Are there any favourite albums that you listened to over and over when you were younger?
How much younger are we talking? As a kid I listened to David Bowie all the time. When I was getting into Jazz I loved ‘Blue Trane’, ‘Speak No Evil’, ‘Portrait in Jazz’ and ‘Four and More’. When I got into Jarrett, I fairly obsessively listened to ‘Fort Yawuh’, ‘Life Between The Exit Signs’, ‘The Mourning of a Star’ and ‘The Melody at Night With You’. I really got into some other British guys too, like Gwilym, Kit and Ivo (to be honest I think a lot of my favourite current pianists are my British contemporaries).
If they passed a law stopping you from playing the piano, what instrument would you play instead?
I think Dave Hamblett would love it if I were a full time melodica player.
What’s your approach to teaching jazz?
So many jazz books are so bad… an overload on chord-scale relationships etc. that makes starting to play jazz seem so much more mysterious and complicated than it is. I start with ears and tonality first. Simple standards (or the blues) – making sure students can hear and sing their way through them (to be able to think-in-music is essential). Playing within any given tonality without focussing too much on the detail, then later developing the detail from that basis.
If you could invent an instrument, what would it be or be able to do?
Allow me to play all of the other instruments without having to go through the effort of actually learning them.
Tell us about the PhD that you’re doing.
I’m looking at whether perfect pitch (called absolute pitch (AP) by scientists) can be learned by adults. Most people don’t realise that AP and relative pitch (RP) can be subcategorised into different skills. Some people that can recognise pitches absolutely (i.e. without an external reference note) can only do it for the timbre of their instrument, or by reference to it (a lot of musicians mistakenly believe that this is RP), some people have a more ‘infallible’ form that is more immediate, and can handle more finely grained tuning than the standard 12 notes. There are other types too – scientifically this has been discussed since at least the 1930s (initially by Bachem). RP can be broken down into ‘functional relative pitch’ and ‘interval identification.’ A scientist called David Ross found evidence for two types of AP – some people are ‘Absolute Pitch Encoders’ (APE – immediate and effortless recognition, not limited by timbre, typically don’t remember ever having acquired it, can accurately detect tuning) and some people have ‘Heightened Tonal Memory (recognise and can produce all the pitches, recognise the key of the music they’re hearing etc., but are limited by the things that characterise APE). The literature has shown that children can be taught AP (e.g. Grebelnik – although we don’t know if this is APE or HTM. There is also evidence to suggest that there may be a rough cut-off age in childhood after which it may be impossible, or at least a lot more difficult, to learn AP), but it is yet to show whether adults can be taught it (although there are plenty of non-scientific accounts of people claiming to have taught themselves HTM). As such that’s why I’m investigating the possibility. I’m doing the PhD at Cambridge University.
Which Star Wars character would you most like to be?
Captain Kirk, just to annoy sci-fi fans…
What can we expect to hear at your trio gig at The Verdict on Friday 23rd June?
It’s a kind of ‘dedication to my favourite piano trios’ mixed in with a bunch of my own music. I’m playing some Jarrett, Gwilym, Ivo, Chick Corea, Dan Tepfer etc., maybe some Kit and Paul Bley too. It’s been really fun touring this stuff across the UK, and educational for me too. I think sometimes you can be caged in by your pre-conception of how your own music should sound – it’s one of the bandleader dilemmas; playing other people’s music can allow you to play with an abandon that it can be more difficult to achieve on your own.
Do you think jazz will ever come back into fashion or should we start building even smaller jazz clubs?
I’m not sure jazz has ever been in fashion has it? Whenever we try to make it fashionable we fuck it up, let’s keep the music good and if people happen to get into then that’s a bonus…
The Sam Leak Trio perform at The Verdict on Friday 23rd June, as part of New Generation Jazz.