment, droning, melancholy yet also joyous, and a collective, communal process of generating melody and harmony. Jazz and blues are the music of a diaspora community. I am not going to explore in depth here the complex history of the origins of jazz, but I think we can all accept that it is in its origin an African-American art form, a communal expression of a people forcibly transported from their homelands into the melting pot that was the early USA. The experience of collective music making as a way of remembering the past, fostering a sense of congregation, mourning loss and celebrating joy is an experience probably common to all diaspora communities, and one which I certainly recognise in my own upbringing in a religious Jewish family.
Comparing communities and drawing parallels between their experiences is always a sensitive and complicated activity, and I’m not trying to make any grand claims here. I am also most definitely not trying to stake any kind of historical claim of Jews to Israel – much too complex a topic for this essay! – but I do feel that the Ashkenazi London community that I grew up in tail end of (another history too complicated for me to do justice to here) was a diaspora community in the sense that its rituals, memories, stories and music drew on a shared sense of coming from somewhere else. This ‘somewhere else’ was not a straightforward concept – my own Jewish family roots were Ashkenazi from Poland and Latvia, but I attended a synagogue with a large Iraqi and Indian congregation alongside the Eastern European one, and was also lucky enough to be exposed to Moroccan, Spanish/Portuguese, Hasidic and other traditions. The beautiful, yearning singing in all of these congregations harked back both to a past in Poland/Morocco/wherever, and a more Biblical-derived sense of place.
In the music I’ve been composing for this tour I’ve been experimenting with drawing on the Jewish music of my childhood as an equivalent source to the way I hear the blues, gospel and African elements in so much of my favourite Jazz. I am not writing music that draws much on Klezmer (much as I love Naftule Brandwein) or that uses Jewish music as a style or genre – I won’t be approaching Tzaddik with the new album! Rather I want to draw on Jewish liturgical music as melodic material, and as emotional material. I have used snippets of remembered melodies as starting points to compose from, and tried to find ways to draw on the emotional experience of a congregation singing these tunes that is applicable to five improvising musicians.
The emotional content of music is of course much harder to define than the melodic content. I feel that the synagogue experiences of my childhood directly inform my conviction that improvised music should be a transcendental experience. I have often been reminded at gigs of the impact of being involved in a roomful of people experiencing abandonment to some kind of higher truth or spiritual experience through singing together. Although I am not religious as an adult, this experience feels directly related to the impact of concerts I’ve heard from the likes of Evan Parker, Paul Dunmall, Wadada Leo Smith, Lol Coxhill, Tony Malaby and countless others. One night in particular has always stuck in my mind, hearing a specific gig in February 2009 when Evan Parker, Paul Dunmall, Paul Rogers and Tony Levin levitated the Vortex… that intensity, commitment, engagement feels to me like one of the most wonderful things about this music, and something I always aspire to in my own work.
These are only some of the things I’ve been thinking about. Other recent influences have included becoming quite obsessed with the novels, poetry and criticism of the astonishing writer Nathaniel Mackey. I’ve also been investigating and falling in love with the incredible work of trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith, as well as poring over the Billie Holiday complete Columbia recordings, The New York Art Quartet album ‘Mowhawk’ and the recently released Sonny Rollins Village Gate 1962 boxset… These and countless other things all feed into the complex mix that is influence at any given time, but this essay is already by far the longest thing I’ve ever written about my music, so I might leave it at that for now!