Guitarist Rob Luft originally played classical violin from a young age, but around the time he was 6 years old his step-father, a guitarist, moved in. “He brought loads of records like Hugh Masekela and Brotherhood of Breath. So I listened to a lot of township grooves and Loose Tubes records and played lots of guitar. My step-father was a good friend of Chris Batchelor and John Parricelli, and he used to go and watch Dudu Pukwana, Chris McGregor and Brotherhood of Breath and all of the South African township jazz that was happening in London in the late 1980s.”
Listening was always a part of Luft’s growing up and was something that contributed a great deal to his learning. “The other vinyl in the house was Birds of Fire by Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham. There were also lots of British fusion guitarists like McLaughlin, and Allan Holdsworth. The people associated with McLaughlin, like Paco de Lucía and Al Di Meola were my first port of call, but after that I basically got into loads of more typical jazz guitar players like Grant Green, Kenny Burrell. Then it spiralled into the more modern characters, especially the British ones: Mike Walker, Derek Bailey and John Russell the free guitarist. There were many British jazz guitar players who were around on the scene that I could go and watch, such as Phil Robson and John Parricelli. That was how I learnt.”
After joining the National Youth Jazz Orchestra from the age of 15, Rob went on to study on the Royal Academy jazz course. Whilst there he received a number of awards, including the Peter Whittingham award for his ensemble playing in Patchwork Jazz Orchestra and the unique ensemble Big Bad Wolf. He also won the second prize in the Montreux Jazz Guitar Competition and was awarded the 2016 Kenny Wheeler Jazz Prize which resulted in him releasing his debut album, Riser, on the Edition label last year.
Speaking about his album, he is clear about the influences. “It’s a summation of everything that I’ve been working on for the last four or five years, with the township side of my influences: Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Louis Moholo, and that kind of world, which I was really heavily into and I was also playing a lot with people like Adam Glasser, Gareth Lockrane and Eddie Parker. I was also lucky enough to play with Loose Tubes; we did six nights at Ronnie’s a couple of years ago. All of these influences from the South African and the young highlife guitar influence pervades all of their music. It was a big influence on my own writing. A lot of the pieces on the album are really heavily influenced by township jazz and by Soukous and Congolese Rhumba. There’s a lot of that influence. I just tried to bring it back into jazz.”
Luft spent a lot of time with his trio listening and studying Congolese music and attending a jam session in London where the Congolese style of soukous was played. “We’d be the only British guys in the bar. To begin with it was so unwelcoming. They were Cameroonian and Congolese guys. When we got up to play they’d start playing La Bamba or something because they knew that was the only thing that we’d be able to play. Eventually, we got more into the nitty gritty of that music and they started to trust us a bit more. We used to play for hours, actually.”
“I decided to just make the album using this really heavy African influence. We recorded it down at Real World studio, which is famously associated with lots of world music as well, and I got this ‘world-jazz’ flavour going through the whole thing. I think that as a result it’s made it a little bit more directly accessible, groovy.”
I spoke to Luft at the beginning of his UK tour, something that he’s clearly excited about. “We had our first gig the other day in Oxford and we’re playing Sheffield this week. It’s really fun to take the music on the road because I’m so used to touring as a side-person with Eddie, Django or Byron Wallen, people that I’ve been touring with a few times. It’s very fun to take my own music out to play with the likes of Corrie Dick, Joe Webb and all the guys in the band who are so fantastic. They’re such busy musicians in their own right it’s actually a bit of a pleasure and a bit of a privilege to be able to take them out and play my own music. I feel like a child in a sweet shop.”
If Luft is enthused at the thought of the tour, then he’s even more ebullient at the mention of his future plans. “I’m planning to record a second album for Edition. Dave Stapleton at Edition is really pushing me to do that. I think I’m going to make another album with this band and we’re going to play loads of new material that I’m working on. I’ve written about half of it so far so by the time we’ll be in Brighton we’ll probably be playing a good deal of new music, as well as some stuff from the record.”
Rob Luft performs at The Verdict in Brighton on Friday 20th April as part of New Generation Jazz.
Rob Luft spoke to SJM editor Charlie Anderson.
Rob Luft’s debut album, Riser, is out now on Edition.