We start by talking a bit about the jazz scene in Sussex and Alex Garnett remembers some of the clubs that he used to perform in. He quotes Liane Carroll: “Hastings is an alcoholic town with a fishing problem”. After we both acknowledge the talent that is Liane Carroll, I start with the most basic of jazz interview questions: How did you get into jazz?
“I suppose you could say that I got into jazz by default. My mother is a piano player and she met my father in the 1950s. He was a prominent saxophone player on the London scene in those days. So there was always music in the house. When they got married and moved into the place where they lived for about 35 years, there was all manner of parties, people coming round to do rehearsals, my dad was involved in running big bands and also he did a lot of saxophone repairs on the side so there were lots of musicians coming round to the house to get their saxophones repaired, to hang out, play their saxophones and talk to my dad. So I rubbed shoulders as a very small boy with all those kinds of people. I won’t say I took it for granted but I didn’t really understand it. I think at a very young age my dad wanted me to get more involved but he’s always been a little bit strange about giving me direct tuition, if you like, because he’s a self-taught musician himself so he thought that if you’re going to take interest in it then you have to find your own interest, take your own direction.”
“I think that because he never did it, he decided to push me towards a more formal style of education on the instrument. I did my classical grades as a very young boy at Trinity, in the early days of the syllabus. After seeing my dad play on gigs and seeing how the whole jazz thing works, I found it amazing that I could play all of these etudes and scales and I’d had a pretty good education on the instrument but if you took the music away, I couldn’t busk Happy Birthday, and that is no joke! I just couldn’t understand how you could get music out of your brain onto the instrument without some kind of instruction, like a piece of music in front of me. So I was kind of academic I suppose, and that was a real problem for me. I just didn’t understand how it worked. When I was about 13 years old my parents decided to take me to a workshop in Kentish Town (I was living in Maida Vale) called WAC (Weekend Arts College) and that was run by a guy called Ian Carr. I remember going down there for the audition and they accepted me pretty quickly because I was young and they were like ‘wow, you can read all this music’, which had weird forms and in 7/4. I think Ian was going through his Mahavishnu stage as he had all these ragas and blueses in 7/4. When he found out that I couldn’t improvise I think he just had some kind of perverted thing about trying to get me to solo. So I had quite a few years in that. I was in a band called the LFO, the London Fusion Orchestra. Some of the older guys in that band were Julian Joseph, Mark and Michael Mondesir, Courtney Pine, Jason Rebello, Steve Williamson but I was only, literally, a kid. So I was actually looking up to these guys and they were tearing it up at sixteen or seventeen. So that was my introduction. It was pretty intense, as an introduction to jazz.”
“I was listening to fusion and hip hop and anything else that a teenager would listen to, especially to annoy the parents. I wasn’t really checking out any jazz records at that stage, but trying to learn to play the saxophone. I suppose that was my entry level – it kind of went by the wayside for a few years after that. I left it for about four or five years, ended up getting a day job and had the late Eighties money-thing going on. In those days all the school leavers were buying houses and stuff like that. So even in those days I didn’t want to be like my dad, trying to make a living playing saxophone. It sounds crazy. I think he was right!”
“So that was my basic introduction to the music. After having a day job in the city for about four years. I was working in the City of London, in the Stock Exchange, believe it or not and I must have been cursed because it was when the Gulf War started, the first one, and there was a massive crash on the stock market and I lost my job there but I managed to save enough money to go travelling. And, against the grain, I decided to take a flute with me and go all sort of holistic and sit on a beach for a year and see what I can make of the world, which is pretty much what I did. After running out of money and coming back to ‘the illusion’, I said to someone ‘I’m back to reality now’ and they said ‘no, you're back to the illusion, man – where you was, was reality’. I understood that at the time but I decided to try and get a job and it was very hard to get work then. I ended up getting a part-time job in a music store, working on the till, and I reintroduced myself to the music scene by means of socialising with all the people at that time who were coming into the shop to try a saxophone and buy reeds, and practice and talk. It was like a little hang – go and get a coffee and hang out in the music shop trying out saxophones. That kind of got me back into it. From there I started practicing again and I got picked up in a couple of blues bands and started travelling and I thought, ‘hey, man, this is a great way of making a living without working’, you know. That’s how it felt to me – do something that you love doing. That’s how it took over really and here I am today still doing it at 44 years old which is not bad, I think I’ve done alright – I’m still getting away with it.”
Tell us a bit about the projects that you’re currently working on.
“Well, my most up to date project is a band that’s actually already toured and it’s been twenty odd years in the making. I met a guy on the New York scene, a tenor player called Tim Armacost who had a very big influence on me, actually. He was introduced to me by another saxophone player who used to come and socialise in this music store – I think he used to work there. So everything has a connection. By magic, I met this guy. Everyone has their pilgrimages and I started going to New York to check out what was going on over there and soak up the scene. So I was in New York and I bumped into this guy, Julian Wakeham, who used to work at this music store. He happened to be staying with a saxophone player, which was Tim Armacost who is about ten years older than me. He is a bit more experienced and mature and has already worked with a load of incredible musicians. I was introduced to him and was totally blown away by his saxophone playing. I got a lesson off of him, stayed at his house in New York. This was about 22 years ago. And then I kept in touch with him over the years, and we watched each others careers from afar. Then within the last year or so, another American that I’ve collaborated with, Michael Janisch of Whirlwind Records, he’s a super-prolific guy, he hooks up a lot of tours with people, including my friend Tim. I’d never worked with Tim up until that point and Mike suggested getting a tour together – as a two tenor operation, it just seemed like the natural thing to do. So we did a little tour and at the end of that tour I decided to make a record. Quite a lot of the time a lot of bands that go on the road make an album first and then go out there and try to sell the product. And usually what happens, after being on the road for a month (if you’re lucky), you come out of it thinking ‘wow, we’ve really got into something here and developed the music’ and a CD sounds almost like an afterthought. I actually thought: wouldn’t it be a great idea to record at the end of a tour once you’re really inside the music. Which is exactly what we did. So last November I made an album and I’m just putting a tour together for a CD release next January and it’s called Bunch of Fives: Armageddon on Whirlwind Records It’s featuring Tim Armacost, it’s a two tenor thing with a bit of a modern twist, Liam Noble on the piano, James Maddren who is a phenomenal young drummer and Michael Janisch gelling it all together with his big bass beat. That’s my most recent project.”
“I’ve been in Gareth Lockrane’s band for probably over ten years now. That started off as a Hammond organ-based combo that’s now moving into other areas. It’s formed into a quintet now with Tim Giles, Dave Whitford and Ross Stanley who is still in there on the piano and some keys. He’s an incredible musician. We’ve got an album out but Gareth’s producing so much music that I think that we’re going to be re-recording in that new format so that’s another project.”
“I’ve also been heavily involved in the last seven years with Ronnie Scott’s. I’m part of what they call the all-stars pool, part of the house band if you like. We do the support band down there and a few festivals here and there. It’s kind of matured now and we have a little show that we’ve put together. We seem to keep having these birthdays down at Ronnie’s. The last one was a couple of weeks ago, the 55th anniversary of Scott’s, which is amazing for any jazz club, to be running for that amount of time. And we’ve put a show together which is called The Ronnie Scott’s Story essentially and talks about Ronnie Scott the man and the music that he was involved with and how he got the club together and a little bit about the bands that he was working in. It’s kind of a scripted show with slides, a bit of film and some soundbites and stuff like that. I suppose I play the part of Ronnie Scott with the terrible jokes and the introductions and stuff like that, we segue way between numbers that relate to the slides that we’re showing. Nowadays we’re allowed to tell a few more of the sordid stories involving the shadier side of the underworld of the Soho scene. That’s The Ronnie Scott’s Story. We’ve got about forty dates doing theatres with a quintet featuring Freddie Gavitta (who is a phenomenal young trumpet player, playing the part of Jimmy Deuchar I suppose) and the house band of James Pearson, Sam Burgess and Chris Higginbotham.”
“Even those three projects are pretty intense and it can take up quite a lot of your headspace. I’m involved as a sideman, as I have been for so many years, in so many different things such as big bands and stuff, that it is sometimes hard to focus more attention on your own projects. But that’s the nature of survival – diversity! That’s how it’s been for me, anyway.”
So the album that you’re releasing next year, what kind of material is it?
“I’m someone who has spent a lot of time on the road, with various bands, and I’ve always had a pad of paper, a pencil and headphones and I’ve done a lot of transcriptions while I’ve been on the road, just by ear. So there’s been a lot of music floating around in my head and ideas that I’ve had and I’ve always been one to write ideas down, even in fragments – in scrapbooks, these little moleskin books. Some of it you can trawl through it and it’s a good way of remembering things. Having a good memory retention and concentration is a key skill in being a good musician. To have good recall. Writing things down is always a good way to remember things because you can visualise it. And I have so much material floating around that it’s a little bit like having to do some Spring cleaning. So I go through all these ideas and put them all together. I’ll get on to the piano and some of them are a little bit passé and some of them I can, with my current experience, I’ve been able to develop them into full-blown arrangements and tunes.”
“A lot of the arrangements are brand new because I’ve only written them in the last two years but some of the seeds of those arrangements date back to failed projects or things that I had in mind to do but just never got round to doing. I’m one of life’s great procrastinators. It’s really nice to just purge some of these ideas and put them together. Some of them have been written with people specifically in mind and there are maybe other arrangements that are written for Liam [Noble] and his introspective, Monkish, Ellingtonian type of approach. So I guess that I had the band in mind when I selected the people I’d be working with. I mean Tim can cover all the ground, he’s a great instrumentalist, he’s got the history from the beginning to his own take on things. He’s a real modernist and a classicist if you like. And I suppose all of the guys in the band are like that. It can go so many different ways. The material is kind of old school but with modern harmony involved and also it has enough space in it for guys to take things in their own direction. All I’ve tried to do is set a standard of what I was expecting to hear, not necessarily the style but somehow we’ve got enough experience to make it blend together. I suppose it’s coming from all of my experiences from when I started getting into music and my twenty five years experience. And that was purposely reflected in the trip that I’ve had between meeting Tim in New York and finally getting to record and tour with him, after a 20+ year hiatus. So I’ve selected stuff from right back from that period when I first met him and then up to current times. I’ve tried to include that in one album if possible. It’s quite hard to edit yourself! Especially when you’ve got a limited space on disc but hopefully it’s just the start of something and hopefully I think we’ll get some mileage out of it. Eventually, I don’t want to be the one dictating it, but hopefully guys will start bringing their own music into the project. I’m hoping that will be something. Everybody in that band is so busy – they’re all leaders in their own right, they’ve all got their own projects going on so I don’t expect us to be taking the world by storm but it’s a nice band where we can all get together and bring music to the table that we can all enjoy playing together. I guess, in that band, leadership is rotational. I’m looking forward to getting into it really. It’s just one of those things. It takes a while to establish. There are so many bands that come together and one or other of the members is going to be involved in something else or get their own project together as a leader. even though I am the instigator, musically I’m hoping that it will develop and go into different avenues. I’m up for being pushed, stretched as a musician. I guess that’s one of the things as a sideman, you get experience of playing other people’s music and trying to get inside their mindset so it’s great hearing other people getting inside my music. Sometimes their approach to my music is actually quite refreshing and more exciting than my own. It gives me ideas! So from that, to be honest with you, since I recorded the album last November, I’ve actually written about another fifteen tunes. We’ve got a little tour coming up in January for a week and see how the album does. I consider a record as a sort of expensive business card. I prefer the live process, the live gig, rather than being in the studio. I’m not someone who fares well in a studio, hence this being my second album as a leader in 25 years. Hopefully it will lead to other things and push me out of my comfort zone I suppose. Let’s see how it goes. I’m gonna clear my decks and hopefully try and concentrate on that a little bit more if I can, though I’ve just become a father again, for the second time so that’s a juggling act and a half.”
Do you teach?
“I don’t, no. I’ve never taught formally. I don’t think it’s a time thing. The trouble is, I’m quite well-known on the scene and also being one of the MCs down at Ronnie’s, I run a jam session down there so I’ve been doing that for three years now so I know a lot of the guys on the scene and I’m personal friends with them and I think that sometimes it’s like if you’re learning to drive, it’s always better to have a stranger teach you, in some ways you’d probably pay more attention. I had a few lessons to give to some guys at the Royal Academy and they’ll come into the class and go ‘hi, Al, how you doing?’ and you end up just having a social for two hours and not getting down to any hard work. And I’m too soft really, I’m a bit of a pushover. We end up just going to the pub or putting on records and I can’t say that I’m a good teacher in that respect. I’ll leave that to the professionals, the guys that can crack the whip and get results. I’ve never really got involved in teaching.”
Tell us a bit more about the jams sessions. Who do you get down there, what do you get out of it and what do players get from it.
“Well, I’m really lucky. With the Ronnie’s thing, I was always involved in Ronnie’s. But Michael Mwenso started a jam session upstairs on a Wednesday night and it kind of blossomed into a nightly event. We’re living in one of the biggest cities in the world, the capital of Europe in a lot of ways, the licensing laws or the kind of lifestyle isn’t exactly jazz-friendly. We’re night owls. Being in New York, even though things have changed a bit, it’s a bit like sitting on an engine. It’s a 24-hour city and London is definitely not a 24-hour city. So I think it’s a great thing that you can have a centralised club, it’s like our version of the Village Vanguard, if you like. You’ve got a centralised club, you’ve got a jam session every single night until three o’clock in the morning. After hours, musicians can get in for free – great. Now the thing is the jam has moved downstairs onto the main stage and I’ve taken on two of the nights down there and it’s called ‘Alex Garnett Presents…’. I take a back seat but my job is to present home-grown talent at its best. There is kind of an agenda in that it has to be swinging or exciting or not too chin-strokey. There’s so much great talent out there and it’s probably one of the few opportunities they will ever get to being able to perform in Ronnie Scott’s because to get a show there, to be a main act, you have to be a big box office draw these days because business is tough and rents are huge. So the Late Show is a great way for musicians to socialise with each other. It’s gone from strength to strength. We’re even selling tickets online these days. We have bands that have their own audiences as well. So we get like a whole different scene, some of the East London scene, South London collective, the Loop collective, students from Trinity and the Royal Academy to jam.”
“I don’t see music as a sport but I do believe that the slightly gladiatorial nature of the jam session is a healthy thing. A cutting scene has always been a big thing in the States and it’s what gave musicians their edge in the 1930s, 1940s and even the 1950s so I think the jam session is a great thing. We’ve got bands that come down, a featured act that will play for an hour so you can see your favourite musicians in the London scene. And then afterwards you’ve got the chance to hang out with them, play with them and we want to jam right through until three o’clock in the morning which is beautiful.”
“For me, it’s been a great way of staying in the gym, if you like. You can get complacent. As an older musician obviously I find a lot less time to get to the instrument to practice or to work on stuff. I was never a great practicer, anyway. I did, like I said, on the road, a lot of transcribing, practicing in my head, so to speak. I managed to develop a way to do that.”
“Being in a situation where you’re surrounded by people working on their material, working on their stuff and jostling for attention it means you have to stay one step ahead of the game. So it’s one of my major interfaces with the British jazz scene and it’s been really good for me. I think it’s improved my playing greatly, I think I’ve learnt a lot from them. It’s given me a kick up the arse, basically. They call me ‘Pops’ which has taken me a while to get used to now. I suppose they’re right – most of the guys who come down there are like young enough to be my son, which is so funny. And we get a lot of female musicians coming down there. Because I organise the jam and I run the jam, I can say who gets up and I can give people an opportunity who are maybe a little bit shy as well. And I’ve seen some people really grow. There are a few names to watch out for in the future. They’re unknowns at the moment but they’ve got some incredible talent…amazing. There’s a young guitar player called Artie Zaitz who is super-confident and he’s been really working on his business. He plays great guitar, he plays great Hammond organ, he plays bass. There’s a young black guy called David Mrakpor, who is just scary. He plays incredible vibes – he’s only been playing for two years, plays great drums, plays left-handed guitar the wrong way round and sounds like Grant Green. There are too many to mention. Charlie Stacey is a pretty amazing piano player. I think I met him when he was 14. He’s 16 now so he’s allowed to come to Ronnie’s until 12:30! There are so many amazing musicians, great saxophone players. Ruben Fox, guys like that. It’s like having a whole new family of people, it’s great. I always hung around with players who were a lot older than me, my dad’s friends, guys in their fifties and sixties. It was great to draw experience from that and now it’s flipped around a little bit and I’ve become this older figure and I’m hanging out with these young guys at 5am in sandwich bars and they’re asking me questions about music, they also show me a few things about it too! It’s great. It’s really refreshing and it’s been good for me, and I think it’s been good for the London scene too. It’s a shame there aren’t a few more places like that around really. There are places around like the Haggerston, and the Vortex [both in Dalston] has got a jam. It seems that there’s a lot but you have to be good with your night buses, you know? You have to know how to get about London, that’s the only problem. It’s very fragmented. In New York you can get around for ten bucks in a cab all night long. Unfortunately, the tubes finish at 12:30. We even had one of these guys turn up to the club with his vibraphone to jam and he’d come on the night bus from Hendon. With a set of vibes, man! I mean that is dedication!”
“I think that the jazz scene is healthier than ever in this country. I really do. I’ve done a lot of research and reading about the scene in the 1950s and 1940s in London and my dad has told me tons of stories and all the rest of it, but I think it’s had a major resurgence. Maybe it never went away and maybe the media has picked up on it a bit more now and it’s become more popular. There are definitely several scenes that are coming together and I think Britain is now on a level on the world stage, I really do. I think it’s a great place to be. I was always someone that really wanted to go and move to New York. I thought it was the thing to do. And I never did it for whatever reason, family and all that. But, actually, I’m glad that I didn’t go away because I’m really excited about what’s happening here now. There’s so much going on, it’s a great place to be, musically. There’s space to breathe here. The scene is very accepting of your musical output. It’s great. It used to be less like that but now it’s much more embracing of the whole spectrum of music, which is a great thing. Like they say: ‘the masters set the standard but not the style’. There’s a hugely high standard here. I was listening to a very interesting band I put on at the Late Show last night with a guy called Michael Panascia, an Italian bassist who has been living in New York for about twenty years, Enzo Zirilli who is Italian and been living here for ten years, and Lewis Wright on the vibes, a jazz genius from Norwich(!) who just completely blew me away. And on the guitar was Jim Mullen who is probably in his seventies now. And the band worked incredible together. That’s just a beautiful thing to see. They’re from completely different cultures and generations. It was a fantastic show. And the place was full. And full with young people. That’s something great.”
“My thing is that when I was their age and I was travelling up and down the country, I don’t want to criticise the audience but it was a bit like care in the community. A lot of the people who were coming to see me play were people that were going to see guys that I was listening to when they were in their teens, in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s the same audience, which is great but what I think has really improved greatly is the interest among young people in live music generally. People are moving away from the MP3 and the headphone generation. They’re actually coming back in to checking out live gigs and socialising, which is essentially what jazz is. Jazz is social music. That’s what it’s for. The jazz in the concert hall has its place and these oratory places but it’s people music. Jazz is people music. And it’s the social scene that is a reflection of the music itself. It really makes a difference. When you’ve got a club full of people, young people especially, or even just a spectrum of society coming down and checking you out and all enjoying themselves as a collective experience. You can’t beat that. That makes playing worthwhile. That’s where it’s at. And I think that makes musicians play better as well. They dig a bit deeper when it’s like that. It’s easy to become complacent about what you do because of the audiences that you play to, so it’s exciting at the moment. I’m glad to still be a part of it. I won’t open that fish and chip shop in Hastings just yet! If I did, then I’d be running duos on the weekend as well. A little jazz duo in the corner…”
Alex Garnett on Ronnie Scott:
“Unfortunately, the humorous side of Ronnie belied his playing skill and ability. He was a fantastic musician.”
“I’ve got a reasonably large saxophone collection. I just love the instrument. I saw an instrument for sale at a shop in Oxford so I went up there but it wasn’t really what I wanted so I thought it was a wasted journey. But the guy who runs the shop said: ‘Have a look in that case over there. That’s Ronnie Scott’s tenor saxophone. I’ve been trying to sell this and I think you’re the man to buy it’. So I said ‘really?’ and he said ‘yeah, I want to sell it to you’. So I’ve now bought Ronnie Scott’s saxophone, I’m picking it up next week and I’m making a short film about it – just a little ten minute production about bringing Ronnie Scott’s saxophone back to the club. It deserves its place there. It won’t be in a glass case above the doorway or anything – I believe that saxophones are there to be played. I think it would be a nice thing to finally bring it home. It’s been out of circulation for about thirty or forty years – it was one of the first ones that he ever had.”
Alex Garnett performs at Smalls in Brighton on Thursday 27th November 2014 and Thursday 26th March 2015.
Alex releases his latest album, Bunch of Fives: Andromeda, on Whirlwind Recordings.