How did you first get into jazz?
Well, I’m very blessed with a very culturally-endowed kind of family. My dad has always been really really into jazz, although he wasn't a musician himself he was mostly involved in the theatre. But I had lots of music in the house, lots of vinyl and I’d pick it all out. I remember some of the earlier stuff I heard was Louis Jordan, Meade Lux Lewis, Professor Longhair, a lot of New Orleans blues musicians, a lot of African American blues piano playing. So that was really how I got into it to begin with.
So how did the piano come into it?
It was when I was quite young. I was quite fortunate. My dad got me lessons. I started getting piano lessons when I was quite young and as I started playing I just really fell in love with it. You know what I mean?
I always liked all the blues stuff. That was what most appealed to me and I just got into performing music and I really liked playing music and making expressive sounds. I always used to like writing music, ever since I was little. I saw a concert of Wayne Shorter when I was six as well and it was just outstanding. I remember seeing that and I was like, ‘wow!’. Seeing Danilo Perez down at the piano with Brian Blade and John Patitucci. It was just this amazing energy, even when I was little, there was like a presence to that band, a bit of an aura about it. Not even on a conceptual level, I just liked what they were doing.
So tell us about your whole learning journey, because you’re currently studying in New York.
Yeah, I’m studying at the University of the New School in Greenwich Village. In terms of how I started, I started, obviously listening to a lot of music and then I got piano lessons and kept going with the piano lessons, did some local jazz community things when I was very little. And then one of my big, big growing points was when I joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, when I was eleven or twelve. That was when everything that I was doing just went exponentially faster. I was surrounded by a lot of incredible musicians. I mean, Bill Ashton, he just banged it as a man. For everything he’s doing I’m forever indebted and grateful for that community that I met there. Ultimately they’re all guys who are out there and performing on the scene and putting out music. In terms of my own musical development, I met some amazing musicians as well. I met Rob Luft when I was twelve or thirteen. We played a lot together doing duo stuff. I met Riley Stone-Lonergan, a tremendous tenor saxophone player, and countless others as well.
So I would say, in terms of how I developed musically, that was really it, that sense of being in a very, very strong community that motivates me to get better and better and better.
I was going to ask you why you chose to go to New York, but that’s kind of obvious. So instead I’ll ask: what do you think you can learn in New York that you can’t learn in the UK?
Well, good question. The thing is, historically, jazz is America’s music. It’s something that was born through African American expression and it’s something that is inherently a big part of US identity, in the way that music has developed in the United States.
There’s the aspect of it being the source of jazz, which means that on an historical level that continuation still lives on today, even through all of the different musicians that there are now. But there’s that sense of it being part of the culture which is different to the UK. I think the UK is more adopted (which doesn’t mean it’s any better or worse) but I think there’s something very pure about what you can find out there. And they’re just thoroughly amazing musicians. There’s just dozens and dozens of just everyone. And a tremendous, tremendous hunger for jazz and people who are just like ‘let’s go out there and make some music’, and not just jazz. All kinds of the arts, be it more mainstream music or art or theatre or film. It’s just a real melting pot for all the different kinds of expression. It’s a gift to be over there, it really is.
Totally. So, studying at the New School, is there anything that you don’t like about it.
Mmmm, not really to be honest. I can’t really pick out too many faults. Besides which, I tend to find the good in things wherever I am. I’ll share a little story with you, which I love.
Piatigorsky's Story About Pablo Casals
"My great wish was to hear Pablo Casals. One day my desire was almost fulfilled and I met him. But ironically, it was I who had to play. It was in the home of the Von Mendelssohns, a house filled with El Grecos, Rembrandts, and Stradivaris. Francesco von Mendelssohn, the son of the banker, who was a talented cellist, telephoned and asked if he could call for me; they had a guest in the house who would like to hear me play.
"Mr. Casals," I was introduced to a little bald man with a pipe. He said that he was pleased to meet young musicians such as Serkin and me. Rudolf Serkin, who stood stiffly next to me, seemed , like myself, to be fighting his diffidence. Rudi had played before my arrival, and Casals now wanted to hear us together. Beethoven's D-Major Sonata was on the piano. "Why don't you play it?" asked Casals. Both nervous and barely knowing each other, we gave a poor performance that terminated somewhere in the middle.
"Bravo! Bravo! Wonderful!" Casals applauded. Francesco brought the Schumann Cello Concerto, which Casals wanted to hear. I never played worse. Casals asked for Bach. Exasperated, I obliged with a performance matching the Beethoven and Schumann.
"Splendid! Magnifique!" said Casals, embracing me.
"Bewildered, I left the house. I knew how badly I had played, but why did he, the master, have to praise and embrace me? This apparent insincerity pained me more than anything else.
"The greater was my shame and delight when, a few years later, I met Casals in Paris. We had dinner together and played duets for two cellos, and I played for him until late at night. Spurred by his great warmth, and happy, I confessed what I had thought of his praising me in Berlin. He reacted with sudden anger. He rushed to the cello, "Listen!" He played a phrase from the Beethoven sonata. "Didn't you play this fingering? Ah, you did! It was novel to me…it was good…and here, didn't you attack that passage with up-bow, like this? he demonstrated. He went through Schumann and Bach, alwasy emphasizing all he liked that I had done. "And for the rest," he said passionately, "leave it to the ignorant and stupid who judge by counting only the faults. I can be grateful, and so must you be, for even one note, one wonderful phrase." I left with the feeling of having been with a great artist and a friend.”
Reproduced from Cellist, the autobiography of Gregor Piatigorsky (published by Doubleday, 1965)
What Casals said, that’s my philosophy too.
So what are you listening to at the moment?
I’ve been listening to Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite which is a great album. Fantastic music, tremendous. Then Blind Willie Johnson, an amazing guitarist. I’ve been listening to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives, Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G Minor [sings it]. I’ve been listening to that a lot. Puccini’s La Boheme. The start of that is so sick. I love it. Meade Lux Lewis Honky Tonk Blues – that’s amazing. Willie The Lion Smith – Echoes of Spring, tremendous music. Tame Impala, Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark), that track’s nice. I’ve been listening to Blind Lemon Jefferson, wow, he can really play guitar and sing. Blind Blake was an amazing guitarist. Robert Johnson’s Crossroad Blues. Jelly Roll Morton – Red Hot Peppers, that’s fantastic. Fats Waller’s solo stuff, Hand Full of Dreams, James P. Johnson’s Carolina Shout. Art Tatum’s It’s Only A Paper Moon! That is a recording and a half. That is just ridiculous, the way he plays with it. Horowitz playing Scarlatti, Rubinstein playing Chopin’s Nocturnes. I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff. Oh yeah, and Charlie Parker live at St. Nick’s. Woof! That is an album and a half as well. That live take of Ornithology is just ridiculous. Also Duke Ellington, the one where he plays the Nutcracker Suite – Peanut Brittle Brigade where he does this amazing beat on it. Mahalia Jackson.
I’ve been listening to quite a bit of African music as well. A lot of West Coast African music like Toumani Diabate, Ali Farka Touré, Abdoulaye Diakité is an amazing djembe player. Drissa Kone is a ridiculous drummer.
There’s a lot of stuff on Spotify as well, man. You can just keep going and going and going. If I really want to get into music, even through just looking at related artists, at the tip of your fingertips now you can look up the entire Clifford Brown discography in like one click. That would have been something that forty years ago would have been an absolute dream come true. And I’m talking some rare stuff, you can find live recordings and that. It’s really astonishing. It’s great for me, it really helps me fuel my desire to keep listening and listening.
Bud Powell – Glass Enclosure. Amazing. That record is a great example of how true music is timeless. It’s like Picasso and how great art has no era. Wynton Marsalis talks about how all jazz is modern. When it really speaks then it kind of goes beyond time. With Glass Enclosure, some people might think of it as piano-trio-esque or whatever of the day but the way he’s doing it is amazing. Absolutely amazing.
In terms of your own playing and composing, what are you working on improving at the moment?
Great question. My left hand. Definitely my left hand. The thing is I just notice how strong the beat is for piano players, the really great piano players. I'm talking about the James P. Johnsons of the world or the guys who could really slam out some tunes. Earl Hines! Woof! Close the book after that, mate! Earl Hines. That guy can just groove. There’s this solo version that he does of Rosetta. It’s just unbelievable, the beat that he’s playing. He plays this amazing music and Teddy Wilson, he slams out absolute burners with his left hand. So really in terms of what I’ve been studying the most has been Scott Joplin’s music because he just writes such amazing pieces. I’ve been playing Maple Leaf Rag in all 12 keys. Elite Syncopations is a fantastic piece as well, and a lot of the other rags that I’ve been listening to. It’s just amazing all the stuff that he’s written. So I’m really digging into Scott Joplin’s music and also hearing how people interpret it. Sydney Bechet played this amazing, stonking version of Maple Leaf Rag and Cake Walking Babies (From Home), I’ve been repeating that. That’s a steamer as well, with him and Satchmo. Unbelievable.
So that’s what I’ve been working on, that stuff. I’ve also been quite liking some Ravel such as Pavane Pour Infante Défunte. It’s such a beautiful piece.
And also hearing harmony and playing chords and hearing notes from them. Playing a lot of rhythms, clapping a lot of rhythms, dancing a lot. I’d really encourage a lot of people to dance. I’ve been dancing along with a lot of the West African stuff that I was telling you about. There’s also some great recordings that I’ve found that are field recordings that were done by ethnomusicologists. My dad just got me a nice box set for Christmas of Morrocan music. There’s this Gnawa music which is just amazing as well. I was really fortunate as well – in New York I was at the New School and I was selected to perform with Randy Weston and we got to speak together about this because he spent a lot of time travelling around Africa and learning about music from Africa. And he even did a whole workshop at the New School, bringing over a few musicians over from Morocco.
[They play large castanets called krakebs and the bass instrument is the gimbri]
But it’s just incredible rhythm. It totally shows you where flamenco music came from.
In terms of other things that I’ve been working on, I think rhythm is THE most important thing in music. Definitely. Rhythm came before notes, know what I mean? Rhythm came before harmony. Rhythm for me, that’s what I work on and that’s why I like Scott Joplin so much. That’s why I really enjoy everything that he’s done, everything that he wrote, even though he was writing it in the late 19th century. For a black man to be doing that at that time, it must have been really, really outstanding, given the circumstances for African Americans in the United States. Even on that level, it’s such a statement of triumph, to be able to create so much. Like John Philip Sousa, his marches. Or James Reese Europe. I listen to that and I’m always like trying to get deeper, deeper into the rhythms. And the best way to do that, for me, is dancing. I love dancing. I dance a lot at home or out with friends.
Tell us about some of the gigs that you’re going to be doing around Brighton in January.
The big one is January 14th. I’m going to be recording a live album. And it’s going to be live at Sussex University in a part of the campus called The Meeting House. It’s an amazing room, it’s like a big circle and it’s got all these stained glass windows and a beautiful Steinway grand piano. So when I first heard about it I was like ‘oh, mate, this is the spot’ because I’ve been really waiting to make my debut with all my own work and release it as an album as well. For me to make a statement, as an artist, for my first imprint on the scene, I wanted to release something that’s me – solo piano, me playing all my own music and put it out there for the people. And not just a jazz audience, to put it out there for all kinds of people. I’m really just making an album that I hope people will get to hear. That’s the biggest thing that I’m doing.
So what plans do you have for the rest of 2017?
One of the things that’s a big part of my life is that I work really hard with a peace organisation called Soka Gakkai. It’s a peace movement started in Japan really based on helping people be happy. It’s a peace movement really working for people to empower themselves so that they can be absolutely happy. It’s based on chanting ‘Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō’ which is actually something that I first heard from Wayne Shorter. Soka Gakkai is ultimately based on Buddhist philosophy but it’s a non-religious organisation and it’s not about that. The thing I like about it is that it’s about working with people’s happiness and that means creating value. Soka Gakkai in Japanese literally means ‘the value creation society’. It’s a big part of my life now and I love it so in 2017 I’ll be working a lot with that.
Then on a musical level I’ve got this aspiration to win a Grammy by 2019. So in terms of what I’ll be doing to do that: first I’ll be releasing this album, then performing a lot around New York, continuing to grow and work with different musicians. I play a weekly thing with a friend of mine, JC Myska, who is a great drummer, at Rue B which is a club in the East Village. So that’s one of the things coming up in 2017.
Other than that, working on my own music with my band out there, doing some different dates, hopefully working on some new things with Matt Brewer and Justin Faulkner who are two fantastic jazz guys out in New York.
And I’ll just keep forging ahead. The real aim for me is: keep working a lot. I really love working, I’ll take as much work as I can. Then, through continuing to work, continue to create opportunities. So creating opportunities to perform at bigger venues. Create opportunities to perform with this person, record this or do that. I want to be making more and more moves in myself in playing at bigger jazz clubs and playing at bigger venues. I would love to do something at Webster Hall in New York. Carnegie Hall, I would love to do that as well. It’s going to be steps at a time. I’m gonna keep, each and every day, making steps towards getting a bigger scope for what I do.
I really want to lift people around me. That’s really my mission in life, to lift people around me, to help them be absolutely happy in themselves.
I asked my mentor, Daisaku Ikeda, a question once: ‘what’s the difference between confidence and arrogance?’ and he said that arrogance puts you up, so that you ride while other people fall. You gain while someone else is losing. Whereas real confidence, real conviction, means that the people around you go up with you. So when you do something great it actually inspires those around you. So I want to inspire people to really live tremendous lives.
My mentor also told me ‘the greatest people are the ones who have inspired the most great people’. It’s not like hanging on to some kind of treasure chest and then trying to fend off all the oncoming. It’s really about ‘I want all of you to also be absolutely outstanding’.
So that’s my driving force for everything that I’m doing. I want to play more, perform more, teach more, I want to work more, so that’s where I’m at.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
A thank you to you. I really appreciate you for reaching out. It’s amazing that you got in touch with me to do this interview. I really appreciate that.
Something that my mentor used to say.
This is something that has been a driving force for my music.
‘Winning is important but the most important thing is to remain undefeated.”
You know that sense of never give up.
Even if you get pushed back, you’re still walking ahead.
And also I think that is part of the aesthetics of jazz.
Jazz is such an expression of hope. It’s an expression of triumph over suffering. When I hear Louis Armstrong I hear triumph over suffering. That’s kind of what the blues is about. The blues is really this state of singing about all these hardships and yet you’re really stomping it out.
Albert Murray is a great guy, a really inspiring man. He wrote a lot about jazz and ultimately helped found Jazz at Lincoln Center as well. But interviews with him, I remember him talking about how blues isn’t some kind of submissive thing where you think it’s all over. It’s actually using all of your pain and using it as motivation. It’s using all of that as a spark to really create, which to me is just…is there a greater human trait than that? Being able to use your suffering to create value. That to me is just so brilliant.
Nichiren Daishōnin, was this amazing Japanese writer from the 1200s. He was the one who established the whole practice of Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō. He always said that one of the things that we can do as human beings is turn poison into medicine. So all of those struggles, you can actually use them as amazing gifts. If you use your pain then you can really use it to move forward and give you so much conviction to do what you have to do. And I’ve realised that that’s kind of the role of pain in life. If there was no suffering then we could all just sit around all day and just be a blob. That’s the thing: it moves you.
It’s like this poem by T.S. Eliot. I don’t know if you’re in to T.S. Eliot or not but I love him. There’s this amazing line that he wrote where he said ‘we make promises to our dreams but we listen to pain’. And I was just like ‘wow!’. That sense of the realness of life. Again, it’s not a defeated state, it’s ‘I’m going to use this my whole life. Every single day I’m going to win’. Because every single day you face a battle. And you’re going to win again and again and again. And that’s the beauty of it. It gives you a chance to have a victory, because there would never be that sense of absolute happiness if there wasn’t something that you could be victorious over.
And I’m tying this in with the music as a point that I’m making because there has to be something to overcome in order to overcome. If there wasn’t then there’d never be that real achievement and that sense of overcoming a great obstacle. That for me is why jazz just has such a tremendous vitality. And the blues as well. Like with John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, BB King and all those other great guitarists. That kind of vitality, you just feel it. I really love Golden Gate Quartet, man. Woof! Have you ever heard the Golden Gate Quartet, Charlie?
Yes. Gospel music, right?
Yes, that is so soulful. Wow. Mahalia Jackson as well with all of her stuff. That’s the thing, it’s so real. It’s so full of life. It’s just oozing with life force. That state of ‘there’s nothing that you can’t surmount’ with real spirit. That is what I love so much about it. That is why it’s so compelling.
Herbie Hancock talks a lot about it too. Herbie Hancock has been chanting for about 40 years now. Chanting ‘Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō’. He’s got this amazing interview on YouTube where he speaks at Harvard. Vijay Ijer introduces him (he’s actually a really great guy that I’ve met a couple of times). But Herbie talks about that ‘spark of creativity’ and where that comes from.
So, are you up in London at the moment?
Yes, but I’ll be down in January for the South Coast Jazz Festival.
Oh yes! Definitely put that down. I’ll be playing The Verdict on 16th January for the start of the South Coast Jazz Festival. I’m promoting both of them. The 14th is my debut album so it’s not a conflict of interest because I want both of them to do really, really well. I really want to support the South Coast Jazz Festival, get lots of tickets sold and have an amazing festival. Because Julian Nicholas and Claire Martin have been working really, really well to promote jazz so I’m fully behind that and I’m also fully behind that album.
It’s a blessing that there’s so much going on in Brighton. It’s really good. And I encourage any young people to go visit the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Check it out, see what they do and see if they want to be a part of it. Because I think the point is that the community is so valuable. With you asking me how did I grow musically, I can undoubtedly tell you that it was from community. I used to practice…me and Rob Luft. Sorry if I’m chewing your ear off now!
No, it’s okay
That’s enough mate! You can call it a day!
But me and Rob Luft, literally he would just come over to my house and we would be playing together for like 8 hours a day but it wasn’t even like we were tallying off hours. I’ve never been a fan of people who say ‘oh, I practised this number of hours’ because for me it’s kind of like there are two kinds of time. The Greeks talk about it. There’s chronos and kairos. Chronos is very much like clock time, like chronological time in terms of numbered time. Measurable time. There’s also kairos, this god that they talk about that represents a form of time, like the amount of time it takes for a flower to bloom or for the sun to set or to fall in love with someone. It’s much more a time that you cannot measure. How do you measure getting a story or having a real conversation from the heart. It’s timeless. I think that’s really important in music, really getting into that place of ‘oh, you’re there with the music’. Because music was there a long time before I was and it’s going to be [around] a long time after I’m gone as well. So getting in touch with the feeling of music.
So when me and Rob used to get together we would just be playing. Playing and playing and playing. And at the time, when were still were learning standards, still learning tunes, we’d just have these massive copies of real books. We would just pick a tune out of there and just start playing it. That would be our way of just jamming for hours and hours. And then with time just listen to loads of music together, learn from what we listened to and we’d be like ‘alright, we don’t have to use the music for that anymore, we can just learn it from the way that Coleman Hawkins plays it or the way that John Coltrane plays it’. So I really think that finding a friend, a companion, someone who you can work with, keeps you in check. The best practice that I’ve ever done has been with other people. I’ve worked a lot with a sax player called Tivon Pennicott, an amazing saxophone player. He came second place in the Monk Competition as well. He’s a really, really brilliant player. And we would work together, like we’d be playing Off Minor by Thelonious Monk and he’d be like ‘what kind of chord is this, what did he play on that bit?’, we’d work on it together. When you’re with someone else, it keeps you in check and stops you from BS-ing with them. They can see what you’re doing, so you’re not fooling anyone. That is really, really valuable. I can’t stress how valuable. And also because it gets you used to making music with people. There’s nothing worse than just being in your bedroom your whole life. How do you expect to go from being in your room with headphones on for like all of your days and then performing for people. How do you think that’s going to work? It’s not. And nobody who is really great ever did that. Being with other people is so important.
It’s great that you’re running the magazine. Thanks so much for doing that. It’s a treasure to the South Coast and it’s great that it exists.
Thank you so much. I look forward to seeing you.
Interview conducted by Charlie Anderson on 29th December, 2016.