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  • Jay Chappell

Nat Birchall Interview

Known for a series of albums exploring the cosmic end of jazz on the Pharaoh Sanders/John Coltrane axis, saxophonist Nat Birchall has released an LP of full dread roots reggae and dub with studio maestro Al Breadwinner. Ian Lawton quizzed him about the genesis of their brilliant ´Sounds Almighty’ album, the current wave of new jazz, saxophones, his favourite hornsmen, life outside the mainstream and how two blokes in the north of England managed to release a record in 2018 that sounds like it came straight out of Lee Perry’s Black Ark.

IL: Although primarily known as a jazz musician I knew that you had a deep appreciation of Jamaican music. Can you say something about the journey that you’ve been on to finally put out a reggae/dub record?
NB: Even though I started out as a big reggae fan, when I started playing I thought I should explore jazz because I heard that if you can play jazz you can play anything, and I knew that the Jamaican players who played ska into reggae were originally jazz musicians, Roland Alphonso, Tommy McCook, Ernest Wranglin, Don Drummond etc.  I ended up getting very deep into jazz and even though I played in all kinds of groups before I played jazz I didn’t really play any reggae music apart from a few occasions in the 1990s and then early 2000s. I had thought about maybe doing something in the genre over the years but never got around to it until Dom Sotgiu and Bob Harding (both originally from the Blood & Fire label) asked me to do an album for their King Spinna label. I wasn’t sure if they wanted a reggae album or a jazz album so when I asked what they wanted Dom said “anything you like”. So I had a think about what I would really like to do and then told him “Kind of Tommy McCook meets Yabby You, recorded at the Black Ark and mixed at King Tubby’s” Which to me is an ultimate combination of musical concepts and recording and mixing techniques! I knew Al Breadwinner would be the perfect man to work with because he understands all the different musical styles and recording and mixing styles of Jamaican music, especially Lee Perry at the Black Ark. In the end King Spinna weren’t in a position to put out the album for various reasons so myself and Al just put it out ourselves.

How did you connect with Al Breadwinner?
I first met Al when Matt Halsall took me round to his house one day. I was looking through his record box while he was playing some music on the hifi. I was looking at his 7″ 45s and said something like “I see you’re a big Lee Perry/Black Ark fan. But I don’t know this one.” meaning the track that was playing in the background. Al said “This isn’t Lee Perry, it’s me.” It was a track he’d recorded at his home studio in Manchester and it sounded incredibly Black Ark-like. I knew right away he must really know what he’s doing to be able to capture that sound. Many have tried but I’d never heard anything so close before.

It must have been a great honour to have Vin Gordon playing on the record. How did that happen?
I’m very particular about sound, it’s very important and overrides anything you might play in terms of notes or even rhythm. I had actually thought about trying to get Vin on one of my jazz recordings because sound-wise it’s the same concept as Black American jazz, part of the whole African sound concept that extends into the whole diaspora. (That sound is largely absent in most “European jazz” which is often coming from a European classical background.) But it remained just a thought until I had the chance to do the reggae album. I then discovered that Vin had been playing with an old friend of mine, trumper player David Fulwood who I had played with years ago with Dubdadda. I contacted David and he put me in touch with Vin. Vin’s sound is THE sound of reggae trombone, he’s played on 90-odd percent of the recordings from Jamaica that have trombone on them, certainly since Don Drummond passed. So he has really written the book on that subject! His sound has been in my head since I first started to listen to reggae music, and his playing on songs like “Blood Of Africa” or “Real Rock” or “Fisherman Special” are profound in their depth of expression and soulfulness. It was a long shot but it was a dream come true when he came along to the session.

On The Breadwinners ‘Dubs Unlimited’ and some of his other cuts, the sax player is listed as Stally. Who is this mysterious Stally who pops up on your album playing baritone sax? 
Stally is a guy who has been on the scene in the Manchester area since the 1970s. He has played in many touring bands backing visiting American artists like BB King and the like. He’s a very unassuming guy and prefers to stay out of the limelight these days, but he’s a great player and has a very natural musical style which fits very well with this kind of music. I’ve known him for maybe 25 years but hardly ever see him because our paths don’t really cross much. To be honest I don’t even know his real name, when I first met him he was known as “Stalwart” which is now shortened to “Stally”. I needed some deeper horn sound on a couple of the tracks on the album so we asked him to bring his baritone to the studio to do some subtle but very effective overdubs.

Al is known as a multi-instrumentalist but I was surprised to read that you play bass on the record. Do you play a lot of bass?
Haha, I don’t play bass at all! What happened was that I was trying to write bass lines at the piano (which I also don’t play…) but I couldn’t generate the right rhythmic feel for reggae. So I thought I could buy a cheap electric bass and work them out on that, which I did the same day. I took it home and put on the “This Is Augustus Pablo” LP and started to work out some of the basslines. I played guitar a little bit for a couple of years before I took up saxophone so I understood how the bass is tuned. I really enjoyed trying to play it and then thought that if I could manage it we (Myself and Al) could lay down the bass and drums together first which would give the music a better feel than just doing one instrument at a time. I got really into it and it made me hear the role of the bass in the music, and how it affects the dynamic of the rhythm, in a different and much clearer way. The hand drums were always going be a part of the record, I’ve always been very drawn to the Jamaican hand drum styles, either in drum ensembles like Count Ossie or Ras Michael etc, or just an individual player on a reggae track. The music of Yabby You (Vivian Jackson) uses hand drums in a very special way and it was part of the sound that I envisaged for this record. I’ve always dabbled with hand drums at home and a couple of years ago I bought a really nice sounding djembe drum that sounded like a Jamaican hand drum, and that’s what I played on this record.

Al plays most instruments, bass, drums, guitar, piano, organ, percussion etc etc. and he builds his rhythm tracks himself bit by bit, with occasional contributions from visiting friends. When I decided to play bass on the record it was a little perverse because even though Al plays all these instruments he is primarily a bass player! But Al understands all the different playing styles of the Jamaican musicians who developed this music, on most instruments, and he can always find ways of playing to fit the particular song we are putting together. He has really studied this music as a musician and also as a recording engineer and also as a mixing engineer. He really knows his stuff, inside out.

What was the recording process? How did you go about developing and laying down the tracks?
As I mention above, I wrote the songs from the bass line. I would play the line to Al and if I had a concept for the drums in mind I would mention it, but mostly I would play and Al would find the right drum thing to compliment it. We would then record the bass and drums to tape. Then we would overdub instruments, usually guitar first, Al would sometimes hear something that would fit or he would experiment a bit until we both agreed what he should use. Then we would add organ or sometimes also piano, both myself and Al played both and I can’t always remember who played what on which track! Al showed me the basic concept of reggae organ because I’d never played the instrument before. We then would add hand drums, I think it’s mostly me but there are some tracks where we both play and at least one where it’s just Al playing. We would add the percussion next, Al mostly did the playing but there are a couple of tracks where I played a bit as well. Sometimes I might have had a definite idea of what percussion to use and how it should sound but for the most part it was Al experimenting and me saying “yes!” or “not that sound…”  I then would take the basic rhythm tracks home and find horn lines for them. When Vin and David came up for the session we put all the horns down at the same time, Vin got very involved with the session and made many suggestions and contributions to the parts and arrangements. We would take the basic line that I had written and find harmonies between us. Once we had that worked out we did a take with melodies and solos, the whole track at once.

Are you both based in Manchester proper, or in the wider conurbation? Is Madchester a good place to be at the moment?
Al is based in Audenshaw which is on the outskirts of Manchester. I live a little further out, about 30 mins from Manchester centre, actually in the Northernmost tip of Derbyshire. It’s more rural, lots of hills, which I love. I’m not really a frequent visitor to Manchester these days, I used to spend a lot of time there playing, looking for music etc. But I’ve never really felt that I was a part of any particular scene there, my thing was a always different to what most other people were about. I would engage with different musicians of course, but I don’t think I was ever a part of any like-minded group of people.

Al obviously knows his way around a studio and has initiated himself into analogue reggae engineering and mixing wizardry and equipment? What gear is he using? Have you got a good understanding of reggae/dub production techniques as well?
Al really knows his stuff, I mean REALLY knows his stuff. I can’t tell you exactly what his equipment is, because I never remember that stuff – I’m the least technically-minded person ever. I know it’s all vintage gear from the 70s or early 80s for the most part. I have an understanding of the sounds of the production techniques but not much idea of how they were achieved. Al knows that stuff intimately. In preparing for the album, and also each day when I would go to his studio, I would take records and say that this is the kind of sound I like, or this particular dub effect or this drum sound etc. Al would know exactly how it was done, even what equipment was used and how it was used to get it! When we were mixing I would sometimes ask him about certain things in the dub mix and he would begin to explain how the desk works and how different effects are made to sound a certain way by routing the effect through the channels in a particular way etc.  But after a few seconds my eyes would glaze over because I just don’t understand the technical terms!

Dub is often seen as producer’s music or mixer’s music, as opposed to musician’s music, you don’t seem to share that attitude. Why is that?
Well it’s the engineer’s music of course, in that it’s the work of the engineer alone rather than the musician. Perhaps you mean that some people see it as “music for engineers” rather than “music for musicians”? Either way it’s been a part of the music in my head since 1972 so I accept it unconditionally. But I think it’s important, and not just in this context, that I was a big listener before I was a musician. I think that has an effect on the way we receive and then accept or reject music. And I’ve been careful, as a jazz player, not to end up making “music for musicians” I don’t mean to say that I just play what people want to hear, it’s more complex than that, but I’ve always tried to hear my own music as a listener, not just as a musician.

I remember in the 70s, in Black Music magazine, the great writer Carl Gayle used to routinely give Dub LPs 3 stars because it was the engineer’s work, not the musicians’ and he saw it as taking the credit away from the musician. I always thought that was unfair because the music was so great. The engineer is nothing without the musician but the musician definitely needs the engineer. I think that also taught me, when I later became a musician, to not fall into the trap of thinking that musicians are above people like engineers or DJs etc. We all have our work to do and we all need each other, what matters is the quality of the music we produce.

I think it’s worth pointing out that Al did all the engineering for the album of course, but I was very involved with the process and I did a lot of “I don’t particularly like that sound too much…” or “Yes, that sound!”  because I had some definite ideas of how I wanted the record to sound. But ultimately the sound of the album is the combination of myself and Al’s working together, I couldn’t overstate his immense contribution to the music.

At different points along the way in making the album we weren’t sure whether to make a purely instrumental album first and make a dub LP afterwards, but I was very keen to have Dub represented on the LP to some degree or other. I think we ended up with a nice balance of music with Dub being very present even through the instrumental passages.

What riddims are used on Sounds Almighty?
All the riddims are original riddims. Some may sound reminiscent of other songs perhaps but there’s no intentional copying of existing riddims. I did think about maybe doing a recut of a classic or two, but I didn’t really want to do it because I wanted it to be as original as possible. It might be argued that English musicians in 2018 can’t be making “original” music if it sounds like Jamaican music from 1976 but that’s a different discussion.

How did you first get turned on to music generally and roots reggae particularly?
I think like any other 13 or 14 year old at the time I was attracted to pop/rock music to some degree, largely because it had a presence in the mainstream so I was exposed to it, and I bought a few 45s in that vein, although the very first one was Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft”  But then I bought Bruce Ruffin’s “Mad About You” which was a big hit in 1972. It was a very pop-like reggae song, and I bought the album as well, but then a friend gave me a copy of Ken Boothe’s “Freedom Street” which was a much more raw arrangement. I don’t recall what I bought next but something in the sound of the non “pop-like” reggae attracted me to it and I started buying all the records I could find. There used to be a second hand record shop in Blackburn that had hundreds of old 7″ singles for 10p each, it was mostly pop music but I would go through all of them and just routinely buy all the reggae ones. I would buy any new reggae I could find, which wasn’t very much, if it didn’t look too “poppy” to me. But back then you could pick up older Trojan and Pama label LPs for nothing, 25p from Rumbelows or Woolworths, I just bought all the ones I saw. Then when Black Music magazine came out at the end of 1973 I could find out about new releases and order them from my local record shop. That’s how I found out about Grounation, the Count Ossie/Cedric Brooks triple album. I think that record probably sowed the seeds for my becoming a horn player in the end. That was certainly the deepest and most moving music I’d heard up to that point. I still loved and bought love songs of course, from all the different eras of Jamaican music, but Roots really took off in 1974-5 and in 1975 I started to go to Liverpool once a week on day release from my job to attend college. I quickly found out about a reggae record shop in Toxteth and began going every lunch hour to buy pre-release albums and 45s. I was late back to college every day! And then the extremely tiny record shack right next door to the college (the first incarnation of Probe Records) started stocking reggae in 1976 so I started going there to buy records as well.

Steel Pulse, Misty in Roots and Creation Rebel were the first bands that got me into reggae. Did you connect with some of the British roots reggae stuff back in the day?
Yes of course, I went to see Steel pulse in 1976 or 1977 when they used to wear the KKK robes, they were fantastic. I also saw Matumbi when they supported Ian Dury on tour. I saw one of the group in the bar after and asked him if it was him who did a song I had on 45 “Eighteen Thirty Six” which was credited to Guardian Angel but was really Matumbi undercover. He was really shocked that I knew it was him and said “How did you know that??!!” We ended up going along with him to their hotel and we hung with them and the Blockheads, playing pool. One of the band lent us their key so we could buy drinks at the bar, it was my first experience of meeting “name-brand” professional musicians and they were incredibly friendly and gracious. I used to buy some Steel Pulse records but I preferred the more rootsy sound of Matumbi, especially the series of dub albums they did under the name “4th Street Orchestra”  I never really got into Creation Rebel, for one thing I just didn’t see their albums around in 1978 but it was also around that time that I started playing saxophone and started to listen to jazz more and more. Misty are probably the finest of all the UK groups for me, I saw them at a Rock Against Racism concert in Leeds in 1980 or 81, they were seriously good, deep and heavy. Their aesthetic was, and still is, the creation of serious works, commercial success is neither here nor there to them I think. Which is as I believe it should be.

What motivated you to start playing sax? I know you were a late starter.
What happened was that I dug out a pile of records that featured saxophone and flute, to lend to a couple of friends. One of them wanted to buy a saxophone and the other wanted to buy a flute, so I lent them these records to listen to. In so doing I kind of discovered that I actually really liked the saxophone sound. Then one day around this time I went into a local record shop and saw a saxophone in the back room of the shop. I asked the guy about it and he said he was going to put it in the window as a display kind of thing, it was an antique alto from the 1920s, ancient thing. Long story short I gave him £20 and took it home, intending to just mess around with it. But something about the sound really took a hold of me and I decided I should actually get a half decent one and take it more seriously. So I got some money together and bought a vintage Conn alto and a tutor book and started to have lessons. But never intending to actually be a musician of course.

Any words of encouragement for other late starters? 
It’s the same advice for anyone, regardless of how old you are.

Practice fixes everything.

Nothing will stop you from learning apart from yourself.

Invest as much time as you possibly can, both playing and listening, at the expense of everything else.

When I started I had no intention of becoming a “real musician”, but I soon discovered that this thing had a much deeper meaning to me, something I hadn’t suspected when I first started. And I thought about how unlikely it would be for me to actually get somewhere with it, in terms of ability. But I rationalised that no one was going to knock on my door one day and tell me I had to stop because I’d started too late, so I resolved to continue no matter what. And from that point my life had a purpose, even if I never became a full time musician I might be able to achieve a standard that I could one day be proud of.

So I just kept, and keep, going. Regardless of the obstacles and failures along the way I just kept at it. My progress has been very slow and often painful. But I don’t give up easily, I’m climbing the mountain inch by inch!

What were your formative experiences as a sax player? Who did you first start playing with, or guesting with?
I think the most important “formative” influences are what we listen to and our motivations to play. The sound we get from the saxophone is largely determined by how we think it “should” sound, so when I started to first breath into the instrument I expected it to sound like Tommy mcCook and Rolad Alphonso, Cedric Brooks, John Coltrane. But also the intention makes us hold the note a certain way, if you want to impress people you will make it sound a certain way, if you have no desire to inflate your ego then it will sound different. It might sound overly simplistic but there’s a lot of other stuff involved of course and we have to practice to refine all the details. But your motivation colours the note. My great friend David Angol says “The tone doesn’t lie”.

I played with different groups when I started, just for the experience of playing. But you can’t play jazz if you’re a beginner on the instrument. Back in the day there were so many big bands or dance bands in this country you could maybe play 3rd alto in a band and muddle through as you learned. But that ended long ago, so I played with post-punk bands, soul-rock bands, jazz funk, jazz rock. I probably played in more bands than I needed to in terms of just getting experience, but you have to try to learn from your experiences, both good and bad.

For the most part the groups I played with were involved with a very different aesthetic and very different motivations than my own so they didn’t actually contribute to my musical personality other than to confirm that it wasn’t what I should be doing. I did try to play in the style that the music demanded but always failed miserably. I used to beat myself up about it, especially when I eventually became a full time musician. But I gradually learned that because I actually had no desire to play that music in the first place that the process that goes on within me that eventually results in music just wasn’t operating in that musical situation.

Did you play on any records before you started releasing under your own name?
Nothing that was really released no. I played on some unreleased recordings with a lot of the groups I played with but I don’t think anything came out.

You play some soprano sax as well. Was that something you picked up later? I presume a lot of sax players play tenor and soprano, and not alto, because of the massive influence of Coltrane generally.
I got my first soprano when I’d been playing for maybe five or six years. I’ve had maybe 5 or 6 over the years but usually have had to sell them when things got really tough. I’ve managed to hold onto one for 10 years now, so maybe things are getting a little better!

Certainly the influence of John Coltrane is why a lot of people play both tenor and soprano. But they are also in the same key, B flat, which makes things a little easier. The alto, like the baritone, is in E flat. But I also like the contrast from the tenor to the soprano which is an octave above the tenor. The difference between the alto to the soprano isn’t so big, just a fifth, so the contrast isn’t so great. But there are people who play alto and soprano of course.

I played alto for a year when I first started, as most people do. But I changed to tenor because, apart from some exceptions, most of the players I listened to were tenor players.

I think to some degree, and with some exceptions, we are usually one or the other. You can be a tenor player who also plays alto, or vice versa. But we usually have a stronger personality on one more than the other. And I really believe in having a musical personality, an identity. Some people might think I just sound like John Coltrane, but if you listen properly you can hear that I really don’t and that I have my own sound, even if it is coming from the same “school” as it were.  But all my favourite players have a very strong voice and concept on their instrument. I’ve never been into being an “efficient” musician who can play all the woodwind family equally well but have no personal sound, it just never appealed to me. Which is not meant as a put-down, it’s just not my thing.

For the musicians out there could you say something about the actual saxophones you are playing?
For most of my playing life (39 years) I’ve played vintage Selmer tenors. I’ve had 4 different ones, starting with a 1952 Super Action (Now universally referred to as Super Balanced Action or SBA) then a 1963 Mark VI, then a 1960 Mark VI and then a 1949 SBA. I’ve never liked modern saxophones, apart from the odd Yanagisawa maybe, and I never got on with the keywork of other vintage tenors like Conn or King. But something started to happen in my head a few years ago and I had the urge to find a new Japanese tenor, I’m not exactly sure why. Long story short I bought a new model from a friend of mine. It was a Wood Stone New Vintage made by Ishimori who are based in Tokyo. It’s supposedly based on vintage Selmer horns but it absolutely has its own thing going on. It’s by far the best saxophone I’ve ever played and I’ve been happily playing it now for three years or more. I just love the sound and the feel and just the way it lets me play. It’s maybe 5 or 6 years old but I’m really not sure. The serial number is 29, the same date as my birthday!

My soprano is a Selmer Mark VI from 1964. I’ve had it for about 11 years I think. I’ve had 2 other Selmer sopranos, a 1970s Mark VI and I bought a new “Super Action 80” about 30 years ago, but this 1964 one is the best one I’ve had without doubt.

I know you like to talk about other musicians and recordings. Can you just wax lyrical about a few of your favourite sax players. Who are your most inspirational saxophone colossi from both jazz and reggae and what is so special about each? Give me the musician’s perspective.
Well the first saxophone players I listened to were the Jamaican ones, Tommy McCook, Cedric Brooks and Roland Alphonso. Then the very first jazz record I bought was John Coltrane’s “Blue Train”  I could identify his sound as being in the same vein as the Jamaican players, and Trane was a big influence on them of course.  So these were the players that inspired me both to play in the first place but also to try to develop a certain way, sound-wise and concept-wise. Other players that I discovered since then have had some impact too, particularly John Gilmore who played with Sun Ra for so long. They all inspired me one way or another but the first thing is the sound. They all had a very vocal and expressive sound that seemed to say something to me as a listener, like they were speaking directly to me. There are some current players who have inspired me too, JD Allen is certainly one of them. He has a really great expressive sound and I can really relate to the way he plays without any attempt to prove that he can play fast etc, he plays pure music straight from the soul.

For you as a musician, what’s different about playing jazz and reggae?
The main difference is a rhythmic one, for one thing the pulse is much looser in jazz and the dynamic level changes much more during any particular piece of music. The rhythm is much more even or regular in reggae and there’s less room for interaction between the different players. But they both have their challenges and ultimately they are both about musical expression. I think one of the reasons Dub is such a satisfying musical concept is that it gives the music a similar effect that varying the intensity or rhythmic tension has in playing jazz. It breaks down the regular groove into something else and opens up hitherto unknown space in the music. I also think this is why I’ve never been convinced about trying make “Dub jazz”, it’s unnecessary because the music allows the same thing to happen by the way the musicians play together.

You seem to be drawn to music that has a deep spiritual or religious component and your records, with their very evocative titles, are often identified as ‘spiritual jazz’. Can you say something about that?
I’ve always been into things that transport me somewhere. Whether it’s music or films or books etc. I believe music should transcend the notes, a film should transcend the plot etc. There should be something else that you can get from it other than what appears to be there on the face of it.

“Spiritual” can mean many things, not necessarily religious of course. It tends to mean something other than material things, i.e. of the spirit rather than of the physical. Or of the inner person instead of their posessions. As I’ve learned about the music, and why I like certain music and why I don’t like other music, I’ve learned about myself and what makes me tick, and about life and why it is the way it is. All these things are related and are the cause or the effect of the others. Once I realised this I understood why I can’t play pop music, or why I can’t play really fast to “show off” etc. Once you manage to remove your ego from the act of making music, (and if you are making music for your god then that has the same effect) then the music takes on its own life and is much the better for it. I believe music should tell a story, it may not have words but the listener is taken on a journey and feels like they have had an “experience” of some sort.

As for tags, Spiritual Jazz is as good, or bad, as any other I think. I’ve thought about it many times and wondered if such names/categories are necessary, but imagine going into a record shop with everything filed just alphabetically. I’ve actually been in shops like that and it’s hard work!

Mostly though these tags are coined by writers, like the word “jazz” itself, not by musicians. And the writers then talk about “musical boundaries” that musicians are supposedly afraid or reluctant to breach. But musicians tend not to think that way at all, they just play the way they want to play, it’s that simple.

Why do you think there seems to be such a resurgence of interest in the music of more mystically/spiritually inclined jazz musicians – I’m thinking of sell out Sun Ra Arkestra gigs, that great Alice Coltrane album on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop, Matthew Halsall’s stuff, Heliocentrics, Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA, you! 
I really don’t know, sometimes these things are always there but are ignored by the press/media until a little buzz starts about something, then they feel they have something to talk about. Usually it’s been there all along but off the radar. Billy Harper has been playing perhaps the mightiest example of this kind of music since the mid 1970s, non stop, but no one talks about him. I saw Sun Ra, the REAL Sun Ra Arkestra, 3 times in the 1980s. But he passed and then Marshall Allen took over the band. I guess it took a while before that was accepted as being a decent substitute maybe? But also things go in circles and there’s a younger audience now who are discovering all this great music. Same thing happened with reggae, Blood And Fire made an awful lot of hitherto unavailable music widely available and turned on a huge amount of younger listeners who weren’t around when the music first came out. And some of those new listeners in turn make their own similar music, and then they create a new audience etc etc.

But I really don’t know, I’m just a musician!

Are you engaged with a particular spiritual tradition or do you have some kind of spiritual practice, and if so does it inform your playing?
If you do it a certain way making music is spiritual practice. Living your day to day life is spiritual practice. I don’t follow any particular creed if that’s what you mean. I study certain beliefs and glean from them what I think I need to, but I follow my own path. I believe it was Gandhi who said that he liked to keep the windows of his house open so that the winds of other cultures could blow through them, but that he never let them blow so strong that they blew him over. I have a similar view.

And Charlie Parker said “Music is my religion”.  I believe music truly is a healing force if played with the right intention and if listened to attentively. So your life, your personality, your music, they are the same thing.

These days we hear a lot about cultural appropriation. I’ve often had uneasy feelings when encountering white musicians making ‘reggae’ – singers with Jamaican accents, that sort of thing. What’s your take on all this? How do musicians navigate this stuff?
I don’t really know anything about that, that’s just some catch phrase doing the rounds to me. I just play the music I love. When I visited Jamaica people would say “It doesn’t matter (about) the colour of your skin, it’s what is in your heart.” And that’s the simple truth of it right there.

How do you think your music has progressed over the years? Which recordings are you most happy with?
It’s very difficult for me to gauge how my music has progressed, I’d like to think it’s got better, in all ways, because that’s what we aim for as musicians. But it’s very difficult, or impossible, to be objective about our own music. The only time I hear it as it actually is is when I hear it unknowingly. Otherwise I know it’s me so I hear it a certain way. As a musician you have to try to improve all the time, the only way to do that is to work on your weaknesses. And the only way to hear our weaknesses is to listen for them. So we tend to hear our own playing in a critical way, and we tend to hear other people’s playing in a more accepting way. On the rare occasion that I do hear myself without realising it I always think it sounds great and I wonder who it is, but as soon as I realise it’s actually me it doesn’t sound so good!

So sometimes I hear something of mine from years ago and think that I’ve got better since then, but other times I hear it and think it was maybe better back then! The psychology of listening is very complex.

Shabaka Hutchings had a rant after the Mobo Awards a couple of years back and listed you amongst ‘young jazz acts making waves in the uk’  that were being failed by the Mobos! What’s your perspective on the current UK jazz renaissance? I was at Field Day festival at the beginning of June and I thought it was amazing to see so many people going mad for Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd, Mammal Hands and Sons of Kemet etc. I’ve never seen such enthusiasm for saxophone solos!
Bless Shabaka for giving me a mention, but I’m hardly a “young jazz act”! But I appreciate being included in his list, sincerely. But I don’t really give any importance whatsoever to the Mobos or any other award to be very honest. They tend to give a distorted view of the reality of the music being made, and it just serves to emphasise the praise and raise being heaped on a few while denying the majority. I find awards to be a very capitalistic thing to be frank, and I can live without them. I see it as politics of the music business, which has nothing to do with music.

I don’t really know about the so-called renaissance, most of what I’ve heard I’ve heard before, but then people could say that about my music of course. I haven’t heard anything really deep yet but then I’m not expecting to.

I was around in the mid 1980s when jazz was hip for a few years again. It was good for people like Courtney Pine and Andy Sheppard who were coming up at just the right time and were the right age, but otherwise it was all crappy pop bands with a saxophone player who snuck in through the jazz door when no one was looking!

Time will tell as with all things.

Is it getting you any more gigs!?
Is what getting me any more gigs? Whatever it is, no! The older I get the fewer gigs I get!

Who of the young players bubbling up do you admire?
I haven’t heard anything of any real depth yet so I can’t really comment. I recall an interview with Thelonious Monk where someone asked him what he thought of some of the young players in the sixties. He said “I can’t be too impressed” which was because he’d come up playing with Coleman Hawkins, with Charlie Parker, with Miles Davis. He had Sonny Rollins in his band, he had Trane in his band. I haven’t played with anyone like that of course, but I saw and heard people like John Gilmore, Dewey Redman, Charles Lloyd, Pharoah Sanders, Bheki Mseleku, Billy Harper, Art Blakey, Miles Davis. I was spoiled really. I haven’t heard anyone from this country come anywhere near their musical power.

There are a few young players in the states that are really great, Ben Solomon is one, Jovan Alexandre is another. But the world is fascinated with youth!

Do you collect reggae and dub on vinyl?
I don’t see myself as a collector, I started buying records at the end of 1971 so I could hear the music when I wanted to. Then I would buy reggae records to hear them, because you sure weren’t going to hear them on the radio! The only way to hear the music then and especially where I lived, was to seek it out and buy it. So I ended up with a “collection” as a side effect of that I suppose.

I still buy reggae on vinyl yes of course, I never really stopped. As to how many, I haven’t counted them since about 1973 so I’ve no idea!

What are your best vinyl finds? Any crate digging dreams realised!?
The “crate digging” thing is a relatively recent phenomenon. Someone told me I was an “original crate digger” some years ago, I wasn’t sure what they were talking about because it’s just something I’ve always done. Finding rare things is always nice but really it’s always just been about trying to find great music. It’s nice to find original presses of things nowadays because they tend to sound a lot better. But I buy represses as well sometimes. Most of my great finds are from back in the day before they were being sought after. I bought things like Clifford Jordan’s “Glass Bead Games” and Byard Lancaster’s “Funny Funky” for a few quid in the early 80s. I did find an original copy of “Lee Morgan Volume 3” on Blue Note for £5 about 12 years ago. But I sold it on ebay for £600 because I needed the money.

I know you’ve been to Jamaica. Who and what did you encounter? Did it help you to appreciate Jamaican music? Any tales to tell?
I was only there for a couple of weeks. I tagged along with someone from Manchester who I knew a little bit. I had some money from an industrial injury payout and I was thinking about going to New York. But I bumped into this guy and he was about to go to Jamaica the following week. It was February and another friend had just come back from New York and said it was unbelievably cold. The guy going to Jamaica said I could join him so I went for the warmer option! I could only arrange a flight for the week after he was going so I left my flight number on his answerphone (This was before mobile phones) the day before he flew out and hoped he’d get it.

Luckily he met me at the airport so all was good.

I have some tales but not many that can be printed!

Jamaica was wild, we stayed at my friend’s cousins’ house in Clarendon which is country. We also stayed at another cousin’s in Savannah La Mar. They were relatively well off because they had nice concrete houses, there are a lot of wooden shacks in Jamaica with corrugated iron roofs – “zinc fence” style. I stayed in deep country for two weeks with a couple of visits to Kingston, mostly to Caymanas Park for horse racing!

We visited Black Scorpio studio but there was a session going on so we couldn’t go inside. We went to the shop at the back and I bought some records though.

But it wasn’t the 70s you know, that would have been a time to go!

We went to a couple of dances including a really great one with Coco Tea, Sanchez and Luciano. Luciano was relatively new to the scene then and was wearing the classic striped three piece suit with felt hat.

In some ways it was like going to a different planet. Everything is so very different, the way people behave or just the way they move. The unfamiliarity had a strange effect on me, I think it was possibly culture shock. But after a couple of days it was fine, and then I had to adjust again when I got back to the UK!

But in some ways it was all very familiar, most of the everyday things you encounter have been sung about, and the food and the drink and the music were all already known to me for the most part. But it’s rough out there and you’re very aware of it. If you go on holiday to Jamaica and just stay in the tourist hotel then you really don’t get the real Jamaica. The people I met were very nice and were often very surprised to see a white man deep in the country. Some were very happy that I was seeing the real Jamaica and not doing the tourist thing. I didn’t really see another white person outside of the airport all the time I was there and I possibly got a little sense of what it might have been like for Jamaicans when they first came to this country and saw only white people.

But the thing about the way people move or walk or dance or talk, all that is in the music, but I didn’t really make that connection until I was there. The music had always made perfect sense to me, it wasn’t something I ever struggled with. But when I was there, the heat, the smells, the sounds, the rhythm of the people, it all made the music seem even more logical.

My friend had met a girl just before I got there and he was spending a lot of time with her, so I pretty much hung out with yardies who I didn’t know from Adam for the two weeks I was there. But it was cool and I felt very privileged to be there instead of at a hotel at the beach.

There was one memorable meeting with three young rude boy type guys who had turned up at the house one day who were friends of one of the cousins. They were all very enthused to see me in the heart of the country and proclaimed “Yeah man, you are hardcore, Hardcore Future Man!” I think it was a great compliment but I’m not entirely sure!

Finally. Give us five bangin’ roots reggae or dub tecords according to Nat Birchall.
1. King Tubbys meets Rockers Uptown – Augustus Pablo/King Tubby (Yard Music, JA) 1976/7
Maybe the best dub album ever, maybe depending on what mood I’m in. But this is King Tubby in fine style mixing some of Pablo’s most enduring rhythms. And in fantastic Stereo, very rare for the time. Very subtle use of stereo but very inventive.

2. Chant Down Babylon Kingdom a.k.a. Walls Of Jerusalem a.k.a King Tubby Meet Vivian Jackson – Yabby You/King Tubby (Nationwide UK/Prophets JA) 1976
One side is vocal by Yabby You & The Prophets, the other side is King Tubby dubs of the same songs. Again in brilliantly inventive stereo, some of Yabby You’s best songs and rhythms and some of Tubby’s best mixing.

3. King Tubby Meets The Upsetter At The Grass Roots Of Dub (Fay Music, UK/Total Sounds, JA) 1974
Supposedly (according to the sleeve notes) one side mixed by Tubby, one side by Lee Perry. But in reality, to my ears at least, all rhythm tracks recorded at the Black Ark by Lee Perry but mixed by King Tubby at his studio. Some tracks feature great playing from my man Vin Gordon on trombone and from Tommy McCook on tenor sax and flute. Others are mostly heavy drum and bass mixes including a wicked hand drum piece. Tubby’s dub mixing style was really beginning to open up into new areas at this time.

4. Dubbing With The Observer – King Tubby/Observer All Stars (Attack, UK/Observer, JA) 1975
Some of Niney The Observer’s toughest rhythms mixed down to perfection by King Tubby. Including a killer dub of Dennis Brown’s horns laden “Give A Helping Hand” which has a very Afro-beat kind of feel to it. Tuffer than tuff.

5. The Message Dubwise – Prince Buster All Stars (FAB, UK) 1972?
I make no apologies for having 4 King Tubbys albums in a list of 5. The man was just so advanced and sophisticated in his field that not many others got anywhere near his level. Some say this album was mixed by Carlton Lee at Dynamic studio, some say it was King Tubby. I wouldn’t like to say, whenever I put it on to see if I can tell I just get lost in the music every time. But this album is where dub all started for me. It was the first dub LP I bought. The very first one I saw anywhere. In fact when I bought it, in 1972 or maybe 1973, in my local record shop, I hadn’t even heard of “Dub”. I knew Prince Buster from the records they played at our village youth club, “Al Capone” and “Ten Commandments Of Man”. And I’d heard about a rude tune of his called “Big Five” and one day I found a copy in a shop and of course I bought it. But when I bought this LP I didn’t really know what to expect because there was very little information on the sleeve. Just the titles and some enigmatic words like “Raw” “Pure” “True” “Not Diluted” and “Jamaican rhythm expresses the feeling of Jamaican people” So when I got the record home and put the needle in the groove nothing could have prepared me for what came out of the speakers. I had never heard anything like it before and it was the best music I had ever heard in my life.

https://natbirchallmusic.bandcamp.com/


Ian Lawton’s Trainspotters show can be heard fortnightly Monday mornings on 1BTN and on on demand on podomatic: https://trainspotters.podomatic.com/

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