Bassist Calum Gourlay is currently touring the UK ahead of the release of his debut quartet album, New Ears, on 6th December. The tour includes an appearance at The Verdict in Brighton on Saturday 16th November. His impressive band features saxophonist Helena Kay, trombonist Kieran McLeod and drummer James Maddren.
Calum was always interested in music as a child and says, “I always wanted to play double bass, but they didn’t have any at my school, so I ended up playing cello for a bit, from when I was 10 years old until I was about 14 when I got my first double bass. I played a lot of classical music before I played double bass, then I heard jazz live, before I heard it on recordings. My Dad was a music teacher (he retired about 10 years ago) and he had a Saturday morning jazz workshop that was open to people under 18 in Glasgow. Quite a lot of Scottish jazz musicians went through it who are only a tiny bit older than me, but when you’re younger the ages feel a bit wider.” Those musicians include saxophonists Paul Towndrow and Konrad Wiszniewski and drummer Alyn Cosker. “At my Dad’s workshop I ended up getting really fascinated by it. There was a big band there and I just got into how it all worked, watching people playing, watching the bass players in particular, how they were playing all the time and shaping the music. I think I got lucky because I saw some really great bass players at that age. That was my way into jazz.”
Calum lived in Cathcart on the south side of Glasgow until he was 14, then moved to Dunfermline. “I had to find some other places to play, so I played in the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra, the Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra (SYJO), which is a bit of an institution up there, and then I met Tommy Smith a little bit afterwards.”
Calum first met Tommy when he was 16 and it proved to be fortuitous as they have played together ever since. “I’ve played in Tommy Smith’s youth band since I was 16, until I moved to London. It was great. Tommy’s always been very good to me and helped me out a lot. He taught me some amazing things that you only get from being almost an apprentice.”
Calum moved to London in 2004 to study jazz at the Royal Academy of Music. “I met lots of people there who I still play with fairly regularly. That’s where I met Kit Downes, Trish Clowes, Freddie Gavita. They’re all people that I go out in the miserable rain to play jazz gigs with. And it’s great. They’re all great. And it’s led on to other things as well. People like Kit and Trish are really hardworking band leaders and they’ve been working on their music for the past ten years, with my involvement off and on. The best bit about the Academy was meeting other like-minded and much better musicians than me.”
In 2008 Calum graduated from the Royal Academy. “As an accompanist you’re in a lucky situation to be playing with lots of people. Also, I kept my oar in Scotland as well, even though I have lived in London since I was 18. I always go back to Scotland to play with Tommy Smith and Colin Steele and a few other people at festivals. There’s a great and very different scene up in Scotland. I feel lucky again to be able to dip in and out of it as much as I get to.”
Calum’s latest tour takes him to Aberdeen’s Blue Lamp and Glasgow’s Blue Arrow jazz club. For the tour dates in England and Wales he received his first ever funding from Arts Council England. As a first-time applicant he found the whole process challenging. “Luckily there’s a great woman called Mary James who helps a lot of people out with their funding applications. She helped me put it together, so big thanks to her because without her it wouldn’t have got far. I’ve always been someone who has tried to put the music before anything else, but I think that doing that in the UK only gets you so far. You need to play a bit of a business game and find some people who are going to help you and put some time in. Martin Hummell from Ubuntu has been absolutely brilliant, he pushed it over the line. Martin is really hard working, loves jazz and works hard for people. He’s doing so much work for so many people just because he loves it. I’ve been lucky this last year to find a good handful of people who are very helpful, they love the music and want it to keep going, and they want to help people who are younger to do those things as well.”
With a new album and tour this year, together with his monthly big band residency at The Vortex, Calum has had a busy year, and 2020 looks set to be a busy one also. “I’m always playing with other people so I’ve got a couple of great things next year. I’m always playing with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. That has two or three big projects a year. There’s also my big band. I’ve also got a nice run of gigs with Martin Speake and Ethan Iverson coming up in February.”
In terms of working on his own projects Calum hopes to record another album next year. “I’d like to do a big band album live at The Vortex and put that in motion now, and I really love this quartet so I’d like to do a lot more. But I’d like to do an album a year. The big band is the next priority, and that’s been my main focus for the past three years. That’s been the thing that’s keeping my musical chops excited. It’s nice to be at this stage and still have lots more to want to do.”
Calum Gourlay Quartet
Saturday 16th November, 2019
The Verdict, Brighton
The album New Ears is released by Ubuntu on 6th December.
Interview by Charlie Anderson.
Photo by Dave Hamblett.