Vibraphonist, drummer and percussionist Nat Steele grew up in a house full of music, and got into jazz through his saxophonist father.
“The jazz thing really came from my dad who has a big jazz record collection. Obviously, being a saxophone player he had loads and loads of saxophone players, on vinyl. As a kid I had exposure to that as well. I used to sit and listen through, and sight pick out LPs and listen to lots of Charlie Parker. That’s where that came from.”
Steele’s choice of the vibraphone goes back to when he had early drum lessons as a teenager.
“When I was about 15 or 16 I was having drum lessons at the local county music service. I was already into jazz at that point although I wasn’t really playing any jazz, that’s all I was listening to at the time. The drum teacher that I had, he was a really nice guy but he was really into rock, basically. So I was going along every Friday afternoon to my half hour lesson. He was trying to get me to play all of these rock beats on the drums and I just wasn’t really interested in it. It was a big music centre. In the room where they sometimes had drum lessons in there were lots of percussion instruments as well and every week for a couple of years I’d walk past a vibraphone on the way in to get to the drum set. And one week I was just curious. I’d always been curious about it but then I asked the drum teacher ‘is there any chance I could have a go on that this week instead?’. He was a classically trained percussionist so he knew about playing tuned percussion. So he said ‘yeah, sure, let’s have a go on that instead’ and I took to it instantly, like it was instantly the right instrument. And from that point on, every week I was having vibraphone lessons.”
“He wasn’t teaching me about jazz. He was teaching me about scales and arpeggios, some reading and the basic musicianship that you need on an instrument. So that’s how I started. Pretty much from then on, that was what I focussed on.”
“It was kind of a random thing, almost. If the vibes hadn’t have been there in that room…I think that was just where they stored one of their vibraphones. If they’d stored it in one of the cupboards then I might not have ended up doing this. So it was quite serendipitous, really.”
Steele runs two bands: Portrait of the MJQ and his own quartet.
“Portrait of the MJQ is basically a band that Michael Garrick actually started, the English piano player and composer. I think he started it in 2008/9 and it was originally Jim Hart on vibraphone and Matt Ridley on bass and Steve Brown on drums. And that’s how it worked for a while until Michael Garrick died and Matt Ridley basically carried it on until last year and during the time that that band ran, I’d subbed for Jim a few times, when Jim hadn’t been available. So I knew the music already. And then last year they’d gotten busy with their own projects, particularly Matt Ridley with his own contemporary band. He rang me up and asked if I’d be interested in taking it on and I could take the music and do whatever I wanted with it. Obviously I leapt at the opportunity because I’m so into Milt Jackson, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to do something. So I started with a completely new band basically but still with Steve Brown. We’ve got a young guy called Gabriel Latchin who I work with a lot. He’s absolutely perfect for that role, not to impersonate John Lewis but to contribute that kind of flavour to the music. And there’s an amazing young bass player called Dario Di Lecce.”
“We just got together at the end of last year and put together material for an album. That’s just about to come out. We’ve got our CD launch on 10th September at Ronnie Scott’s. In fact I’m just starting to get promotional material together for the tour at the beginning of next year.”
“And then I’ve got my own quartet, which is less specific. With the MJQ band we only play the music of the MJQ and nothing else. With my own quartet it’s a much broader mix of things, but still very straight ahead and beboppy. There’s a whole mix of Cedar Walton tunes and standards and lots of bebop tunes, and our own versions of standards. So that’s nice and a completely different project altogether. That usually has Leon Greening on piano and Steve Brown on drums, and Adam King on bass. It’s more of a hard bop band in a way, although it’s not limited to that one particular style. It’s quite nice doing the MJQ but you have to play in a very particular way and then in my own quartet I can let my hair down a bit and do slightly different things. So those are the bands that I run, and then I play in various other people’s bands as well.”
“There’s a great singer called Sara Dowling, who does all sorts of things, but one of the bands that she’s put together recently is the George Shearing/Nancy Wilson Songbook, so I play in that band and it’s absolutely fantastic.”
“I play with a piano player called Rob Barron who is an amazing Cedar Walton-esque piano player, composer and arranger. And he’s got a quintet with myself on vibes and Colin Oxley on guitar, Josh Morrison on drums and Jeremy Brown on bass. It’s his own original arrangements, kind of in the style of Cedar Walton but his own take on lots of different jazz standards. So that’s a really fun band.”
“I play with Allison Neale quite a bit as well, in a band called Neale Meets Steele, which we have been doing for about 3 years now. It started when she wanted me to play on a couple of tunes on her own quartet album as a guest and that went really, really well and we just ended up filling a pad of material together and we do quite a few gigs here and there. It’s a very nice band, usually with Leon Greening on piano and Matt Home or Steve Brown on drums.”
“I’m doing all sorts of other bits and pieces. There’s a band that I play in called Cafecito, which is another strand of what I do because I also play Cuban percussion. I actually spent 6 months living in Havana, when I was 18, studying Cuban percussion. It’s kind of like 1920s and 1930s style, up to the 1950s, Cuban music. That’s very fun. It’s Cuban cafe music, the kind of music that you’d hear if you go into old Havana and walk down the streets. You hear all sorts of live music coming from the coffee shops and ice cream shops. It’s that kind of music that we play.”
Back in 2015 Steele also put together the BopFest festival with Allison Neale.
“The idea behind it was to offer an alternative strand during the London Jazz Festival and really to put on really good home-grown straight ahead jazz. We do it in co-operation with Serious who organise the London Jazz Festival. Once we made them aware of what we were preparing to do they got on board and helped us out with the promotion. The idea was to have a tent, a bit like a Glastonbury tent and have different tents with different things going on, and to have a straight ahead tent during the London Jazz Festival. Rather than a tent it turned out to be an old music hall in the back of a pub in Ladbroke Grove. The idea behind that was that there’s so much amazing music happening during the London Jazz Festival but not necessarily much in the way of UK based straight ahead jazz. It always seemed like that wasn’t primarily what they were aiming to put on, so we basically did it as an experiment to see what would happen. We hired a room in a pub and waited to see what would happen and it turned out to be incredibly successful. We sold out six nights in a row. It was really exciting because before it started we thought that if we get 50 people down we would have done quite well, but it sold out for all six gigs and we had about 500 people down there in the course of the week, which was absolutely amazing, for a completely brand new festival.”
“That was the first year and we had various different bands playing and we finished it off with a performance of Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool. We actually did a complete re-creation of that with transcriptions from the record, with a completely authentic line up of french horn and tuba.
“And then last year we did it again. Because we’d had so much success with the first one, we had sponsorship and we did it at the same place, at a pub that unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore (it’s been turned into a restaurant). The Elgin in Ladbroke Grove which had an amazing old music hall at the back, so it was a room with a stage with a grand piano on it. It was completely perfect and separate from the pub. So it was perfect for a little jazz venue basically. So we used it again in the second year and we did literally twice as much music. We had 60 musicians playing over 12 gigs in the course of 6 days. It was a very full-on thing and again we sold out with around 800 people. So it was an amazing experience and very exciting.”
“The thing that prompted me to actually pull my finger out and make it happen was that one of the bookers at one of the major jazz clubs in the UK said to me about 2-3 years ago, ‘there’s no audience for straight ahead jazz anymore and there’s no interest in it’. And I knew that wasn’t true and I wanted to do something to prove him wrong. In fact he did send me a message later on saying congratulations for your success with BopFest and you’ve shown that there is an audience for this kind of music after all.”
“All that needs to happen is: put on really good music, really good straight ahead jazz in a nice venue, publicise it well and run it well and people do come to it. So that was the idea behind the BopFest festival. In fact we’re taking a year off this year, because the venue has closed and it’s quite hard to find a venue like that, with just the right amount of space and it had a really nice Yamaha grand piano and yet sadly it’s been turned into a restaurant and it no longer has anything like that happening there. But we’ll be putting it together next year, we just have to find another venue.”
Nat Steele performs with the Dave Newton Trio at The Verdict on Friday 11th August.
Nat Steele/Leon Greening Quartet perform at The Hare & Hounds, Worthing on Tuesday 22nd August.
Portrait of the MJQ perform at All Saints Church, Hove on Thursday 5th October as part of their lunchtime concert series.
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[Interview conducted by Charlie Anderson]