How did you first get into jazz?
“On a family holiday when I was eleven we had a Billie Holiday tape on loop. I was really intrigued by the harmonies – they were just the right balance between accessible and unusual – and when I got home I sat at the piano and tried to recreate them. I think since then I’ve tried to find that balance – music that’s easy to understand, but complex enough to be interesting.”
You studied briefly at Berklee. What was your experience there?
“I wasn’t crazy on the classes. They seemed to focus only on the very technical side of music, and I’ve always preferred to figure that stuff out for myself. But being around hundreds of hugely talented musicians was really inspiring. It helped me focus and take music seriously. I then had to learn how to not take music too seriously, but that’s all part of the process.”
Tell us about working with Gilad Atzmon in the Orient House Ensemble.
“I’ve been playing with Gilad for thirteen years now. It’s always been an easy relationship, with very little discussion needed when it comes to what we play or how we play it. I think that’s why it’s lasted so long – we just follow our instincts, and our different approaches seem to complement each other.”
Your new album, Lunaris, is a mixture of standards and originals. How did you choose the standards?
“They were just tunes that we fancied playing in the moment. We played lots of my originals, but we also wanted to just close our eyes and play something without too much thought. The only one I’d planned was My Love And I, a lovely David Raksin film score from the 60s. I’d fallen in love with that tune a few months ago after hearing Coleman Hawkins play it. I’m very susceptible to 1960s film scores.”
What’s your approach to composition?
“Generally I try to just follow my ear. I might start with two chords that have an interesting relationship, or a melodic line, and then I try to just listen for what comes next. Occasionally though I’ll try something more cerebral. If I’ve found an interesting line I might see what happens if I invert it, or try some sort of metric modulation of it. On my previous album, One started off as a 12-tone row (where no note is repeated) but then I let myself break out of that and repeat some notes – in the end the melody is always the most important thing for me, so that trumps any intellectual experiment I might be pursuing.”
You’ve worked with Tina May and other jazz singers. Do you approach playing the piano differently when you accompany singers?
“Not really. I think you’re doing the same thing, whatever format you’re playing in, and that’s just listening and playing what you think needs to be played.”
Tell us a bit about An Evening of Spaceships and UFOs, a joint composition with Dave Whitford and Enzo Zirrilli.
“That was actually a group improvisation. In fact, five of the twelve tracks are completely improvised. I like to do that in the studio – it frees you from thinking too consciously about what you’re doing. Sometimes on gigs I might be wary of doing lots of completely free improvisation, in case the audience doesn’t come with us. But in the studio you can play free for two hours, and then just take the bits that made the most sense. And since that track is not something we can recreate on stage, I let myself give it a silly name.”
Frank Harrison launches his new CD, Lunaris, at The Verdict, Brighton on Friday 4th April, 2014. Tickets £12/9.
(Q&A interview with Frank Harrison conducted by Charlie Anderson)