1BTN Spoke to the Manchester based trumpet player and composer whose Salute to the Sun album is one of the station’s top ten albums of the year.
(Pic: Emily Dennison)
So, how are you doing, how’s it been, locked down?
It’s same old in Manchester. We’ve been in Tier 3, then locked down, then Tier 3. But you know, it’s given me lots of time to do things like this, compose lots and hang out with friends and family outside, not inside, unfortunately. I just keep on keeping on, as they say.
You haven’t had the dreaded lurgy?
No, I haven’t been anywhere to get it either really, just outside and stuff.
Well, it’s good that there’s some positives to it. Obviously, it must be a bit disappointing to not play and perform the music from the new record.
Yeah. I think we were on a real roll in February, when we did our last gig. I recorded some of them too. They’re really good. The band was in good shape, ready to tour and, unfortunately, we had a huge gap and break. Since October, we’re meeting in a safe environment to work through both the album material, performance wise, and also new stuff. So, we’re kind of back on track again. In the New Year we’ll be ready to rock and roll with it.
The first UK gig I can see scheduled is November at the Barbican next year. Is that right?
At the moment. I haven’t updated the gig list. We’re going to have the residency in Manchester (at YES The Basement) that’s going to start back. I’m also doing a charity live stream for MIND, and that’ll be in January. There’s an online gig and then there’ll be the regular ones, hopefully by March or April. Fingers crossed. There’s lots of gigs that we’ve just not announced yet because we have to just play it by ear. So yeah, there’s plenty, plenty coming up.
Had you recorded all of the new record already by the beginning of lockdown?
Yeah, I recorded it at the end of… I think maybe November, 2019. Then we were recording new material at the beginning of the year, an album before Salute to the Sun that we haven’t put out yet. And then close to an album’s worth of stuff since. Three albums lurking around in the archives. When they’ll get released is another story. I’ll take my time and decide when I’m ready to do it.
It was nice to have that Oneness collection whilst waiting for the new record, but it sounds like you have no shortage of material.
Yeah. I compose every day. It’s sort of meditation in itself for me. Composing, there’s always plenty of sketches. And then once you feel you’ve got a nice sketchpad full of stuff you put together the ones you want to record and develop. I’m recording with the band this Wednesday and there’s plenty of new tunes to work on. Every two weeks or so we may end up recording three or four new tunes. It’s quite nice, energy-wise.
How did the new band come together? Did you actually consciously disband the Gondwana Orchestra? How did it happen?
It was it sort of a natural thing. It wasn’t a crazy move on my behalf. Unfortunately, our piano player Taz Modi used to live in Leeds, then Manchester. He moved back to London because he grew up there. The drummer I was working with was from Manchester, but moved to London. My harpist, Rachel Gladwin (Manchester) was really busy and didn’t want to commit, so I set myself a challenge of meeting up on a weekly basis.
I think we started that, I don’t remember maybe early 2019. Because I’m not a session musician. I don’t play in any other bands. I just do the stuff with the record label and I wanted a regular project that I could practice and rehearse and record with, for both my own trumpet playing and also me as a composer. Being able to develop and progress, and unfortunately, Rachel didn’t have the time to commit to that. She has two kids and was doing a project with a French company called La Machine and a lot of other stuff, and she was just really busy. I think most of those guys were at the point where they’ve done a lot of stuff with me. I’d been nearly 10 years with most of them. I think commitment was a thing that was drying up unfortunately, and I was ready for a fresh energy and challenge with it. So I went on the hunt around Manchester, jam sessions and all the local gigs and asked all the musicians who were the rising talents and stuff, and put together the band that I’ve got now.
And you managed to find yourself another harp player?
Yeah. I mean, in Manchester there’s quite a lot, but there’s not many that do jazz. I’ve known about Maddie Herbert for a while. As part of a university course she messaged me and asked if I could send her the score to Fletcher Moss Park ‘cause she wanted to do a big arrangement of it. She’s a composer and writer as well and does her own stuff under the Maddie Herbert Trio, but she also does bigger compositions and did a Fletcher Moss Park performance with a big band, playing saxophone, and plays quite a lot of instruments. I’ve known about her from that time, two years ago, kept in touch and she was really up for the challenge of stepping in and taking over the harp role.
From your point of view, how do you see the evolution of your music?
In some ways I went on a journey with my last album. Into Forever is quite a different record to pretty much all my others, because it was me scratching more of the producer/composer itch that I’d had for a long time. I’m a big fan of Cinematic Orchestra and many other more produced projects and I got that out of my system and I’ve written another album that’s like a nice follow-up to that too. But I’d missed playing trumpet and performing live. I took quite a bit of a break after we toured Into Forever, for maybe two years. We finished touring it in 2017. And then I was also producing Dwight Trible’s album Inspirations on Gondwana and then I just decided I wanted a break.
Because I’d been doing it for 10 or 11 years, and I wanted to focus on the label’s tenth anniversary celebrations and other stuff. I think this new album for me was almost like a rebirth as a performer and more of a jazz composer, band leader and collaborator with local musicians again. Whereas Into Forever was 13 session musicians and pretty much scored out start to finish. It was nice and fresh when I came back to this style of more spiritual and open jazz.
Within that it’s definitely a different sound and direction which was to do with my obsession with escapism and taking people on journeys. I’ve always been passionate about that. If I see an artist doing a painting, I really love the ones that are quite exotic and colourful and take you on a journey. I was obsessed with an album called Tropical Drums in Deutschland and also an album by Francis Bebby, a kalimba sanza kind of album, African and beautiful and quite a primitive tropical sounding record. The combination of visual art and these musical ideas that were coming together led me to this place with the record, tropical and exotic and a bit of an escape.
Yeah. I saw on a BBC Radio 3 thing that you did, one of your selections was that Don Cherry Organic Music Society album. That sounds like what you’re talking about, right?
Yeah yeah. That’s an amazing record, very eclectic and spiritual and the album cover itself is one of my favourites, by his partner at the time, Moki Cherry. It’s a beautiful tapestry and I actually have that album framed in my front room. I just love the artwork. But that record and the way Don Cherry plays around that period is really influential to me as well.
I have to ask you about Alice Coltrane. I hardly ever read a review of Matthew Halsall that doesn’t mention Alice Coltrane and you do wear that influence on your sleeve anyway. How did you, when did you, first hear Alice Coltrane?
I think I was trying to pin it down, but I think I’m pretty sure it was around the same time that I was at the Maharishi school in Skelmersdale. I was studying transcendental meditation and yoga in the mornings and then doing GCSE classes and also studying a lot of philosophy, Eastern philosophies and spiritual ideas and learning Sanskrit and all sorts of stuff.
But, around this time, one of my friends Will Curly, and his parents, started really introducing me to DJs. Myself and a couple of friends became obsessed with DJs and in particular, Mr Scruff and Gilles Peterson, as well as the sort of Detroit DJ culture. My friend managed to sneak me in to see Mr Scruff’s residency in Manchester, Keep It Unreal. I heard him play a lot of amazing music, very eclectic, a lot of jazz mixed in with sort of hip hop and all sorts of stuff. But, I remember him playing, You’ve Got to Have Freedom (Pharoah Sanders) and then later putting it on a compilation. I think it was called Keep it Solid Steel.
That track was one of the first sort of spiritual jazz records I’d heard. I’ve known about jazz music, obviously, since I was five, six years old. I started playing the trumpet then, and at that point I was aware of the big band world and more traditional jazz music, and then Kind of Blue and Blue Trane and all of those, but I had no idea until I was about 15,16 about Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders and Yusef Lateef, and so through a mixture of Mr Scruff and Gilles Peterson all of a sudden I was fully immersed in spiritual jazz and I discovered Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda through searching and listening to everything that Pharoah Sanders was on. And he was on that record.
That record just blew my mind and at the time, finding it whilst meditating and then being in quite a spiritual place was just a perfect situation for me. So, I studied it heavily and just listened and listened and started searching within my own music. How can I develop that sound? I didn’t get it straight away cause I didn’t know any harpists. Oneness was the very first record where I tried to make an album influenced by Alice Coltrane and a lot of the tracks on it feature a harpist from Liverpool. An old guy, Stan Ambrose. He was a fantastic kind of local spiritual character that used to play in all the hippie veggie restaurant cafes and restaurants and stuff for his food. He used to play at the women’s hospital for the patients. A very deep, interesting character. I’d lived in Liverpool’s from the age of 17 to maybe 21 and got to be good friends with Stan. So when I was recording the very first sessions in 2007 I got him on it. He was very old. He played, fell asleep halfway through, then woke back up again!
That was the first music I did with harp influenced by Alice Coltrane. And then I discovered Rachel Gladwin in a trio, more folk music. But, just the fact it was three harpists I thought I’ve got to investigate to see if any of these are up for playing on some jazz records.
And Rachel was definitely was up for it. So that’s how the harp came about, but it was quite a nice connection. And Rachel, I don’t think had heard Alice Coltrane at that point, or Dorothy Ashby. So, it was quite nice for her to discover this stuff and then to sort of evolve and develop her own style.
I’m wracking my brain to see if I can remember Stan Ambrose, I lived in Liverpool for 13 years…
He used to play at the Green Fish cafe and the Egg cafe, and then had a radio show on BBC Merseyside where he used to play folk and kind of quite a beautiful chilled out radio show as a presenter. He was a popular figure, but yeah, you might have missed him.
When you collaborate with all these different musicians and, like you’re saying, you start playing with them and they’re not necessarily up to their neck in Alice Coltrane. So how much work do you do as the band leader to get it? Cause the new record sounds very synchronised and all the parts fit together beautifully. How do you get that out of people?
Yeah, it takes a lot of time, a lot of patience. The musicians have to trust you because you have to sell it to them first, before anyone else really. I think that luckily the drummer and percussionist, Jack McCarthy, in particular, were the first two new members who signed up. And I remember talking a lot to Jack about this idea of creating a sort of tropical, almost rainforesty percussive layer within the music and atmosphere, and he was amazing. Every week he would bring a new piece of percussion that created some unusual, exotic sounds and inspired me no end to the point where now I’m obsessed with percussion and I’ve bought so many instruments from just Jack bringing around my house. And percussion is quite underused. I mean, certainly in spiritual jazz it’s prominent with the bells and Tibetan chimes and things like that. But there’s lots of beautiful clusters of seeds and clumps of keys and chimes and all sorts of unusual things that we’ve been playing around with and getting some really interesting sounds out of on the new album. The next album I’m working on is even more percussion heavy and features djembe drums. It’s almost even more tropical and exotic than Salute to the Sun. So, I’m totally immersed in that world. I bought two djembe drums from a djembe master. I quite enjoy all that sort of primitive instrumentation.
I look forward to hearing it. Would it be true to say that the harp in your music is a nod to Alice Coltrane? The predominance of flute is a nod to Yusef Lateef?
Certainly. Yusef Lateef is up there in my top ten, as is Alice. Pharaoh, Lonnie Liston Smith also. But yeah, the flute, I love Yusef’s flute playing. It’s a very strange, and honest, kind of approach to composing. I just compose with no rules. I just sort of go with my gut and instincts on a lot of the melodies. I try every single song on trumpet and then I decide whether it’s too thick or too heavy or not got enough colour to it, and try to find the instrument that suits the composition, rather than just doing it on the trumpet, because I play it and it’s convenient. At the moment I think that everything I’m writing seems to end up on either alto or concert flute or bansuri flute. I tend to write a lot of the melodies slightly higher than the nice sounding trumpet. They sound a bit pushed and forced on the trumpet and a bit aggressive. They sound really gentle on the flute. So that’s how it’s come about.
Yeah, that’s interesting. It’s got a lovely sound, the new record. Is that 80 Hertz studios again?
No, it was another thing that I’ve been quietly working on. Well, for nearly 10 years. I was building my own studio, my home studio set-up, and I’m a long way from being, you know, Rudy van Gelder or anything. But, I’ve got a set up now where I can record my band with complete isolation – and clarity on each instrument. And, I’ve got a nice range of microphones. I actually recorded it all myself, edited and produced it.
Then we mixed it at 80 hertz because I think George is really good at that side of things. I mean, he’s great at recording, but the process I’m going for at the moment of recording would be hard to financially justify in an expensive studio. Sometimes we don’t end up nailing anything in a session and another time we come out with four or five tracks. So, it’s too risky to record outside of this nice relaxed environment for me. But yeah, he’s mixed it. And then it was Peter Beckmann who mastered it, and then the viny was cut at half-speed with a Barry at Alchemy in London. It was mixed in Manchester. It’s been a long journey and then the artwork took even longer. It was a real, interesting journey! I must’ve gone through about 50 to a hundred different album covers.
Is your brother’s still doing all the Gondwana artwork?
Yeah, he does. The majority of the stuff, depends on the artist. Some artists like Portico Quartet have their own in-house graphic designer. Daniel does, you know, any of the debut artists and he’s involved in all my records, even if he doesn’t do the front cover illustration or anything.
Did you set up Gondwana initially just to put your own records out, or did you ever sense that you might want to turn it into a bigger concern? You’ve become quite prolific in recent years.
I think it was I couldn’t find a record label that suited what I wanted to release myself. Around 2007 to 2009, there was a lot of labels I loved. Independents that influenced me like Erased Tapes, Ninja Tune, Warp Records and Gilles Peterson’s output as well. But I didn’t feel like it fitted it on any of those labels. I felt the best thing to do was to release it myself. We did that with a shoestring budget in the beginning and all the musicians were from Manchester, and the graphic design and photography. The first eight releases were Manchester-based or nine releases even, and I’m still very much conscious of trying to support the community that I live in and develop new talent.
I’m currently working on quite a lot of records with young northern musicians. I’m helping them record, as well as benefiting from having my own home studio for my own music, I’ve been working and recording with other bands and giving them a step up – without having to spend loads and loads.
Who are some of those upcoming people?
I can’t say. It’s top secret. It it’s all sort of Leeds and Manchester-based stuff. Yeah, it’s been good. It’s good fun. Although I’m having to do that in any little bit of spare time I have, which is very little at the moment. I was recording 10, 11 hours of my weekend last week – other people’s music. It’s quite intense – a lot of seven-day weeks, helping other people.
Somebody told me that Tru Thoughts were interested in signing you at one point?
Yeah, I think they approached me after On the Go won Gilles Peterson’s jazz album of the year at the Worldwide awards. I think they saw that energy and that period and were interested, but their offer, unfortunately, wasn’t right. I’ve got a lot of respect for Tru Thoughts. I think Quantic, and Bonobo in particular were great signings and have gone on to have really successful careers.
We actually got the train to Brighton and met them at their offices. I liked them. It just wasn’t… it’s very hard for a record label to offer me a better deal than what I can achieve on my own. Because I’ve got a 100% control and financially it’s a much more secure process when I put it out myself.
I invest a lot of money in my own music, and try and get it to a very, very high standard. So, you know, I don’t think there’s many record labels who would be as confident as I am investing in it. And it’s worked. It’s got me to a really nice place, and I think people enjoy the quality of things. But I couldn’t have necessarily done that on a label.
To me, there’s a bit of a Gondwana sound, with Mammal Hands, Go Go Penguin, Portico. That’s sort of a collision of different things, that minimalist thing… It’s not just jazz. There’s a Gondwana sound, but you’re not necessarily part of it!
No, I, I completely agree with that. I think that one of the things that happens when you run a record label is that you have to make a decision, whether you want to have a record label which is very, very niche, and focusses on one specific thing – cause even with jazz there’s thousands of sub genres of jazz – you either stick to a very tight area of jazz, or you just put out music that you like, and promote the bands that deserve the step up and support. And I think that in the beginning I was lucky to work with Nat Birchall on my own music and then put out his music. And, we did have a spiritual jazz sound when it was myself and Nat. And I encouraged lots of other Manchester musicians like John Ellis, Phil France, Luke Flowers, Stuart McCallum, and Jon Thorne to put out records with. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. It was just me and Nat from the more spiritual jazz scene.
I’m a big fan of Warp Records, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Boards of Canada and Autechre. I actually studied sound engineering and music technology for three years in Liverpool. From an outsider’s perspective, it probably looks quite weird and disjointed in some capacity, but from an inside feeling of my journey, it represents a lot of the things that I like in life and that I’m intrigued by…
And I met the drummer from GoGo when he was playing in my band for a while, cause he’s a Manchester-based drummer, who grew up in Bolton. And then I started working with him on an electronic trio project of my own which was doing covers of Warp records tunes and I was using a lot of effects pedals on the trumpet. I had a piano player doing the sub-bass and kind of more synthy Rhodes sort of stuff, and then Rob Turner on the drums.
Rob started introducing me to some of his own projects that he was involved in, as you do, just chatting on the tour and sharing CDs and stuff, and he played a track that he’d done. They weren’t called GoGo Penguin at that time, just Chris Illingworth Trio. They did a track called Last Words together, and I really liked it. I said, you know, I think we should put this out.
Then it goes from really liking one track to doing two records by a band. Then, because they were so successful, because they got the Mercury Music Prize nomination, and had a lot of energy around them, they were starting to attract a different type of music to the record label. GoGo Penguin were doing a gig in Birmingham, Mostly Jazz Festival and Mammal Hands were on before them and the bass player, Nick said, you should “check out this out, it’s really good. They fit in nicely with what we’re doing”.
I did. And loved it, and signed Mammal Hands. And then, then there’s two of them – the two trio kind of projects and both of those bands still to this day are hugely important for the financial stability of the record label. I’ve been a fan of Portico Quartet since the very, very beginning. I met them when they were busking on the South Bank in London, and didn’t have a record label. I bought the CD and said, God, I wish I had a record label.
Then the opportunity later arose where they were looking for a label. And I had a very stable, successful one so I signed them. But I’m a massive, massive fan of Portico Quartet. So forward thinking. I get very excited by all their new material and then through Portico you get Hania Rani, cause Hania loves Portico Quartet. And so it happens and happens. We are signing some more jazz artists, like more kind of earthy spiritual artists. We’re just quietly working on that stuff.
What other labels or artists are you enjoying at the moment? What’s floating your boat? Or maybe you haven’t got time to listen to anything else!?
(Laughs) Well I can say a couple (starts shuffling through records). There’s a band called Web Web, one called Phi-Psonics I quite like. Idris Ackamoor, Wildflower, Greg Foat, they’re kind of in my world. Organic Pulse Ensemble. There’s lots of really good stuff coming out at the moment actually. Lots of young musicians, and interesting projects. Alabaster DePlume’s is a beautiful album, the one To Cy & Lee – that’s up there in my albums of the year I think.
Yeah, that’s a lovely record. It’s got a bit of an Ethiopiques thing going on…
Yeah. A little of an Ethiopian kind of meditative kind of thing. It’s a really interesting record. It’s funny cause I met Gus, who is Alabaster De Plume in Manchester, about 10, 15 years ago. I did a session with him for an artist called Denis Jones, playing the horn arrangements and Gus played saxophone. If I’d known he was making that record I would have liked to put it out on Gondwana, but he moved to London and disappeared off the Manchester scene. He’s such an entertaining character. Yeah, very unique, very unpredictable, but in a good way.
Thanks for making time for the interview. You must be bored of doing interviews.
No! I like it, it’s very social, especially in lockdown.