Where are you from?
I was born in Bedfordshire and grew up in a tiny village and raised by small woodland creatures. Actually, I grew up surrounded by nature; large fields, forests, and angry farmers. Angry because we used to play and build tree-houses on their land. It was an idyllic place to grow up as there was plenty of things to do, if you had an imagination. My parents were very supportive in my musical development and were surprisingly ok with my change in career paths from Chemistry to Music.
How did you get into jazz?
I went to a school that had a good music department. I actually started formally on violin but had been messing around with pianos and synths for a few years prior to that. I'm told I started to show a real interest in the piano at the age of four or five by playing things I heard on the radio and TV. I remember my great grandmother playing, she was a concert pianist. I always had an interest in writing music from a young age, I much preferred it to playing set pieces. I guess it was only natural that I eventually gravitated towards jazz. That happened in my mid teens. Drummer Troy Miller went to the same school as me, but he was 4 years ahead of me. Troy is a fantastic musician all round and sickeningly, a great pianist. I got into blues piano at about 13 and started to work out music from old blues recordings. Jimmy Yancey, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson mostly. One day I was playing in the school practice room and Troy came in and said that I should perhaps have a go at a “Jazz Blues“. I had recently discovered Oscar Peterson and I was able to ask Troy some questions about the harmony. I guess I had got good at transcribing and so I started to listen to people like Oscar, Wynton Kelly and Ray Bryant. I bought an album by Miles Davis called Steamin’ which featured pianist Red Garland. I became obsessed with working out what he was doing and of course, I bought the rest of the albums in that series. Miles really introduced me to all the great pianists; Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. A friend suggested I check out a piece called Moanin' by Bobby Timmons and that was my introduction to Art Blakey. I bought all the Blakey albums I could get my hands on and of course, discovered a whole host of wonderful pianists and horn players. From Art I discovered Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton, Donald Brown, James Williams, Mulgrew Miller, Benny Green and Geoffrey Keezer.
How did you meet James Williams?
I met James in what I can only describe as a truly bizarre encounter. I was playing solo piano at a golf club in Haslemere. It was one of my first gigs away from home. So I'm playing Skylark and this gentle figure walks over and says “Hey kid, great playing but let me show you some other chords in the bridge.” I had no idea who it was but as soon as he started to play, I recognised his playing. Embarrassingly, I had to ask him what his name was. I made the connection and proceeded to ask him as many questions as I could. We ended up hanging out until the small hours and I came away with about 30 post-it notes of albums, books and such to check out. All in James' hand writing. I still have them. James remains such a huge influence on me both musically and spiritually. He took so much time to nurture and pass on so many things. Things I’m still working out today. He passed on in 2004, way too young. James made a dream come true while he was on tour with Ed Thigpen. He invited me up to play with the great drum master. He knew that the Oscar Peterson album Nightrain meant so much to me. He also hooked it up for me to meet a whole host of pianists while I was in New York : Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones.
What do you say to people who say that jazz can't be taught?
I agree to some extent. Firstly, I believe everybody and anybody can improvise. In fact, that is the easy bit. The hard bit is undoing the instilled rubbish that disenables us to be unique. Our culture is not set up for individuality but rather mass trends and masking. People hiding and fronting via Facebook, images looking the same because of the hipster Instagram app and the mass sharing of utter dross. I'm not down on social media but I think we spend too much time on them, at least I do. I went through a period of heavy practising while at university, up to four to five hours a day for a period of about four years. I believe most of the concepts in jazz can be taught. You can learn how to improvise within the language of jazz. What cannot be taught is passion and dedication. It requires bucketloads of both to be a good jazz player. It is a never-ending process of continual growth and development. I go through stages, sometimes I have to get away from music altogether and focus on something else for a while: Photography, learning to fly, taking the dog out. It is my first love but occasionally we argue, like any good relationship. So to answer your question, most of the things we do in jazz can be taught: the harmonic concepts, melodic concepts etc. But what cannot be taught is the rhythmic elements of the music. It is entirely down to the student to absorb the rhythmic foundations of jazz through listening and copying. You can learn a Parker transcription but it means nothing unless you can understand and emulate his phrasing and articulation. Not to say it's all about copying but in order to get an authentic grasp of the language, it is fundamental. Some people have a natural ability to absorb and utilise that information and a few people surpass that and have very original ways of constructing melody with great rhythmic interest. I'm just trying to be a better pianist and to deepen my understanding of the jazz piano tradition. I've never been interested in playing a certain way because it is popular. Brad Mehldau is a genius and very popular, rightly so but I have no interest in sounding like him because every other pianist does. My heart will always stem from the blues and bebop more than the classical tradition. I've done my fair share of classical piano playing and I still practise it today but I don't feel the connection in the same way.
When do you feel most comfortable when you play?
I guess when I'm surrounded by players I love and respect. There is nothing like that mutual trust you have with players who can go wherever you want to go. For me, jazz is about interaction and the mutual exploration of whatever material you are playing and the audience is very much a part of that.
What are you uncomfortable with?
The opposite of what I've just said (laughs). Actually what makes me uncomfortable is my own lacking. Not being able to patch up the holes in my playing due to not enough time to practise.
What areas of your playing would you like to develop in the future?
There are quite a few things that have been niggling for a while. I want to develop my left hand more to obtain equal facility, this stems from one of my piano heroes: Phineas Newborn jr. Like everybody I want to be freer with my playing, not as in free jazz but to achieve the same sense of freedom you hear when people like Herbie [Hancock] or Danilo [Perez] play. I have a long long way to go. I’m always writing things so I’m planning on doing a project next year. Its been on the cards for a while but the time has come for me to action it.
How does music make you feel?
Music is my saviour, cheesy I know but it is true. I go to it when I'm happy, sad and everything in between. As well as my lovely wife and family, music is what keeps me going. I'm very conscious of how fortunate I am to be able to live my life this way. I wake up on any given day and it is mostly made up of making, teaching, thinking and performing music.
What do you feel when you solo?
I get itchy elbows.
How can you best convey your emotions through music?
I don't think about it . All I try to do is play as honestly as possible. I think most musicians go through a period of playing for chops’ sake but I like to think I have matured and deepened as a musician. I'll let other people be the judges.
Wayne McConnell runs Brighton Jazz School.
He also hosts the monthly BJS Podcast: